Monday, March 24, 2008
Revolution at the Boston Burlesque Expo
Here I am, in fab vintage, on Friday night of the Great Boston Burlesque Exposition.
Saturday night, I danced in the Main Event with the Babes in Boinkland, and we took "Best Group." The more I see of the world of old vs. neo-burlesque, the prouder I am of the group I'm in. (yes, I'll post more photos as they become available...)
Let me explain. In burlesque, like in anything, there are traditionalists who LOVE to recreate the past. These are the performers that wear replica costumes, dance to music from the 50s, and usually model their look on a particular feature dancer from the era they love best. Traditionalists won't actually perform in groups, because that's not the way it WAS during the real heyday of burlesque circuits. Their performances are usually incredibly glamorous, focusing on glitzy costumes and charm, and they celebrate a certain ideal of beauty that includes fabulous breasts and coiffed hair, a lighthearted smile as the tease begins, and for all intents and purposes, their sexuality is obvious, unproblematic, feminine, and totally entertaining. I love feathers, glitter, rhinestones and all the accessories of old-school burlesque. I've watched the movies, studied the photos, and understand why someone like Dita could make a smash recreating it all. Maybe the dancers were social deviants of a kind before the 60s, but their routines often appear quaint, when redone now, even with the most lavish feather boas in tow.
I want to ask some tougher questions about sexuality, performance, and the purpose of the tease. While the Babes in Boinkland are often comedic and usually somewhat slapdash, as a group we represent something very particular in the world of burlesque: the neo-burly girl who can represent middle class, lesbian, DIY and feminist values.
Neo-burlesque is a name given to things that don't fit into regular performance categories, but include some sort of titillation. You can go to Vegas and see it in size zero gals with hard bodies. You can also go to Montreal, and see the Dead Dolls, who will do their best NOT to turn you on, while they're turning you on. It's a category with very few limits, unlike "old school," which does tend to "mean" something. (I put this is quotes, since burlesque legend Satan's Angel, who hosted Friday night's show, outed herself onstage as a bisexual, and used to twirl fire tassels on her pasties. The bad girl of the bad girls in the 60s was totally neo, dude.)
The point is, every troupe does something in particular, in a huge spectrum of possibilities for a Neo group. The Babes in Boinkland won on Saturday night because we rehearsed like super-heroes, did some incredible chair and acrobatic tricks, sang part of our song at the top of our lungs, and hit a few very key bits of choreography in unison. We were clearly a tight-knit group, and our choreography, music, and costumes were great.
But we weren't in partial drag, like Bella Minx Burly-Q. We weren't made up to look dead, like the Dead Dolls. We weren't a lot of things that probably challenged the judges a great deal. One thing we WERE, that I think challenged everyone, is self-posessed.
Burlesque dancers drop their clothes and scamper away. We didn't. We broke the 4th wall by entering slowly, talking to each other, and settling into our places before our music cue. We ended the number with what happens when the curtain goes down--sighing, high-fiving, topless hugs, searching around for those really expensive gloves and snatching them up. We cleared our own clothes off the stage, like we do in rehearsal.
Was this a deliberate statement about our being the kind of girls who were raised to clean up after ourselves? Nope. It was originally part of the "Life in the Freakshow" theme we were working with. But the effect, at least for me, was monumental. We were a self-contained entity; we entered, danced, celebrated, and exited, almost without needing the audience's participation at all. That's rare for me, and rare for burlesque. We looked each other in the eye, undressed each other, touched and supported and danced with each other, which a lot of groups only do for momentary effect. For part of our number, we split into pairs and stared into each others' eyes for four bars while we peeled off each other's jackets. The lyrics during this section refer to how you get by in show business: you need "a lot of love and compliance."
That we emphasized female relationships: friendships, working, sexual relationships and so on makes us unique, I think, and it's what's most fun about performing with the Babes.
So who cares that our solos were ignored by the judges? Like our Ani DiFranco says, we can made something bigger than any one of us alone.
That, I'm hoping, says something hopeful about the future of a style of dance predicated, in the past, on female competition for male gaze/money.
Oh, and I twirled my tassels in public for the first time. Which deserves almost as much scrutiny, and almost as much celebration!