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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Burlesque is the new 'funinism'

Margaret Cho is trying to put the word "fun" into "feminism." And she's not alone -- Chicago choreographer Leslie Kerrigan has also tapped into a fun way for women to celebrate themselves.

Their performance choice of empowerment? Burlesque. Yeah, that's right, that disreputable cousin of old-time vaudeville known for its blend of low-brow humor and girlie strip-tease titillation.

Both Cho and Kerrigan's burlesque shows play along Chicago's Broadway Street next week. Recently seen in Los Angeles, Cho's variety show "The Sensuous Woman" plays at The Lakeshore Theatre in Lakeview for a brief weekend run before moving to New York's Zipper Factory theater. Kerrigan's burlesque troupe, The Flaming Dames, presents its latest creation, "Bump and Grindhouse," at its Uptown hangout, The Spot.

It's curious just why these two artists chose a largely forgotten and frequently disdained art-form known for raising the spirits of American male audiences in the 1930s and '40s. But for both, burlesque is a natural fit.

Though Cho is famous for her hilariously raunchy stand-up comedy films like "I'm the One That I Want" and "Notorious C.H.O.," Cho had a secret hankering to be part of a variety show.

"I'm a child of the '70s and I grew up loving shows like 'Donny and Marie' and 'Sonny and Cher,' " Cho said. Cho's exposure to the resurgent burlesque scene around the country piqued her interest for melding her comedy into a burlesque variety show.

"I thought it would be great to combine them," Cho said. "I've been doing stand-up for a really long time and I wanted to do something different and bring together something really exciting and fun and sexy."

Though most burlesque is famous for the stripping acts, it also harbored comedians and sketch routines that spoofed politics and pop art. Cho is seizing on that comic heritage in burlesque and applying for today -- just wait till you hear her "gay Republican hanky code" jokes in response to Idaho Senator Larry Craig's airport bathroom scandal.

"I also think it's really timely the way that women's bodies are politicized. It's really about seeing people's different bodies and enjoying that and getting away from this weird ideal that is reinforced in movies, TV and advertising," Cho said.

To do that, Cho has cast many women and men protégé performers of differing shapes and sizes to "change and recreate the ideal of what is attractive."

Bringing a variety of different women's body types to the fore is also a primary concern of The Flaming Dames creator Kerrigan. Originally from Detroit, Kerrigan got the idea for the Flaming Dames after teaching a burlesque dance in 2003.

Past Flaming Dames shows like the '80 hair-rock inspired "Slippery When Wet" and the Vampire-theme "Vamps: Talk Dirty to Me" featured women of different shapes and sizes.

"We do not cast cookie cutter girls," Kerrigan said. "At the end of shows, I have women coming up and thanking me for having bigger girls and really, really thin girls in the show."

For their latest show, The Flaming Dames take aim at the low-budget grind house exploitation films of the 1970s (with plenty of digs at the expense of directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez of the 2007 homage film "Grindhouse").

Kerrigan points out there's a connection since many of the 1970s grindhouse pictures were screened at former burlesque houses--hence the name "grind" from the old "bump and grind" burlesque routine.

Though old burlesque was clearly targeted at men, both Cho and Kerrigan are pleased to point out that their brand of modern women-created burlesque typically attracts more women than men to the shows.

"We'd get a lot of bachelorette parties," Kerrigan said. "Since the women burlesque performers are completely in control, it kind of empowers them and they love that they can exercise their sexuality in a powerful and entertaining way."

So why the resurgence of burlesque in America now? Kerrigan has done her research and points out that burlesque thrived during the Great Depression and World War II with legendary performers like Gypsy Rose Lee and Lily Saint Cyr. In peace time and the economic prosperity of the 1950s, burlesque floundered.

"When the country is numb with this fear and terror, after all that people need escape and entertainment." Kerrigan said. "I don't want to say that 9/11 and the War in Iraq is responsible for burlesque's resurgence, but it is a part of it."

And though some feminists might frown on burlesque's resurgence, Cho likes to point out that since women are creating it now for themselves, it's done in fun.

"It is feminist," Cho said. "There's not a lot of objectification going on, and if it is, it's welcome."

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