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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Burlesque Beneath a Vamp Allure

vampire burlesqueTHINK burlesque and you're likely to come up with a vision of predatory jazz-age femmes fatales, a winking striptease with retro corsetry and a feather fan. The very word suggests glamorous confections of femininity associated with a bygone era of sepia images, flickering celluloid and cheesy sleaze.

Purring Meow Meow in Vamp.

In the post-feminist nirvana in which we supposedly live, where sexual liberation is about taking pole-dancing lessons and watching porn with your boyfriend, what do shows called Vamp and The Burlesque Hour contribute to the knotty politics of raunch culture and women's rights?

Quite a lot, I'd say.

The popularity of entertainers such as Dita Von Teese, the sexualisation of girls and young women in consumer contexts, and the troubled relationship between sex and art (witness the recent Bill Henson case) demonstrate a need to re-examine female sexuality and its place in our culture.

At first glance, Australian shows Vamp and The Burlesque Hour share a showgirl aesthetic: glittering, corsetted, fish-netted. They partially play up to audience expectations, too; there's plenty of nudity in The Burlesque Hour, plenty of cleavage and crotch in Vamp.

They may claim to rip the heart out of all our preconceptions, but are we being doled out yet another postmodern, post-everything, bump-and-grind version of having your cheesecake and eating it? A nipple bared ironically is still a bare nipple.

Having seen both shows at least twice, I'd say no. These performances aren't eye candy for men: they're retina-searing. Women's eyeballs get a zapping too. In the form of real and metaphorical striptease, they discard the false smiles and fake boobs to reveal the very ordinary, very human body underneath, and in that sense they deconstruct the artifice. A vamp can be a lonely old woman as well as a lustful teenager.

The Burlesque Hour is a revue devised by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith. Finucane and Smith come out of a tradition of queer politics, which has helped shape third-wave feminism's reassessment of gender identity and expression. They see a retreat from the feminist gains of the past 20 years.

"We live in conservative times," Finucane says, "and despite the successful work of many women and men to promote equality, the oppression of women is still a reality, even in our enlightened West. Women are still struggling to gain control over their own bodies and the expression of their sexuality and sexual identity."

In Vamp, Meow Meow (a cabaret artiste created and inhabited by multi-disciplined performer Melissa Madden Gray) dissects a host of archetypes, from serpent woman to sex doll, in an often droll and sometimes bleak romp through several thousand years and many cultures.

Her vamp is a tragicomic figure, part Sarah Bernhardt, part Weimar erotic dancer Anita Berber, with a shadowy cast of hundreds, from the Babylonian goddess of love and death, Ishtar, to cinema's Lulu, black-bobbed vixen Louise Brooks. These characters form the texture of the show's multilayered song and dance cycle.

The show is anchored to Oscar Wilde's 1890s play Salome, with the head of John the Baptist and the dance of the seven veils. Wilde's play was written for (though never performed by) the legendary Bernhardt; in this post-structuralist interpretation, Meow Meow imagines a tragic actor's version of a repressed homosexual playwright's idea of teenage sex-death-lust. To add an extra layer of cultural references, when she holds up the gory head and croons Johnny and He's My Man, she leaps 2000 years, to Berlin and Bertolt Brecht's treacherous Surabaya Johnny, and to the faithless lovers of Billie Holiday.

"Salome is an interesting character because you can interpret her as a child or regard her as empowered," Gray says. "There is childish petulance but also sexual awakening, and an awakening of love. In Wilde's Salome she wants the head, but is it because she's been interfered with by a revolting stepfather? Is it because she's in a godless place? What she does is from a position of unnaturalness."

The vamp grew out of fin-de-siecle decadence and the licentiousness of the Weimar republic, with its sexual experimentation, racial mixing, political extremism and incredible creativity. The songs of Brecht and Kurt Weill, the paintings and etchings of Otto Dix, the expressionist dancing and political theatre of Valeska Gert all encapsulate the times.

"A lot of the art was about the sex drive, an exhilaration and joy in the body," Gray says. Vamp explores the gratification of the flesh and the forbidden, where the joyful expression of freedom collides with exploitation, she adds, quoting American feminist writer Ellen Willis: "What turns me on is erotica, what turns you on is pornographic."

The Western vamp had her counterpart in the East, whether Shanghai or Istanbul. In the 1920s she was the dark, exotic side of the flapper, the cloche hat being replaced with a turban or feathers. There was always a strong tinge of orientalism about the vamp, reflecting the fascination and unease that a colonising West had for the enticing East. Cinema vamp Theda Bara's name was an anagram of Arab Death.

In Vamp and The Burlesque Hour, the baring of flesh is not primarily about arousal. It is about daring the viewer to condemn difference, or to objectify the feminine. When Finucane's dairy queen pumps milk over the audience with a demonic grin, she is saying: This is another side to motherhood, this is the banshee mother. It is about ownership of the body, for whatever purposes.

Characters in The Burlesque Hour reference the witches and female vampires of European fairytales, repressed gothic maidens, Samurai warriors and circus freaks. There is plenty of stripping, as you would expect from traditional burlesque; however, the punchline is not the tassled tits but the humanity and humour of the woman, whether empowered or repressed.

In its four years of international touring, the show has been seen by 30,000 people. In Melbourne, the audience has shifted from the queer underground and avant-garde to suburban families and hen parties.

"Our idea of burlesque is a subversion, a grotesquery," Finucane says. "The burlesque sensibility goes back to the 1600s and was a work of exaggeration, a mockery or parody. Our work owes more to Grand Guignol, the macabre, than referencing a particular 1940s American form. We create indelible images of desire, power and liberation. We unleash the monstrous feminine, and audiences love it as women don't get a chance to play these roles."

Alongside her lactating siren, Finucane's characters include a Hollywood diva with a blood lust and a queen of hearts with a very spiky bikini. She shares the stage with her two co-founders, Moscow State Circus-trained Azaria Universe and Yumi Umiumare, who uses the highly theatrical aesthetic of Japanese butoh.

This season they are joined by actor and singer Maude Davey. The show is a series of solo turns that reflect the strengths and cultural heritage of each performer. The gymnastic and circus skills of Universe include a trapeze, a balancing ball and hoops, alongside a look at bondage and self-destruction. Umiumare plays with ancient and modern Japanese characters, from the warrior woman to the repressed office worker and the sexy, knicker-shedding schoolgirl.

So, are these shows going to change the world? No. But they do have some things to say about a changed world, a world where we're told we can make up our sexual identity as we go along, when in fact we're playing with a well-thumbed cast of characters. Negotiating this minefield, on stage or off, isn't easy.

"You can't control an audience's perception," Gray says, "only your own intention; and even then, you can interpret that in many different ways."

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