Vancouver International Burlesque Festival busts loose
Unless you’ve been living with your head in the proverbial sand for the past several years, you’re well aware by now of Vancouver’s torrid love affair with burlesque—that winking, twinkling paramour that swept the city off its feet sometime in the latter half of the ’90s. Evidence of this passionate romance can be seen pretty much everywhere, from the fliers plastered all over Granville Street, advertising various classes and weekly theme nights, to the myriad shows themselves, found everywhere from East Van to Yaletown.
By far, though, the best evidence of Lotusland’s intimate relationship with burlesque is its annual celebration of the prismatic subculture with the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival, now in its seventh year. But why does burlesque hold such an esteemed place in Vancouver’s rain-drenched heart?
Self-proclaimed “burlesque stripsation” April O’Peel, one of the 2012 festival’s performers and members at large, has been a prominent mover and shaker in the local scene for the past five years. “Vancouver is one of the burlesque capitals of the world, for whatever reason. It’s kind of a den of glitter,” she says in a phone interview. “My theory is there are a lot of creative people that come here to study art or different performing disciplines, and there are a lot of different avenues in burlesque to use those skills. It appeals to different people for different reasons.”
The boundless diversity of neo-burlesque has led to performers of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds exploring inventive new subgenres, including “boylesque”—burlesque performed by men—and “gorelesque”, which takes classic burlesque to new, horror-show extremes. Revamping the old-fashioned striptease with a goth and psychobilly aesthetic, plus plenty of (fake) blood and guts, local gorelesque acts like Bloody Betty and the Seven Deadly Sins vow to “mutilate, devour, massacre, disembowel”, and more. So if that sounds like your thing, be sure to catch Spooksy Delune, Vancouver’s “Queen of Halloween”, at the festival on Friday (May 4).
This year’s fest is all about highlighting both the new blood and the old guard of burlesque, with the list of headliners including the classic, veteran ’70s sensations Judith Stein and Tiffany Carter along with Seattle-based neo-burlesquer Indigo Blue, the current reigning “Queen of Burlesque”, and boylesque superstar Jett Adore, known as the “No-Pantser Romancer”.
One thing that all of the headliners have in common with each other and with Vancouver’s scene is their objective to not take life too seriously. In fact, many modern-day performances are bringing burlesque’s traditional elements of comedy and parody back to centre stage. Says O’Peel, who choreographs and regularly performs with Vancouver’s Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society and the Razzle Tassel Tease Show: “The first burlesque plays were satires of loftier material. So Ben-Hur would become Bend Her. And even when it became more of a dirty vaudeville show, the comedians were always right there with the strippers. It’s sort of a heritage.
“A burlesque persona is a superhero version of yourself,” says O’Peel, who once performed with an egglike balloon in a chicken dress made entirely out of yellow rubber gloves. “And my favourite thing to do is laugh, so I like to inspire that in other people. You can convey a lot with a little bit of humour.”
Another of the festival’s members at large, Blue Morris, a local musician and guitar teacher turned burlesque producer and performer, wholeheartedly agrees. “One of the things that Vancouver does a lot of, which I don’t see as much of in other cities, is add humour to burlesque,” he says in a phone interview. “And I think that burlesque should be more than just feathers and rhinestones. It should have elements of comedy, counterculture, and commentary on our society, and Vancouver’s quite good at that. There are so many talented performers here, and it’s surprising, because Vancouver’s not a very big city.”
Morris has contributed significantly to the local scene in the past few years, being instrumental (pun intended) in helping to bring live music back to burlesque’s bejewelled bosom with acts like Pink Flamingo Burlesque and shows set to the Beatles’ canon and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, all performed with an on-stage band. This year’s festival will be the first to host an evening featuring 100-percent live music. Opening night (May 3) will feature Bender in Bermuda, the Night Owl Review, and Morris’s own Beatles Burlesque. That last one, which has its performers dancing, stripping, and singing, will incorporate some new comedy routines by neo-burlesquer Connie Cahoots: she manages to impersonate Ed Sullivan, the Queen of England, and Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
On pairing burlesque with live music, Morris enthuses: “It’s more authentic, because that’s how it was done in the past. And it’s also more exciting, because the musicians can alter the way we play a song or the energy of it to match exactly what the dancer is doing. So, for example, if her pants get torn off at a particular moment, we might hit that beat really hard, and you really can’t get that interaction with recorded music.”
Taking the connection between burlesque and live music one step further, Morris will be performing his popular boylesque routine, in which he strips while simultaneously riffing on the guitar. Just when you thought that old six-string couldn’t get any more phallic…
With an allure that’s lasted for so many decades, burlesque doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. An artistic new generation has reimagined and reinvented it, while staying true to many of the art form’s original elements. And the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival plans to celebrate both the old and the new, the classic and the cutting-edge. Promises O’Peel of this year’s crop of performers, “Something in them will probably spark some sort of inspiration within yourself.”
The Vancouver International Burlesque Festival runs from Thursday to Sunday (May 3 to 6) at the Rio and Vogue theatres.