Near the entrance to Melody Mangler’s work space in East Vancouver is a large ’50s-style pinup photo of her—posing sideways, hair dyed red, wearing nothing but a beautiful yellow-patterned python wrapped around her shoulders, its tail beside the large dragon-snake tattoo that coils around her thigh. Proudly displayed in a bookcase sits the award she won for best debut at the 2009 Miss Exotic World Pageant in Las Vegas.
For that performance, Mangler transformed from corseted shepherdess to classical nude. “I started as Little Bo Peep and turned into Venus in the painting The Birth of Venus,” she says, referring to Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s famous work. She’s seated in her office near an immense pair of hooped scarlet bloomers in which she conceals two men in one of her sketches. “I threw petals, which were held in the air by a concealed high-powered fan, and when I ripped open my corset, butterflies flew out.”
Welcome to the colourful, comic, and sexy world of burlesque—a cheeky and subversive genre that slides effortlessly between lowlife entertainment and high-quality performance art.
The 1930s are considered burlesque’s classic period, when iconic performers such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio cooked up a saucy stew of art and satire, bawdy comedy and striptease, fetishistic costumes and elaborate sets. And that era provides the temporal theme for the Burlesque Extravaganza that Mangler and six of her sisters—April O’Peel, Madame Mae I, Burgundy Brixx, Nicky Ninedoors, Lydia Decarllo, and Lola Frost—will present at the Cultch on New Year’s Eve.
The word burlesque derives from the Spanish burla, meaning a joke, and from around 1700 became used throughout Europe to describe musical works that mixed serious and comic elements. In England this developed into popular parodies of opera or drama. The risqué appeal came from double-meaning wordplays, and the casting of women in the men’s roles or “breeches parts”. In 1868, Lydia Thompson’s troupe, the British Blondes, brought burlesque to North America, where it found a home in music halls and vaudeville.
“It was very sexual,” says Mangler. “Although the women would still have corsets on, they would reveal their legs through their tights. They dressed like men, so this was quite scandalous.”
After the ’30s, movies and television sent burlesque into decline, but the style was revived in the early ’90s by a post-feminist generation of performers. Originally from Alberta, Mangler helped cofound the Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society in Vancouver in the early noughties, a troupe dedicated to promoting the genre, training and developing performers, and presenting high-quality amateur productions. In 2006, she helped create the acclaimed Vancouver International Burlesque Festival.
Mangler’s office walls are neatly covered with posters for the hundreds of revues and shows she’s worked on as producer, writer, artistic director, choreographer, and costume-maker. “I love the freedom and the do-it-yourself nature of burlesque,” she says. “Actors make people cry and think about their lives. Burlesque makes them think in a more fun way.”
The new burlesque is sexy but it’s also about shaking your body with laughter. One of Mangler’s own favourite pieces is a parody of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” recast as “Hymens Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” a song clearly pitched at women rather than men—as is most burlesque. A study by Screaming Chicken found its audiences were on average 65-percent female. “So much of this is about fashion,” says Mangler, with a laugh. “When we go out into the lobby after shows, we get swarmed by other girls who want to know where or how they can get this or that made.”
On New Year’s Eve, the seven women—who perform mainly solo, but also in duos and all together—have costumes and merchandise for sale. All the senses will be aroused at the Cultch, with hors d’oeuvres; a photo booth with corsets, boas, and fedoras on hand; and SandyBone & the Breakdown playing uptempo vaudevillian jug-band blues from the ’30s for the traditional after-show dance.
The new burlesque, like the old, is all about humour and excess, providing a kind of therapy for audience members and performers alike. And it gives the artists a deep sense of empowerment and creative freedom. “Burlesque makes me feel completely liberated as a human being,” says Mangler, whose blond hair is stacked high like a punky 18th-century belle. “When I’m performing, every pressure melts away. What I’m showing onstage is much more than another kind of show, because I’ve created all of it. When you see someone’s burlesque performance, you see every part of them—the inner thoughts as well as the outer body.”
New Year’s Eve Burlesque Extravaganza is at the Cultch on Friday (December 31).