Theater Around The Bay: Burlesque, Creating New Art by Reaching Back to Old Traditions

Today’s guest blogger is Red Velvet, a Bay Area Burlesque goddess who will has been performing at the EXIT Theatre for over a year now, and will be tearing it up this May as part of DIVAfest.

“Burlesque?” I am often asked. “Don’t you take your clothes off with that?” How to answer – maybe, sometimes, frequently, only when I want to? So, if burlesque isn’t just about taking off clothing, what is it about?

Let’s start with the definition of burlesque. Burlesque: 1. an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, esp. in a literary or dramatic work; a parody. 2. a variety show, typically including striptease.

Burlesque has a long and varied history, but many people historically attribute the art form we consider “burlesque” to Lydia Thompson and her London Blondes which arrived in New York in the late 1860’s with shows consisting of a variety of music, comedy, social satire, and the shocking sensation of women playing men’s roles while wearing tights. While women in tights seems pedantic today, in the 1860’s female legs were a hot commodity.

Lydia Thompson

Lydia Thompson

Another offering of the same genre, The Black Crook, has been both attributed to a “burlesque” tradition, as well as to the first “musical theatre.” It certainly involved dance, music, and some element of dialogue, but was also considered by many to be demoralizing and outrageous due to the exposure of the female leg.

Regardless of the potentially sinful nature of the female form, these theatrical offerings were exactly that – theatre. Despite shocking some people’s sensibilities of the era, the productions involved more than just prurient diversions, but actual entertainment.

In the early 20th century, burlesque was typically a variety show with singers, comics, and dancers. Risqué comic sketches and bumps and grinds kept away the “family atmosphere” associated with Vaudeville and, burlesque was often considered “low class.” Burlesque has most often appealed to the working-class audiences, many of whom felt overlooked by the offerings (and often expense) of attending the “legitimate” theatre. Burlesque may have been the “lowest branch” of the theatre, according to Ann Corio, burlesque performer and author of This Was Burlesque, but it was also “the limb nearest the people.”

burlesque fan dancer

burlesque fan dancer

With all of its variety acts, stripping in burlesque shows didn’t actually begin until the 1930’s. Stripping at the time often involved taking off clothes off stage and appearing in less on stage. Burlesque shows, with the bawdy bumps and grinds, required performers to be in a minimum of g-strings and pasties, sometimes more, which could include net bras and panties, which would give the appearance of nudity. Meanwhile, “real” theatre, including Ziegfeld and other (comparatively) expensive Broadway shows could have women appearing in nothing, as long as they were considered to be part of the “scenery” or “staging.” At that time, being nude and holding a candelabra while the holder remained as still as a statue was apparently considered a fine art fit to be shown in the legitimate theatre: While burlesque houses of the time were often raided and Mayor Fiorella La Guardia deemed them a “corrupting moral influence,” Ziegfeld never had a show raided or deemed corrupt.

The 1940’s was often considered to be the “beginning of the end” for burlesque, the start of the slow decline which culminated in what many thought was to be the “death” of burlesque in the 1970’s, when nudity was commonplace and sexual gratification was often expected.

However, burlesque is having a resurgence, slowly starting back up in the late 1990’s, with burlesque variety shows, typically featuring “neo-burlesque” stripping acts, but also singing, comedy, dance, aerial, acrobatics, you name it. Modern acts are frequently classical in nature, and may emulate prior burlesque “legends.” However, most acts tend to put emphasis on style and sensuality rather than sexuality. Performer self-expression and self-esteem is often a big focus of acts, and the act itself (even striptease acts) can be used to challenge stereotypes, including sexual objectification, orientation, and other social taboos or pressures. Striptease acts in the neo-burlesque scene are often mini theatrical events in themselves, with a story plot wholly encompassed within the act. As such, neo-burlesque has gone back to the burlesque of the early 1920’s to refine, expand, and create a new art from that which previously existed.

Neo-burlesque star Dirty Martini

Neo-burlesque star Dirty Martini

But, we are going even farther back than that. Last year, DIVAfest produced, as part of its 2013 festival Rebel Without A Bra, which was a combination of burlesque, cabaret, and theatre. With that show, we went back once again, to cull from the burlesque theatrical experience of the 1860’s to combine elements of the stage into a more cohesive program and create a show that was a connected whole, not just a variety show or similarly themed acts. That show traced (albeit in a nonlinear fashion) the history of women in burlesque (a theatrical version of the treatise above, if you will). We combined the theatrical expertise of director Amanda Ortmayer and our key narratrix Sean Owens, with a bevy of burlesquers including co-creators If-N-Whendy and myself, Bunny Von Tail, Josie Starre, Laika Fox, Shimmies Galore, and Dee Os’Mios. We managed to go back to the beginnings of burlesque and once again combine song, dance, dialogue, (and some clothing removal) to lovely, insightful, and hilarious effect.

The theatre and the theatrical environment was a very supportive venue for burlesque – both in the performance aspect as well as the creation aspect. The theatrical process, including very extensive rehearsing; directorial advice, guidance, and input; costuming guidance and creation; stage sets; etc. made the individual neo-burlesque acts stronger as well as providing the crucial cohesion to tie the entire show into a whole. Bringing burlesque back into the theatre provides burlesque performers the opportunity to grow and expand our capabilities and capacities – bringing more to our personas, our caricatures, and broadening the horizons of what is possible on stage, both internally and externally. Burlesque also brings something back to the theatre – aspects which have always been in the theatre, but sometimes are forgotten – musicality, humor (sometimes downright slapstick and juvenile), irreverence, and that ability to take a serious subject and make people address it without lecturing or alienating the audience. For some reason, an act addressing a serious subject such as feminine equality or spousal abuse can relay the message but doesn’t create quite so much angst when clothing removal is involved.

This year, we are again hitting the DIVAfest stage in another new burlesque/theatrical production entitled At The White Rabbit Burlesque… We are again directed by the ever-patient, persevering, and inspirational Amanda Ortmayer, and joined by local theatre maven Mikka Bonel. The burlesque cast this year includes co-creators If-N-Whendy and myself (Red Velvet), Laika Fox, Tornado Supertrouble, and Ophelia Coeur de Noir. The audience will be attending a somewhat surreal burlesque show run by the White Rabbit with the assistance of stage hand and general gopher, Alice. The show features the on-and off-stage antics of the two aforementioned plus the rest of the cast, representing the familiar Alice tropes, including the diva-like Queen of Hearts, the jocular Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the perplexing Duchess, the Hare, the Hatter, and more! We are working to create individual acts as well as develop the characters and interactions which create context and story-line. It is a challenging, but fun, process and we are excited about our upcoming production. While creating a burlesque variety show is certainly applause-worthy, combining burlesque into an overall theatrical experience is a more complex level of creation and, we hope, audience enjoyment.

If this intrigues you and you are interested in joining us for this experience, you can find out more and get tickets at www.DIVAfest.info.

For more information go to www.DIVAfest.info.

For more information go to http://www.DIVAfest.info.

Red Velvet, a life-long dancer, began studying dance at the age of 2. Proficient in tap, ballet, and jazz, Red Velvet continues to study new forms of dance such as samba and flamenco. Ms. Velvet currently performs Isadora Duncan dance, she has performed with the Hot Pink Feathers, Bombshell Betty’s Burlesqueteers, and Alegria Samba Dance Company. She is a co-artistic director of the “DIVA or Die” burlesque show (a production of DIVAfest) at the Exit Theatre, and the co-creator of the burlesque play “Rebel Without a Bra: A Burlesque Cabaret” which was presented as part of DIVAfest 2013. Ms. Velvet has performed solo acts at various burlesque festivals in North America and won an award for “Most Humorous” at the Great Burlesque Expo 2014. Red Velvet currently teaches Can-can, Duncan dance, and burlesque classes.

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