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Jerry Mitchell was a 32-year-old Broadway hoofer who was causing a stir every night dancing almost naked in “The Will Rogers Follies” when he had an idea: shake his bare butt for a good cause.

It was 1992, at the height of the AIDS crisis. Mitchell recruited seven other dancers in shape from other Broadway shows, and on a rainy Sunday night at Splash, a since-closed gay club in Chelsea, they took turns stripping at the bar to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Two shows and a platter of tequila shots later, the rookie strippers had raised $8,000 — and the Broadway Bares burlesque show was born.

“There were people who didn’t understand why we were using a strip show to raise money for AIDS,” Mitchell, who is now a Tony Award-winning director and choreographer, said during a telephone interview. “It came from a place of innocence,” he said, and scarcity: he didn’t have the money to attend major AIDS charity events, “but I had the will and the desire to help my community”.

Broadway Bares became a hit, topping establishment after establishment and becoming more and more polished, until “we weren’t just an advantage anymore,” Mitchell said. “We were a Broadway show.” On Sunday, that show will celebrate its 30th anniversary at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan, with performances at 9:30 p.m. and midnight.

Organizing the event – which involves more than 500 volunteer theater artists, including performers, designers and managers, many of whom are busy with current Broadway shows – is a complex and hectic game of logistics, overcome of a final rehearsal sprint in which the entire, one-night production comes together in a matter of days.

At one such rehearsal this week, at a studio near Times Square, nearly 30 dancers were spinning, kicking and pretending to rip their pants off. Laya Barak, the director of this year’s show and creator of the opening number, reminded everyone to “keep a straight line” and “reach out by the shoulder”. More pressing, however, was the clothing choreography. “Whatever your peelable is, it has to travel with you,” she told one group, meaning they had to pack their discarded diapers. Other items had to be given to other dancers or thrown off stage.

“Are you wearing a jock or a thong? she asked a dancer about her outfit for the show, which reveals a lot but stops short of full-frontal nudity. He wasn’t sure; the costumes were still under construction and would not be ready until Saturday.

This meant Collin Heyward, the lead dancer for Another Play, and his castmates would only be able to practice taking his clothes off the day before the opening. During rehearsal, Heyward, who made his Broadway debut in “The Lion King” in February, confidently attacked the hip-hop choreography but admitted to being anxious about the stripping. “It has to be consistent,” he said. “It’s extra pressure.”

With around a dozen dance routines, each with its own choreographer, Broadway Bares is a top platform for up-and-coming dance makers. The routines use a variety of styles, including hip-hop, Latin dance, ballet, and aerial arts, often mixed together in new combinations. But burlesque remains at the heart of artistic ethics and attitude.

“Burlesque isn’t just about being naked,” Mitchell said. “It’s about being funny. Humor is the heart.

However, the end of the game is laid bare. And that has its complications.

“Lead strips”, as the featured dancers are known, can have up to five layers to remove. The first is easy, like a hat or a coat. “Then it gets a little tricky,” said Nick Kenkel, who has been on the show for almost 20 years and is now an executive producer. A t-shirt can be ripped (prepared with a small cut to make it easier to rip), followed by dancer’s pants, but “you have to do it in such a way that the tight boxer briefs underneath don’t come off”, has he declared. .

Taking care of these fragile costumes and perfecting their timing removal is a new skill for dancers more accustomed to focusing on counts than throwing clothes. “If you don’t pull hard enough, it can ruin the tape,” said Jonathan Lee, associate director and one of Broadway Bares’ choreographers.

That’s where costume designers come in, with their tricks and tools for building clothes that are “comfortable to dance to but don’t break at the wrong time,” said designer Sarah Marie Dixey. Quick-fit suits use a variety of fasteners, each with advantages and disadvantages. Dixey called herself an “anti-Velcro person”, adding: “I really like the snaps and the magnets. They don’t really tangle in anything. From the performer’s point of view, a consensus emerged : “Snaps,” Lee said, “Always clicks.”

Mishaps are inevitable, but “these are people who do this all the time,” Dixey said. “Not necessarily getting naked, but being on stage and able to solve problems in the moment.”

Mechanically aside, stripping “was artistically challenging for me,” said Aubrey Lynch II, a former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and ‘The Lion King’ dancer who starred in several premieres. Broadway shows Bares and is now Dean and Director of Studies at American Ballet Theatre. Despite any initial hesitation, Lynch said what he experienced on stage was freedom – which “added another layer of performance to my toolbox and strangely boosted my self-esteem”.

It’s a lesson Mitchell is happy for performers to learn. He considers that undressing on stage is not a vulnerable act, but a stimulating act. “You’re in the driver’s seat,” he told the dancers, reminding them that “the audience is on your side. They encourage you. If you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable.

The Broadway Bares routines, which last three to four minutes, convey a mini narrative and were inspired by things like Greek myths and board games. Some choreographers have also used dance to comment on social issues.

In this year’s production, titled “XXX” – a nod to both the show’s age and its villainy – Lee reimagined a superhero act from the 2002 event to include characters like Black Panther (danced by Heyward) and Shang-Chi with dancehall music, Afro beats and steps. “I wanted to honor what we’ve gained over the past 20 years,” he said.

While the first Broadway Bares featured only well-toned, cisgender men, the following year’s event included women. Later iterations continued to feature transgender performers, dancers with disabilities, and all expressions of sexuality. “We even had straight performers,” Mitchell joked. (For the entire stage performance, however, the audience remains mostly gay men.)

When Jessica Castro was asked to create a dance this year, she knew she wanted to embrace body positivity. She played the role of her star Akira Armstrong, a tall dancer and founder of the dance company Pretty Big Movement. “It’s about celebrating all walks of life, all shapes, all types,” Castro said, adding that she finds stripping to be an act of agency. “It is a loss of all these ideals, of all these constructions that society has imposed on us.”

Over the 30 years of Bares Broadway shows, AIDS has become a manageable disease, especially for those with access to health care and preventive medication. But the devastation he caused to New York’s tight-knit theater scene is part of the Broadway story that’s woven into the show’s mission.

The event is “both a fundraiser and an educational opportunity,” said Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares, who attended the first Bares at Splash. (He has raised more than $22 million to date for Broadway Cares to support health and social services for entertainment professionals both locally and nationwide, crucially during the coronavirus pandemic. )

As part of the rehearsal period, the organization helps dancers, most of whom have not experienced the worst of the AIDS epidemic, “understand the anger, grief, loss and stigma that have left us first spurred into action,” Viola said. At this week’s rehearsal, dancers received profiles of grantee organizations and were encouraged to step up their own online fundraising efforts.

And while Barak is concerned with all the usual elements of putting on a show of this magnitude, she also asks, “How can we keep this flame going into the future to continue raising funds for Broadway Cares and continuing this tradition. of community?”

But in the meantime, back at rehearsal, she was ready for another rehearsal.

“Go pants band!” she screamed.


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