It’s not all about the boobs

It’s not all about the boobs

Not to put too crude a point on it, burlesque has a long history, and while there is certainly an erotic component to it, the art form’s resurgence over the past 30 years isn’t simply the result of the baring of flesh. In fact, burlesque, like many forms of arts, can be not only a reflection but a commentary on the society in which it is created.

Indeed, dating back to Shakespeare’s day, and even before that, burlesque referred to a satire, a social commentary made effective by the appropriation and transformation of commonly known elements of popular culture. Many theatrical performances referred to as burlesques, like John Gay’s 1728 unprecedented audience favorite, “The Beggar’s Opera” (upon which Bertolt Brecht based his Threepenny Opera two centuries later), took well-known folk songs and replaced the lyrics with language that subversively ridiculed the ruling class of England at the time.

Burlesque as we know it today is more precisely called “neo-burlesque,” and it has its formal origins in the resurgence of sexualized female performances that flowered mainly in the United States in the late 1800s. While it is true that the form took on a decidedly more erotic tone than its satirical forebears, and it became increasingly interspersed among other popular vaudevillian performance forms, it retains to this day an element of social critique that shouldn’t be ignored.

One important element of social critique contained in today’s neo-burlesque has to do with the reclamation of power on behalf of the female body. When a strip-tease artist takes off one item of clothing at a time, she is in a position of control that takes the power of the male gaze and turns it on its head. This playful act serves not only to put the performer in a position of power and control over the audience, but it also allows her to inhabit a role of self-determination and self-empowerment that can still be hard to come by, even in 2018.

The strip tease isn’t just about taking off clothes, though. At a recent performance by Hazel Honeysuckle at one of NACL Theatre’s annual Slipper Room burlesque events (plug: the next one is this Saturday; see page 18), the performer donned a Cookie Monster costume of her own creation. As she danced around with the character’s googly eyes atop her head, she removed one item of clothing after another, revealing under each a hidden cookie, which she shoved into her mouth and chomped down upon as she continued to disrobe. With great playfulness and ingenuity, Ms. Honeysuckle managed to complicate the audience’s relationship to female bodies, food consumption, and sexuality. With each cookie she consumed, she became a little bit more comical, and although she kept getting more naked, the combination of flying crumbs, unseemly gorging, and the rolling eyes of the children’s TV Muppet made it difficult not to laugh. She controlled the way her increasingly naked body was seen, and she simultaneously made us think about our own habitual judgments of female bodies.

Every act is different in an evening of burlesque. Some are strip teases like the one I just described. Others are magic acts, comedic romps, aerial silk displays, or even hula hoop twirling by a new breed of all-male “boy-lesque” artists. For all their differences, one element unites them: each plays with our unconscious assumptions and desires, and each uses that moving target to aim its own, unique brand of social critique. The best burlesque never ceases to be arousing and entertaining, but it also makes us think.

[Brad Krumholz is co-founder and artistic director of the North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL).]

 

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