Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
San Francisco based Performer Belle Phenomene discards the question, “What is Burlesque?” and asks a better question, “What is MY Burlesque?”
“What is Burlesque?” This is a question that I am often asked (and often ask myself) and one it seems is nearly impossible to answer. Everyone you ask will have a different answer.
Through some research into the history of burlesque (see my website for more on that), I discovered burlesque is not easily classified, it has constantly evolved. Although neo-burlesque performers are often inspired by the nostalgia for the glamor of the 20s to 50s and enjoy honoring previous burlesque performers in their acts, neo-burlesque is taking its own evolutionary path as newcomers to the scene bring their own perspective and approach. As it should be. No art form should remain static. This certainly makes it as difficult to answer the question “What is burlesque?” as it is to answer the question “What is art?”.
So I decided a more interesting question, to me at least, is “What is MY burlesque?”
I see burlesque as a form of performance art where the performers have to express everything they intend to in the duration of just one song (sometimes two). This takes some skill! I have always found it much harder to write a short essay than a long one. The burlesque performers I enjoy to watch use those 3 or 4 minutess to take you on a journey, tell you a story, make you think, shock you, raise questions and sometimes answer them. When I watch an act I want to know who is the character I am seeing on stage, why are they there?, what do their clothes, movements, make up, hair etc. tell me about then? I love watching performers that clearly have something to say. I am interested in people and their stories and that’s what I enjoy seeing on stage.
My early acts were all comedic in nature, that seemed to be my natural inclination. I guess I owe my first love of comedic and character burlesque to my two mentors, Bombshell Betty and Poppy Von Tarte, from whom I learnt the burlesque ropes. Both of these women do amazing comedic acts and focus very much on the development of characters. I guess I fancy myself as a silent stand up comedian of sorts. I was not immediately drawn to acts where looking sexy was the major part. When thinking up act ideas I would often share them with male friends and they would say “Don’t do that, that’s not sexy” and I would say “Good! It’s not supposed to be”. I didn’t care if anyone found my acts sexy, that was not the motivator for me. I wanted to entertain (men and women, but especially women) and at the same time offer some kind of perspective and commentary on what its like to be a woman, through comedy and exaggeration.
After developing a few well received comedic acts I started to feel some pressure to develop a more classic act. Show producers looking to book me would often request these acts saying things like “We don’t want any of that silly stuff”. “Classic” did not have an immediate attraction for me. I prefer quirky and goofy. This was a tough assignment! Now of the classic acts, I love fan dances and I started to think about how I could do a fan dance, with a twist. I was messing about in front of the mirror one evening and I had a sudden flash, I wanted be a butterfly with the wings serving as my fans. I had this idea that the story of the act would be of a woman becoming more confident and beautiful the less clothes she has on. Essentially that she is revealing her inner beauty. I would start as a chrysalis, slowly emerging into a butterfly and finally the wings are removed and I’m just a naked, very sparkly, woman. For this act I wanted to get as naked as I possibly/legally could (no pasties, no G-string). Well after much thought about how to make this costume logistically work I discovered the wonderful world of Isis wings. With the wings ordered from Egypt I set to work thinking about how to give the illusion of being naked. It just so happened that one of the few episodes I have ever watched of Glee was the Brittany Spears episode. And there it was … the sparkly bodystocking! It was perfect. And so the costume for the act was born. The hardest part was finding the music. So, I had a “classic” burlesque act … except it wasn’t classic at all.
But this act wasn’t suitable for all shows; it requires a certain ceiling height and reasonably dramatic lighting to really work. And still I was coming under pressure to have a classic act or a “boudoir burlesque” act to offer producers. So I decided I wanted to include singing in my burlesque repertoire. The restrictions of singing with a mic makes choreography of an act rather difficult, especially for a beginner like me. As a result of the restrictions imposed by the mic my first singing act ended up being a classic striptease. Not something I had ever envisioned I would do. In a way it is not completely classic in that I come on stage already in my underwear, albeit very very feathery underwear. I only remove gloves, a feather from my hair, a boa and finally my bra. People love this act. The costume is beautiful, very showgirl, and people seem to enjoy hearing me sing. But despite its success I had to ask myself … where was the commentary on what its like to be a woman? Where is the character? What is the story? I felt like I had lost my way.
I started to question myself and think more carefully about “my burlesque”. By losing the story and the character development through my pursuit of a classic act, I was experiencing a different reaction from the audience. I was disheartened to realize that some audience members were not seeing an intelligent, creative, human being with feelings and needs that do not revolve just around sex. Even worse, I found that is how they treated me off stage. After some discussion with friends I realized that what I was experiencing was objectification. Now I’m sure it’s not surprising that as a burlesque dancer I am frequently objectified. It is extremely annoying but is it an inevitable consequence of my chosen art form? I hoped not. I started to think more about what I was presenting on stage. Through the creation of Belle I realized I had deliberately made her 2-dimensional. I had given her very few aspects of me. There were some aspects I was happy to present but others I was not so comfortable with. As a consequence she was not a fully formed character. How could I expect people to see a multi-faceted human being on stage if all I was presenting was a 2-dimensional sexual object? It was time to make Belle more human. Which meant I was going to have put more of me in her, albeit exaggerated aspects of my character. This consequently means exposing more of myself on stage. Although I am very comfortable with exposing my physical-self, exposing my emotional-self is a much scarier prospect.
So I am embarking on a new direction with my burlesque for 2013. A fairly terrifying new direction. I am developing a new act, which will not contain any striptease (there is some clothing removal but it is nothing like the usual striptease). It contains no comedy and none of the classic burlesque moves. There will be no shimmying, grinding, bumping, no pasties and no tassel twirling. The act tells a small part of the very tragic but inspiring story of a character in history that I am fascinated by. Its success will depend on whether I can take the audience with me on an emotional journey and for this reason I am working with an acting coach. There will be no question that if I am successful, what you will see on stage is a 3-dimensional human being, definitely not a sexual object. I have no idea how this is going to go down with audiences or even if there is an audience for it. The act will be sexy, but in a very unconventional and probably uncomfortable way. Will this even be considered burlesque? I don’t know?
All I can say is that this is MY burlesque. Does that count?
Check out Belle’s website to see where you can catch her unique and beautiful brand of Burlesque next.