Founded in the spring of 2016, Indigenous burlesque troupe Virago Nation is on a mission to rematriate Indigenous sexuality—something performer Sparkle Plenty defines as “taking it back and exploring it in a way that hasn’t been subjected to the patriarchal gaze.”
Plenty is a new mom and says that mission has become all the more real since the birth of her daughter. Ideals of purity are projected onto young girls as soon as they’re told they can’t wear sleeveless tops, she says, and it communicates that women cannot have ownership of their own bodies. It’s just one idea the troupe is trying to dispel through its performance art.
This Thursday, Virago Nation will perform at the Ironworks as part of the 19th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. Plenty, an artist with Virago Nation who is Cree with mixed heritage, has been a part of Vancouver’s burlesque scene since 2008. She stresses there are many toxic effects of colonization, and they don’t just affect Indigenous people.
“When people think about colonization, they only think about how it impacts Indigenous people, and it absolutely does,” Plenty tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “We see it here on the Downtown Eastside, we see it everywhere, but we don’t really think about how it also impacts everyone else in our society—who we live with and who we share this land with.”
One effect of colonization that impacts women in particular is modesty, and the idea that women need to be modest to avoid harm, says Plenty. “It’s always on women to look a certain way so that nothing bad happens to them. That is a huge part of colonization—this idea of being pure and not being sexual.”
For the members of the group, the stage is a place to explore what it means to feel sexy, through a mix of burlesque, theatre, song, and spoken word, using humour, influences from pop culture and politics, and (of course) seduction.
“We’re talking about owning our sexuality, but it’s so much more than that. Your body is yours, and you can do what you would like with it, so long as it’s in a way that makes you and others around you feel safe,” says Plenty, who emphasized that bodies don’t need to look a certain way for performers to be on stage.
“Bodies can be presented in so many different ways; we’re so used to seeing this one set of idealistic body types representing what sexy looks like,” Plenty says. “We want to add to that. It can look like a brand-new mom with her mom-belly and stretch marks. It can look like someone with a disability. It can be someone with dark skin. If you have a body, it’s yours to present.”
While using performances to unpack issues like colonization and sexual identity, humour is an important part of Virago Nation’s stage presence.
“We’re freaking hilarious,” Plenty says. “Indigenous people experience racism and trauma, and a lot of the narratives we see in the media is this victimization of our identities. But we want to showcase that we’re more than that. We have joy, we like to share laughter, we like to experience fun.”
Every performer in the group brings a unique set of skills, she adds, and each one will have something different for the audience.
“One performer, Rainbow Glitz--she’s a proud slut,” Plenty says. “She’s the resident rainbow slut, and it’s going to get really dirty—and that’s also a fun component of our identities. You can be dirty, you can get a little nasty, but that doesn’t negate that you deserve respect.”
For the members of Virago Nation, the group provides a safe environment to explore their Indigenous identities within the art form of burlesque, with like-minded women and women-identifying folks who share many of the same stories.
“Being able to get together and ask the question, ‘I love burlesque and I love my identity, how can I marry the two and share that with others, so they can see that these ideas can be represented in a way that is not a stereotype?’ We didn’t have that before, and we didn’t see ourselves in this art form for a long time,” Plenty says. “Being able to have this group provides first and foremost a sense of community.”
Virago Nation has not just created a space for Indigenous women in the local burlesque scene; it has inspired other Indigenous burlesque troupes across (so-called) Canada: “That’s an incredible thing. We’re no longer the only ones, and that’s the whole point.”
Plenty, a resident of the Downtown Eastside, says she’s thrilled to be a part of the Heart of the City Festival. “This neighbourhood has so many beautiful things that people don’t tend to focus on, and it’s been really frustrating to see it represented in the media as a dangerous and dire place. It’s so much more than that. There’s so much humanity here, and that doesn’t get a lot of airtime.”
Catch Virago Nation at the Ironworks (235 Alexander Street) as part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival on Thursday, October 27. Tickets are available at the Festival website or via Eventbrite.