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Thursday, March 27, 2008

The art of Burlesque

burlesque dancerThe word "burlesque" alludes to a number of things - glitter, feathers, pasties. The word "art" comes up more rarely.

Perhaps it did when burlesque was defined as a form of witty comedic theater with a little naughtiness thrown in. But now, the distinction between what we call "burlesque" and what we call "stripping" has increasingly blurred.

"Burlesque is a classier striptease," said Tisch freshman Nancy Reinstein, who is an actress but has never done a burlesque show. "It requires a certain amount of showmanship, so it is more of a performance than stripping. Stripping and burlesque aren't completely separate or synonymous."

But burlesque performer Jo "Boobs" said the line has to be drawn, no matter how difficult it might be.

"You have to make a distinction for professional purposes when people hire you. You have to explain the differences," she said.

While there are many opinions on stripping and burlesque, the general idea is not to confuse or ridicule burlesque as another form of stripping. Recently, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York hosted a panel titled, "What is Burlesque? Art or Erotica or Ars Erotica?" to sort through misconceptions and praise the artistic merits of burlesque performances.

On March 12, several performers - including Jo "Boobs"; Tigger!; Velocity Chyaldd; Rosewood; and Lynn Sally, who teaches classes at NYU - exhibited their talents with individually choreographed demos and their expansive knowledge of the neo-burlesque scene. These performers are active as instructors and show producers.

Tigger, winner of the first-ever "boylesque" category at Mr. Exotic World, grouped burlesque and stripping in a positive light.

"We really are in it together," he said. "We are out for a good time and want something different. Both the audience and the performers expect and demand a surprise."

During the discussion, many of the performers shared personal stories of how they got into the burlesque scene. The opportunity to perform and act with the promise of freedom and fun led many to burlesque.

"Burlesque combines art and entertainment," Tigger said. "We have all been subjected, especially living in New York, to many examples of art that seem to feel that entertaining the audience is beneath it. And then at the same time, we are inundated with this utterly artless crap entertainment, which shows a lack of respect and love for the audience."

The performers maintained that burlesque is an art form that accepts and integrates many different people, backgrounds and tastes. However, while Tigger concentrated on not explicitly defining burlesque, Sally bulleted a list of burlesque qualities that included glam, campy, parodic, excessive, salacious and monstrous beauties.

The demos that each performer put on for the audience showed the range of these qualities. From Jo "Boobs" slowly pulling off her glove with her mouth to Velocity Chyaldd's choreography involving a knife and blood characterized after a Spanish flamenco dance, the performances ran the gamut of how far neo-burlesque has evolved.

"Burlesque is an utterly amateur form that anybody can do," Sally said. "But this makes burlesque a democratic art, where audiences can watch a show and say 'Wow! Look! You don't have to be super skinny to be on stage.' Burlesque feels accessible to the audience."

Sally, who is both a performer and a professor at Tisch, said that burlesque is not just simple theater.

"Burlesque takes a lot of vision. It isn't like auditioning for Broadway, where you receive a script," Sally said. "You literally have to come up with the script, the choreography, the music, the message, the venue. It is one person producing their own solo show. They write and create their own artwork."

"The burlesque that is interesting to me is the type that makes people think," she added. "This burlesque has characters that use the idea of a bait and switch, in which they are able to turn repulsion into beauty."

But simply reading about it or listening to what the performers say doesn't do it justice, Tigger said.

"You have to be there," he said. "You don't know how important the audience is. The audience is half the experience."

Sally said that burlesque has a lot to do with its environment. The fourth wall is broken, and the audience becomes part of the performance.

To truly understand, Sally suggests biting the bullet and seeing a show. The performers are there for the audience, for entertainment, for showmanship, for the sensual experience, for art.

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