Burlesque is Booming
An article on the new neo-burlesque phenomenon that has swept the country in the past two years and how it has second wave feminists turning in their wheelchairs.
Alternative performance art is running riot in the London. On any given day you can find Mexican wrestlers battling it out, drag queens voguing, overweight ballerinas screaming abuse at their class, or aerial performers dangling over a vintage-inspired crowd. But none is more popular than burlesque.
The burlesque boom is in its stride and more and more women are willing to flash their nipples tassles (using our instructions in last month’s issue, natch!) and get twirling. Innumerable classes populate the tube map offering lessons in strutting, pouting and getting your kit off and you can even burlesque fitness DVDs are available. Now, the London Burlesque Festival next month, which will see over 100 UK and international performers descend on the capital, and British starlet Immodesty Blaize’s two sold out nights at Koko next week cement the titillating art’s popularity and place in London’s nightlife. But it’s posing problems for some as the genre splits in half and differentiates between sauce and satire. Is this a new feminist wave rising from the underground or are burlesque gals little more than sassier Playboy playmates?
One performer who sparks such a debate is Empress Stah (pictured). She’s a milky white nymphet that can twist and loop from a giant chandelier as easily as she can pierce her skin and decorate the needles with strawberries and cream. She is taking Britain’s art scene by the groin, spearheading a new breed of burlesque performers for whom stripping alone won’t cut it in the entertainment stakes. Most are familiar with the showgirl style of burlesque popularised by household name Dita Von Teese, where the emphasis is on stripping using elaborate and glamourous props and costumes (think of Teese’s signature Martini glass routine). But now burlesque has become more difficult to define and Stah and her legions make it less easy too.
Burlesque started as a bawdy working class pastiche of the bourgeoisie (burlesque is taken from the Italian, burla, meaning ‘mockery’). Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, kickstarted the genre’s popularity back in the 1860s when they took their lewd and rude satire (and never-ending legs) to New York City. But in 2008 it’s a complex amalgamation of variety acts absorbed through the decades, from comics to trapeze artists, with striptease often forming the primary focus. It’s termed by most in the burgeoning scene as ‘neo-burlesque’. The new blood is athletic, unsympathetic and has something in-yer-face to offer than pert breasts.
Still, looking around the cabaret show at the Café De Paris at all the suited and booted men gawping and cheering drunkenly at Stah, who boasts barely-there panties as she does the splits mid-flight, one wonders just how far burlesque performers, whether a showgirl or a neo burlesque-ette, will go to please the male gaze. Predictably the notion of public stripping poses myriad problems for today’s feminists, whose foremothers threw bricks through the windows of strip clubs in the seventies. Is burlesque really the continuation of the exploitation of women? Or is it an empowering tool and deserving of recognition as a legitimate art form?
“I’m very troubled by the scene,” admits Liselle Terret, an applied theatre lecturer and a subversive performer by the name of Doris La Trine, who has also organised talks on feminists’ perspectives on burlesque. “There’s an incredible misunderstanding of burlesque and many young women have totally unclear reasons for doing it. They hold a male idea of what burlesque is, focussing on the stripping rather than using the body to make satirical comments on everyday life.” She continues: “Burlesque is really about introducing political and social issues in a popular way, through comedy and teasing,” arguing that burlesque needs to be and recognised as a legitimate form of theatre because “these young women think they can invent burlesque routines in five minutes.”
Roxy Velvet, one of London’s premier performers, agrees. “It takes an exceptional performer to really capture an audience with just a striptease, so burlesque is more about the performer’s charisma, skill and stage presence than the act of removing clothes,” she says, continuing, “The sex trade has become so explicit that no one needs to see burlesque for pure titillation anymore, therefore it must be clever, creative, evocative and charming.”Despite girls doing it for the wrong reasons, Velvet certainly sees the capacity for burlesque to be a feminist platform. She enthuses: “It’s a fantastically fluid art form that gives one liberating and empowering freedom of expression. My ‘Love for Sale’ show is a direct comment about traditional striptease and the sex trade. It’s about the changing balance of power between the stripper and the audience, and between men and women. It’s more powerful for burlesque artists to continue performing their art and at the same time say, ‘This isn’t for you anymore, it’s for me’.”Both want to separate the sleaze from the satire, but Sherril Dodds, a dance studies lecturer and brain behind the Korova Milk Bar events, argues that there are multiple feminist approaches. “Some performers work with really overt critiques of femininity,” she says, pointing to neo-burlesque acts, “but some showgirl types work with stereotypes and find pleasure within them.” She draws on Immodesty Blaize, who won 2007’s Miss Erotic World, as an example of the latter type of performer. “Her look is a homage to the classic burlesque stars of decades gone by, like Gypsy Rose Lee. They’re not a critique on society,” she explains, “but what’s great about Immodesty is that she exemplifies how empowering burlesque is for the performer. She is a large woman, not skinny like your traditional stripper, who takes great pleasure in performing and it’s liberating for her to undress.”Lara Clifton, co-founder of the burlesque agency The Whoopee Club, concurs: “Burlesque is about feeling fantastic in your skin whatever your body type, which is especially important in a time where everyone is anorexic.” Despite the difference in opinion, it seems that the very idea of women of all shapes and sizes being given the platform to perform on and enjoy their bodies is a feminist idea from the start.
Quashing comparisons between burlesque clubs and strip clubs is a bigger mission for some spokespersons. Feminist academics like Ariel Levy and Guardian journalist Hannah Gold are quick to claim that it’s still objectification. The former argues in her book ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture’ that women who embrace this ‘raunch culture’ mistake stripping as sexual liberation, but Empress Stah refutes this. “Women run the burlesque scene and it’s predominantly women in the audience,” she says. “Burlesque is a backlash against conservative feminist theories and a hardcore feminist stance against pornography.” Can Stah’s scandalous performances, which “go right for the feminist jugular” and include blood supping, simulated sex and pulling a string of diamonds from her lady parts, be be viewed as feminist? Well, she doesn’t give a flying f*ck. Perhaps in this age of political correctness, it’s the best attitude to have.
The London Burlesque Festival takes place at various venues from 2-6 April. Londonburlesquefest.com
Immodesty Blaize performs at Koko on 18 & 19 March
A version of this article appeared in Time Out magazine.