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BURLESQUE AND THE EROTICISM OF EMPOWERMENT

By Association Member James Reynard

Pornography and Erotica

One of the distinctions between pornography and erotic art is that the former presents actors on a stage, whilst the latter gives us a true vision of the passions and fantasies of the artist and the subject of the work. An image featuring someone that is exploring his or her own sexual nature holds a greater erotic charge than one of a person who, eschewing verisimilitude, merely acts as a conduit to titillation. Imagine a one-night-stand where your sexual partner does everything to please your whims but exhibits no pleasure herself – it might appease your appetite, but it would leave a cold, unsatisfied feeling afterwards.

Erotica provides that personal, human element. It does not aim to appease the male ego, rather it introduces us to the delicious complexities of male and female sexuality – the excitement, the uncertainty, a voyage of discovery, feelings of vulnerability. It brings us into contact with the sensual identity of another person.

The power of the female erotic impulse, so often repressed in mainstream culture, has been acknowledged in the arts since The Bacchae of Euripides. The Marquis de Sade incorporated it in Histoire de Juliette, ou les Prospérités du vice, in which the amoral nymphomaniac anti-heroine fucks and murders her way to a happy life. Compare the colourful character of Juliette to her virtuous sister Justine, who, due in part to her docile adherence to traditional morality, suffers endless degradation and exploitation. The former interests and engages us (even as she horrifies us) whilst the latter is of no more interest as a character than the entire cannon of simpering banal gothic heroines to which she belongs.
BURLESQUE AND THE EROTICISM OF EMPOWERMENT
BURLESQUE AND THE EROTICISM OF EMPOWERMENT

The Femme Fatale

Jumping forward to the middle of the 20th century, film noir presented a pantheon of delightfully dangerous femmes fatales. These seductive archetypes may, in the final analysis, have reinforced paternalistic ideas of female sexuality being analogous to entropy and a destructive lack of order (which will eventually be overcome or subdued by more orthodox personalities). However, they gave the public an enduring fascination with sexually aggressive women such as Rita Hayworth's Gilda and Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. They certainly compared favourably to the insipidly wholesome wives and girlfriends that they frequently counter-pointed.

Today, bad girls are big business in movies, television, pop etceteras but these kick-ass-babes are frequently more spiritually akin to porn than erotica in that they conform to male fantasies of female sexuality, as well as reinforcing the homogenised view of the perfect female body.
If we are honest with ourselves, just as it is “always the bad-ass who makes a girl's heart beat faster"1, so it is the femme fatale who intrigues us men - her (often impulsive) control over her own sexuality intrigues us much more than saccharine Barbie-doll perfection.

Burlesque - Take One

Burlesque can claim to have been around since Aristophanes wrote Lystistrata, in which women use sexual blackmail against their husbands to stop a war. However, the term 'burlesque' is thought to be contemporaneous with the appearance of Commedia dell'arte in the 16th century. Coming from a tradition of transgressive music and comedy, burlesque has primarily been associated with sexuality "in the form of ribald humour and immodestly dressed women."2

During the 20th century, the emphasis of burlesque gradually shifted from the parody of bourgeois respectability and upper class habits and entertainment, to the imaginative presentation of the near-naked female form. As with noir, it established a link between female sexuality and anti-authoritarianism. In the 1830s, for example, the Cancan (a staple of the burlesque scene) was banned in France because of it's "revolutionary subtext"3.

Early burlesque troupes were frequently directed creatively by women (such as Lydia Thompson) and featured women as sexual aggressors. The striptease element, which was incorporated from the 1920s onwards, eventually dominated burlesque, despite constant clashes with the law on both sides of the Atlantic. The kind of tightrope that the club owners were walking is documented in the 1968 film The Night They Raided Minsky's. Talented artistes such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr and Phyllis Dixey took off their clothes in a manner that emphasised art and seduction, and they had their (mostly male) audiences eating out of their hands. Part of the erotic attraction was the idea that a privilege was being given (eventually) and that it could be just as easily removed.

Burlesque declined in the latter part of the 20th century due to factors that included the emergence of pornography and the diminishing imaginative quality of the acts (which in their heyday included shows such as the Ben Hur parody Bend Her featuring chorus girls as Roman charioteers). Some claim the enduring legacy of burlesque was its comedians, including Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Gleason, W.C. Fields, Phil Silvers and Bob Hope. But burlesque's appeal had primarily been a sexual one, and the tassels of its stars would live to glisten and twirl another day.

BURLESQUE AND THE EROTICISM OF EMPOWERMENT
BURLESQUE AND THE EROTICISM OF EMPOWERMENT

Burlesque - Take Two

Neo- (or New) burlesque first appeared in the mid 1990s and is still going strong today in the UK and the US. It emerged from quirky, down-at-heel arthouse venues like the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club and encompasses a wide range of performance styles including modern dance, cabaret, theatrical mini-dramas, improvisation and anarchic comedy. Although many would argue that the sexual element still provides the biggest attraction, the emphasis is still on the tease rather than the strip, on style, humour and nostalgia rather than bare-cheeked raunch. Fun is the keyword, and Time Out lists burlesque in a new Social Club section that covers all the “cabaret, bingo, clothes swaparamas, costume balls, afternoon tea dances and other dress-up events that are happening all over London”. 4

The audience for old burlesque was mostly male and working class and the genre was considered lowbrow. Today's audiences are the urban middle classes and very mixed (men, women, straight, gay etc). At the events I photograph the women frequently outnumber the men in the audience.

Unlike strippers, who usually dance to earn a crust, modern burlesque performers often perform for fun or to fulfil something in themselves (although the financial rewards can be good for those who break into the corporate party circuit). Some performers such as the ubiquitous Dita Von Teese recreate classic burlesque acts, while others fuse burlesque with other forms such as disco, punk and aerobics. Some also use the form to make overtly political statements. The best of the routines I have witnessed are marked by a strong conceptual element that engages the imagination (and frequently the funny bone). They include a melancholy fan dance to Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, karate burlesque, fantasies inspired by fairy tales, and men transforming into women. Transformation is a popular theme, often involving sexually demure or straight-laced women discovering their darker, sensual side (Red Riding Hood becomes a voracious wolf, a prison warden becomes an inmate etc).

Empowerment

It cannot be denied that women have, to a large extent, reclaimed burlesque from the men. Many of the clubs and groups are run by women, some of who are themselves performers. Cathy, co-founder of Velvet London, told me how she got into the scene:

“Way back when I was burlesque curious I knew very little about it but I knew it was sexy and cool and going to be a big thing. I talked about setting up a burlesque event before I'd even seen a show. My friend Bridget (who I hosted speed-dating events with) went on a burlesque course, and afterwards got together with the teacher around my kitchen table and set up what was to become the Cabaret and Burlesque meetup.”

Most of the acts are also conceived and arranged by the artistes. In The US, The Pussycat Dolls burlesque troupe attracted many celebrity 'guest' performers (including Christina Applegate, Eva Longoria, Salma Hayek, Denise Richards and Jennifer Aniston) before morphing into a pop group.

It has been claimed that burlesque is a feature of a new feminism and a reaction against the crass sexualisation of popular culture (its emphasis being on suggestion, sensuality and decadence rather than explicit sexuality). The performers argue that by having full artistic control of their acts (and, by implication, how much flesh is exposed) they are empowering themselves. Gone are the days when a male director gave women a stage persona and name. The performers also challenge the stereotypes of what is considered sexy and beautiful, since they represent women of every conceivable shape, size and colour. In stark contrast to mainstream culture, in which size-zero models, cosmetic surgery and homogeneity work to undermine women's confidence in their own appearance, the women in a burlesque audience are empowered because they can appreciate (and see others appreciating) the sensuality of women in all their splendid diversity. I sometimes find myself working with models that, despite being stunningly beautiful by conventional (and non-conventional) standards, are unhappy with their figures. Nothing I say will reassure them, so I recommend a trip to a burlesque show.

Burlesque's detractors believe it still objectifies and exploits women's bodies, and that is reinforces the idea that the primary 'value' of women is located in their desirability (to men). This is not a debate I feel qualified to add to in a meaningful manner so I asked Cathy what her take is.

“The first time I went to see a show I didn't know quite how to react. Is it sexy? Is it art? Am I meant to laugh? My answer is yes to all three, but it's confusing at first and it's definitely an acquired taste like olives, Marmite and all good things. That was 10 months ago and burlesque has really taken over my life in so many ways.

“It's a revival of romance and old fashioned values. Yes, performers take their clothes off, but it’s not about the tits it's about the tease, the attention, fun and self-esteem. Your body size or shape doesn't matter. People will clap and cheer and anyone can be sexy, it's all about confidence. It's also not about men. Burlesque women love the corsets and feathers, stockings and fabulous shoes. We love the theatrics and ironic humour. We show solidarity to those real women on stage with the real boobs, bums and imperfect bodies that we all have.”

Cathy told me that many burlesque artistes are single women who “wonder where all the gentlemen have gone who want women not girls, who want to woo and court a beautiful intelligent woman and enjoy the chase.” But she also has a warning. “Guys if you try to chat up a burlesque performer after a show you'll be given very short shift. These are feisty, educated, career women with proper day jobs from TV producers to teachers to children's book writers.”

The Eroticism of Empowerment

I recently observed a Cancan taster class that took place prior to the burlesque event I was covering. One couldn't help but thrill to the wild abandon of the trilling and shrieking of the participants - so suggestive of genuine, unbridled passion - as they shed their inhibitions and threw themselves into learning the rudiments of that most demanding of dances.

In mainstream culture, the female erotic nature has been imprisoned in the prudish Victorian confines of paternalistic morality for far too long. In its place we have constructed a facsimile based on what men are supposed to want that palls in comparison because there is no honesty in it. When searching for women to photograph, I and many other erotic artists prefer to work with amateur models and women who are looking to explore their own sensuality or sexuality - we are looking for genuine - as opposed to rehearsed - responses to scenarios.

Eroticism (whether presented in terms of realism or fantasy) deals with the primal truth about men and women - it is an exploration of what makes us tick. Categorising New Burlesque as an erotic performance art would not do it justice, as there is much more to it. However, its eroticism is undeniable. For some it is the frisson of the powerful female performer who, exuding energy and creativity, commands all eyes to be on her. For others it is the idea that they too can channel their own desire for erotic exploration into an act. Many of the women in the audience I chat to talk about the act they would like to perform. The forum is certainly there for them to take their ideas into the public arena should they so wish, as there are many burlesque events, classes and competitions aimed primarily at beginners. Cathy agrees. “We (women) fancy doing a burlesque class, creating our own sexy alter ego complete with exotic name, and getting up on stage ourselves.” Regardless of whether ideas become reality or not, the important fact is that, along with art, another outlet exists for the continuing emergence of the female erotic imagination - and that's good news for all of us.

I leave the final word to Cathy: “As the world and our society progresses more people will embrace the new burlesque and cabaret scene as it becomes more obvious that backwards is the way forwards.”

James photographs events for Velvet London and The Rubadub Club.

Catherine Crawley runs various burlesque events in London, including the Cabaret and Burlesque Meetup, a monthly community event that attracts all sorts of people including performers, promoters, show producers, photographers, costume and hat makers and lots of burlesque fans. The meetups include a taster vintage dance class, a random networking half hour and a show with up to 8 different acts.

Sources and References
1. Quote (or paraphrase) from the film Angel Heart by Alan Parker
2. A History of The Musical Burlesque by John Kenrick
3. wwww.anatomyofburlesque.com
4. Catherine Crawley
5. Burlesque Comeback Tries to Dance With Feminism by Kelly DiNardo
6. Is Burlesque Anti-Feminist by Stacey Merrick

Organisations
Velvet London www.myspace.com/velvetlondon
The Rubadub Social Club www.myspace.com/rubadubsocialclub
Old Fashioned Dating Company www.myspace.com/theoldfashioneddatingco

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