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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Burlesque = Tease, humour and feminism

burlesqueThe All-Star Burlesque Weekend this month in Las Vegas produced a flurry of wire stories.

Many of them focused on Tempest Storm, the 80-year-old burlesque queen who in the 1950s was known for her fleshy sexuality and ability to excite male fantasies. Storm still performs, and as she strutted her stuff at the Burlesque Hall of Fame’s annual weekend, the audience watched her with respect, amazement and awe.

One of those watching was Lola van Ella, a founder of the Alley Cat Revue in St. Louis.

“I really appreciate the ladies who came before,” said the 20-something performer.

Van Ella and the Alley Cat Revue are about to descend on Kansas City for the fourth annual KC Fringe Festival, one of four burlesque troupes performing this year. It’s all part of the so-called neo-burlesque movement that began in the mid-1990s, and if there’s one characteristic that distinguishes it from the classic burlesque of the ’40s and ’50s, it is simply this: The new performers like to be funny — funny absurd, funny ironic, funny sexy. They’re funny on purpose.

The Tempest Storm brand of sexuality was rejected by feminists in the ’60s and ’70s as exploiting women for the sole purpose of entertaining men. But contemporary burlesque performers in their 20s and 30s have their own definition of feminism.

“We changed a lot of women’s minds,” Lola van Ella said. “I teach every single week, twice a week, and every time I get new students they realize how feminist what they’re doing is.”

Van Ella (the stage name of Leah Schumacher) sees the ’60s feminist movement as necessary and appropriate to the time. “For them, feminist was burning your bra and taking off all your makeup and letting your hair grow,” she said. “It’s what they needed to do.”

What’s happening now is a feminist movement in burlesque, she said, “because it’s women saying, ‘I can be ultra feminine and I can shave and wear makeup and red lipstick and G-strings and pasties. Men may or may not enjoy it, but I’m doing it for myself.’ ”

Van Ella came to burlesque from a singing and acting background, which seems fairly typical of burlesque performers.

It’s true of Burlesque Downtown Underground, which staged a show called “Naughty Knickers” at last year’s Fringe Fest and drew the second-highest attendance at the festival. BDU is back with a new show that spoofs beauty pageants.

“We’re definitely not afraid to be funny,” said founder Marisa Mackay, who has a dance and theater background.

Mackay said Burlesque Downtown Underground was formed specifically for last year’s festival at the request of festival coordinator Cheryl Kimmi.

“Cheryl called me and said she had an exciting project for me to take on,” Mackay said. “I was like, ‘OK!’ ”

She rounded up other young women who came from a variety of performing disciplines.

“We’re all made up of professional actors, singers and dancers in Kansas City,” she said. “You’ve got professional performers doing something out of their element, and they’re good at it. We do have ladies of all shapes and sizes, but everyone is very pretty and very classy in everything we do… I really think what made it work was the girls coming from a stage-presence background. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we had fun.”

Mackay said she had never heard of the neo-burlesque movement before last year’s festival.

“I had no idea this revival was happening until people started sending me e-mails,” she said.

Mackay said burlesque was the logical result of a change in public taste.

“After the ’80s and ’90s you’ve got your theater audience wanting more ‘edge,’ and then you’ve got people who are bored with the strip clubs and getting the obvious, so I think people are trying to have fun by coming and getting the whole performance-art quality,” she said. “That’s what I call it. We’re doing performance art.”

KC-based burlesque performers Annie Cherry and Lucky DeLuxe have teamed up for a festival show this year called “Cherry’s DeLuxe Burlesque and Variety Show.” The piece will be presented as a game show, complete with “commercials” for fictitious products.

“It’s going to be a send-up of all the game shows we know and love,” said Cherry, also known as Annie Montgomery. “There’s going to be a little ‘Dating Game,’ a little ‘Price Is Right’ and a few that are wholly new inventions.”

Cherry said she simply calls what she does burlesque without invoking the cerebral-sounding “neo.”

“Neo-burlesque is an attempt to elevate burlesque to the level of art, but I think some burlesque is art, and it takes a certain level of talent to go there,” she said. “One thing people need to remember is that burlesque was not high-brow art. I think some people take it a little too seriously, especially the attempt to completely disassociate it from, like, stripping. But there’s more to it than your typical strip-o-rama.”

DeLuxe (Susanna Lee) said burlesque was vaudeville’s “bluer cousin,” meaning it could be rawer and more sexual than typical entertainment. She said it represented a rebellion against the restrictive prevailing morality of the time.

“I think what we have to rebel against now is a bit more complicated than the original morals they were rebelling against,” she said. “I think burlesque now allows us to make comments about sexuality. … It gets to a point where so many images of what a female is supposed to be and what a male is supposed to be get so overwhelming. It’s like a pressure cooker. I’m tired of looking at Paris Hilton. I think burlesque is what happens when you can’t take it anymore.”

Van Ella said that contemporary burlesque appeals to both genders and that she has as many female fans as guys. And there’s a reason: Modern burlesque performers are clearly in charge of their own destiny.

“I have nothing against commercial stripping as a business, but it is that,” she said. “It’s a sales job. But burlesque is a tease, and that is the big difference. The woman doing it is completely in control of her own sexuality. She decides. And she says, ‘I’m gonna give you this much but not any more and if you want more you’ll have to beg.’"

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