The un-bareable lightness of ABSfest

Richmond native Paolo Garbanzo — are you laughing yet? — started juggling at 12, gave up guitar at 16 (hoping an "athlete of the small muscles" would be even more appealing to women than a rocker), taught himself fire-eating at 18, cracked his first original joke at 19 or 20 and has since earned a living as an MC and a street performer, frequently in Europe, where the money beats the U.S.

From boa technique to belly dancing to the art, architecture and history of hosiery: August Hoerr, left, and ABSFest producer Onca O'Leary, right, at last year's festival. Photo by Robert Stoutamire

But Garbanzo wasn't going over well when competing to become "Honorary Jester of England and Official Foole of Muncaster" in 2007. So he listened, learned and triumphed, and now Onça O'Leary, producer of Asheville's Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival, will fly him in from Germany for the fourth annual ABSFest.

The festival features the East Coast premiere of Garbanzo's documentary, An American Juggler in England, during Friday night's opening ceremonies. Saturday afternoon, Garbanzo will teach juggling, and on Sunday afternoon he'll teach MCing. Saturday night, Garbanzo hosts the ABSFest Spectacular, where he'll perform "the worst trick ever," involving "100 mousetraps and a blindfold."

O'Leary has much more on tap for the weekend-long celebration of neo-burlesque and Vaudeville: Friday night, MCed by our own Sneaky McFly, includes live music, "teaser performances" and the annual ABSFest Recognition Award (going to Jim Julien for his work with the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival, and his championing of all things fringe-y).

Saturday night headliner Michelle L'Amour, perhaps America's best-known neo-burlesquer, calls herself "The Ass That Goes Pow!" and an amazing array of artists will share the stage with her. That night's after-party promises to be quite the scene.

For those interested in rolling their own, other Saturday and Sunday workshops include "Victory Hair," "Boa Technique," "Advanced Burlesque," belly-dancing, hoops, "The Art, Architecture and History of Hosiery with Salome," "Puppetry Bootcamp" with Madison J. Cripps, two-person storytelling and "Fire Safety and Performance with Sneaky McFly." You can also unwind and mingle during Sunday's Tiki Brunch at the Yacht Club.

None of this would be happening without the indefatigable O'Leary, who's worked hard to "mix it up" in Asheville for more than a decade.

At first blush, O'Leary doesn't seem the likeliest candidate for founding and perpetrating ABSFest. One of this year's calendar "Freaks of Asheville," O'Leary's a professional belly dancer and belly-dance instructor in such demand around the country she's barely back in town before she's packed to leave again.

And O'Leary does not strip. But that doesn't mean O'Leary doesn't appreciate stripping, and doesn't see the need to raise the stakes for stripping in Asheville, by mounting ABSFest with her Future of Tradition Productions. O'Leary perceived a need in the wake of the 2006 demise of burlesquers The Rebelles, and when O'Leary perceives a need …

A native of Gloucester, Mass., O'Leary arrived in Asheville 14 years ago (after her mother, a painter — her father's a musician — married a Cherokee Indian), hoping to "dig into a community and accomplish something." Her training then was in Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian blend of music, dance and "foot fighting." She started taking belly-dance lessons "for fun," and when her instructor left for the Middle East three years later, O'Leary began a pioneering venture in the River Arts District: the Center for Folk Arts, founded in 1999 in what is now the Wedge Building.

More than anything, O'Leary wanted to become "an instigator," and in her two movement studios (and space she let to others) she found herself creating "a home for new world performance," featuring belly dance, martial arts, trance parties, shamanism and drum circles. Intrigued by "unformatted artistic personalities," O'Leary was exposed to the fire arts, circus revival, folklore, cabaret and tribal and performance art, and she brought in such outside troupes as Panty Raid! Burlesque and the Yard Dogs Roadshow, cross-pollinating everything "too loud, too edgy, too fringe-y."

After seven years, O'Leary gave up the Center to concentrate on performances with The Accidental Circus, the Mezmer Society, Circus (r)Evolution, and her own Baraka Mundi dance company, now on hiatus. Somehow, she still found time to produce Bellydance Asheville Showcases four times a year, the annual variety showcase Mardi Gras Moulin, and TribOriginal, "a national, four-day, family-friendly, full-service, total immersion arts camp," now in its fifth year in Hendersonville.

Despite all this, O'Leary took on ABSFest to encourage "burlesque as more than a strip show," to provide role models for the next crop of artists and to propagate standards, because no one can pretend to be a juggler or a belly dancer, "but anyone can take off their clothes." And though there had always been tension between the belly dance and burlesque communities, O'Leary felt empowered around that time when Princess Farhana, a revered belly dancer, announced she'd been working in both fields for a long time.

So, no, O'Leary doesn't strip, and she's not scheduled to make an appearance, but at this weekend's ABSFest, O'Leary will be everywhere.

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