I have something of a love/hate relationship with burlesque. I’ve been a fan of both striptease and performance art for as long as I can remember, so the burlesque revival that began at the end of the 1990s was something I welcomed – a return to erotic performance as a reaction to pole dancing clubs (which I have nothing against, but which rarely allow for anything relating to artistry or tease) and an extension of the performances that I’d enjoyed at events like Torture Garden, The Sex Maniac’s Ball and SmutFest. Hell, I even ran a striptease website and promoted my own burlesque events for a while.
But it quickly became apparent that, in Britain at least, burlesque was quickly becoming dominated by no-talent bandwagon jumpers who had no idea of the historical roots of the art form and no real ability, either imitating past routines or coming up with incredibly lame acts of their own. Don’t get me wrong – there are some great British burlesque performers out there, and plenty that perhaps could be great if they weren’t so caught up in the cycle of mediocrity that is increasingly the norm, but for each of them, there are at least a dozen people who have no place on the stage. Burlesque started to become something for talentless egomaniacs to parade themselves before an audience without actually having to take their clothes off, safe in the knowledge that they would be beyond criticism. The admirable idea that this was a way to show that everyone can be sexy, regardless of body shape, was soon perverted into a belief that no one could be criticised because you are then somehow being judgemental about them. We can bad mouth the lousy band that might be someone’s passion, dismiss the movie that someone has pored their heart, soul and life savings into, but God forbid we say anything critical about the clumsy, derivative, sour-faced performer going through the motions in order to feed off the whoops and whistles of an easily-pleased audience. Excuse me for being uppity, but I don’t think anyone is beyond criticism, especially if they are ruining an artform you care about.
Still, I could just about put up with the lack of talent so prevalent in the scene if it wasn’t for the holier-than-thou moral superiority. When running my old website Striporama, it was pretty common to hear from performers who were adamant that they had no connection with the sex industry, that burlesque was not only morally superior to lap dancing but that it actually had nothing to do with stripping full stop, that pesky ‘taking clothes off’ bit aside (and lots of these performers only seemed to do the bare minimum of that). Of course, various local council restrictions and new licensing laws mean that there are few venues, especially outside London, where you can actually show very much anyway, but that’s not what restricts most British performers. Predictably but depressingly, some burlesque performers have actually supported local councils closing down lap dancing clubs (though it’s come back to bite more that one of them in the ass as they find that said councils often don’t make any distinction between lap dancing and burlesque, seeing both as sex entertainment, whether nipples are covered at all).
It’s a very British thing, and part of the whole anti-sex backlash being pushed by the right wing government on the one hand and the resurrected Rad Fem anti-sex movement on the other. The rest of the world seems to have a much better understanding of what burlesque was, is and could be, and fewer hang-ups about it being an expression of sexuality and, goddammit, transgression. All this becomes clear early in Exposed, the latest film from the always-interesting Beth B, as the film opens with Bunny Love, stripping completely naked – no pasties and, shock horror, no pubes – as she performs an aggressive, challenging and vary hardcore (in the punk, not porn, sense, though the act is sexually explicit) act that would presumably horrify British burlesque ninnies who seem reluctant to even take their bras off.
These delicate flowers will continue to have kittens throughout the film, as it includes extensive penis swinging, naked women with their legs apart, bottles inserted into asses, strings of cash being pulled from assholes, eggs popped out of pussies, hard-ons and on-stage blow jobs (so yes, this is one of those movies that the BBFC will doubtless be cautioning ‘contains strong real sex’). It’s as far removed from a world of dopes dancing in their underwear as you could imagine. This isn’t playing at being a performer. This is the real thing.
This documentary is, essentially, an overview of the US performance scene, shot mostly in New York and Amsterdam. It’s a taster of the acts and the people behind them rather than an in-depth character study – while we get some insight into the backgrounds and lives of some of the performers, it’s not a movie concerned with probing what led people to become such extreme performers, and we should be thankful for that. Who needs another movie that seeks out damaged individuals and tries to explain their sexuality through an abusive past? Save that for Channel 4. Rather, this is a mix of fly-on-the-wall documentation of the lives of the performers (rarely going outside the burlesque bubble) and a study of their acts and the ideas behind them.
Again, this might be a revelation to performers who have no further thoughts than ‘take off as few clothes as possible, get the gratification of applause’, but the acts featured here are using their art form to explore the personal, the political and issues of gender, sexuality and identity. It’s notable that the only British performer here is Mat Frazer, who has done everything from playing in rock bands to hosting BBC disability shows (he won’t be getting that gig again after this is seen!). Notable for having thalidomide-created ‘flipper’ arms (his description before anyone gets upset), Frazer is reclaiming the freak show (which , as he points out, was always next to the stripper tent in old school carnival sideshows) and using humour to confront public fears of the different, especially in a sexual context. Given that we still live in a world where plenty of people seem to see ‘disabled’ people as devoid of sexual desire and only capable of being exploited, it’s a necessary point to make. In his work, both solo and with partner Julie Atlas Cruz, his work is both comedic and explicit (it’s Frazer who we see getting a blow job at one point).
But Frazer’s work also shows how far this is from what we in Britain see as burlesque. It’s hard to see a space for him to do this within his own country, to be honest. This is, perhaps, closer to performance art (another difficult term to define, of course), albeit with a sense of humour. And humour is key here – no matter what the serious points behind the performances might be, they are made by both amusing and confronting the audience. So sexual acts will be somewhat de-eroticised with comedy or grotesquery, keeping the audience on edge. Wanton displays of nudity and sexuality are uncomfortable enough for some people – subvert it with comedy or something darker (Rose Wood’s Serial Killer routine is genuinely shocking, a feast of blood, bathtub slaughter, stapled genitals and sliced off vaginas from a performer who by this point is already challenging audiences as a drag queen with actual breast implants).
Rose Wood seems at time to come the closest to the ‘troubled’ artist, though this is probably because he seems the most introverted off stage and the one most openly confrontational on stage – his stripping rabbi act is something to behold. He’s the counterpoint to World Famous *Bob*, who also performed drag acts, but was actually a woman anyway. Her attempts to look like a man who is dressed like a woman are fascinating and bring up all sorts of questions about gender.
Also appearing are Dirty Martini, who is perhaps the closest to what British viewers would recognise as the burlesque they are used to, and who discusses issue of body image and the freedom that performing this sort of show allows, as opposed to the strict physical requirements of ‘straight’ dance theatre. But again, I doubt many British performers would dare go as far as her confrontational Patriot Act.
There’s also Bambi the Mermaid – the aforementioned egg-layer, and someone who I actually knew in a past life – offering a cartoonish, body-painted take on burlesque and exploring what is referred to as “the illusion of sexuality”, and ‘boylesque performer Tigger, who’s provocative drag act is aimed at challenging notions of heterosexuality in male audience members, who go from being aghast at having to watch a man strip to buying him drinks afterwards, apparently.
Beth B presents all this without judgement – in fact, the film actually feels rather celebratory, a most unusual experience for British viewers who would normally expect a documentary like this to come with a moralising voice over. Watching it cheered me immensely, but also left me depressed that we have little to match the performances shown here in this country any more. Hopefully, some people in the UK will watch this and take inspiration from it. There’s still hope that the next generation of burlesque acts can start to push at the boundaries and try something new.