Featuring stage names like Vixie Rouge and Betty Boneapart, and more tassels than a set of curtains, you’d be forgiven for dismissing modern burlesque as a series of gimcrack unveilings. It took a recent trip to the London Burlesque Festival auditions for us to right our judgement on the art of the reveal.
If you’ve ever seen a performance live, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that the term burlesque derives from an Italian word meaning a joke or mockery. Originally used to describe satirical literature, the function of burlesque is to evoke laughter by caricaturing or parodying the serious and sincere through the ludicrous or absurd. The burlesque we know today, with its heavily make-upped, gyrating girlies, is derived from American burlesque, itself derived from the extravagant Victorian variety (risqué and pastiche versions of popular plays) but with the balance tilted towards female nudity. With the enforcement of Prohibition in the first half of the last century, and a social crackdown on a form of expression seen by some as verging on sleaze, theatres began to close and the art form began to fade.
Then in the 90s, after a nostalgic period in which cinema attempted to shake off this hangover and recreate the boudoir-ish glamour with films like Cabaret and All That Jazz, a new form of burlesque began to emerge. These performances, framed by some as neo-burlesque, possessed much of the original—bawdy humour and caricature wrapped up in a sensuous striptease—but were incentivised by a modern twist: the slender/shapely curves of female empowerment.
This ensured that today’s performances, whilst remaining as freeing and fun as ever, have never been more culturally striking. In a period which has seen society become increasingly and openly obsessed by sex and the pernicious objectification of women, and then begin to become self-aware of the fact, the resurrection of burlesque can be seen as both an incisive social commentary and a timely, sexy acclamation of the female form—a satire of lechery, and a female-fronted requisition of assets.
Watching the auditions for the London Burlesque Festival, it becomes clear that modern performers are striking a new balance. Between sensuality and humour. And between performance and authenticity. Gone are the hang-ups. Hung up are the hangovers. As the women we interviewed reveal, there are few more thrilling modes than neo-burlesque through which to critique gender convention, express body positivity and revel in one’s own, glorious individuality.
To see these unencumbered ladies in action live, visit londonburlesquefest.com for venues and dates.
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Film: Eleonora Cristin
Interviews: Maria Pia Grizzuti
Assistant: Serena Taccola
Words: Kamran Tanner