June 23rd, 2003
Women taking their clothes off is, in my opinion, a fine thing, which provided hours of happy entertainment during my days in London. Now, of course, I’m a very content married man, and Chris is the only woman I really want to see divest herself – but the concept still holds nostalgic interest. Enter Burlesquefest, a travelling show which promised to put the “tease” back into striptease, with performers such as Catherine D’Lish (her real name, allegedly!) and Kitty Crimson.
There certainly seems to be a demand; the Marquee was crammed to capacity, with all seats occupied, and lines of standees down both walls. Some members of the audience were also extremely enthusiastic, to the point where we wondered if they’d perhaps just been released after fifteen years in San Quentin. Acting as MC was Kitten on the Keys, a singing, dancing compere who describes herself as a, “firkeytoodlin’ frisky feline,” not averse to taking her own clothes off. The support acts were Oracle Dance, a trio out of Denver, Colorado, plus Crimson (pic, above) and D’lish.
Musical accompaniment was provided by Devotchka, a group who musical influences range from the Gypsy Kings to Quentin Tarantino, via the Russian steppes, with instruments including violin, tuba, and that thing shaped a bit like a mandolin whose name escapes me at the moment. They were initially amusing: hey, this one sounds like Hava Nagila! Unfortunately, we eventually realised all their songs sounded like Hava Nagila [save the odd-yet-cool version of Venus in Furs by the Velvet Underground], and their entertainment value went into a sharp decline. There was just so much Devotchka, at times we wondered if we had accidentally gone to one of their concerts which happened to have dancing girls, rather than a striptease show.
As for the striptease, no question that this was Performance Art, particularly when D’Lish was on stage – her props included a gigantic spider’s web, as well as an oversized champagne glass filled with soapy water (hopefully warm!), and her costumes were no less extravagant. The latter applied to all the performers; think Chris came away with an entire shopping list of wants. Crimson’s inspiration is clearly early Marilyn Monroe, and I found her acts convincing but largely derivative, without much hint of any of her own personality. Perhaps this was just in contrast to Kitten on the Keys, who refused to take anything the slightest bit seriously, least of all herself, and was the most engaging character in the show as a result.
Comedy has always been an essential ingredient of burlesque: W.C.Fields, Lennie Bruce and Bob Hope all worked in clubs. If the rest of the cast seemed to be a little po-faced at times, perhaps revelling in the post-modern irony of it all, Kitten made up for it with sheer good humour. The highlight, personally, was her tinkly lounge version of the Sex Pistol’s Anarchy in the UK, which became a sweet little ditty. [Insert obvious joke here]
I happily admit it all made for two and half entertaining hours. However, I was surprised by how unerotic I found the vast majority of the spectacle; a slight twinge when D’Lish was pouring champagne down over her body, and that was it. There are several reasons for this, even discounting my happily-married status. Firstly, but probably less importantly, it was really pretty tame – if this were a movie, it’d probably be PG-13, since the panties and pasties remained on.
Now, there’s no reason why gynaecology should have to come into play. But in the modern world, where an average hour of late-night cable contains much more nudity and sexuality than this whole show, and most of the Burlesquefest acts could trade costumes with Christina Aguislutta, a certain amount of desensitization is inevitable. What the performers seem to have forgotten is that burlesque operated on the edge of what was acceptable in society, and that society has changed, and continues to do so – perhaps in 50 years they’ll be having nostalgic lap-dancing tours.
Retro is cool, but there’s a good reason we don’t drive Model T’s any more, and Burlesquefest came off as possessing about as much “edge” as a low-rent Las Vegas casino show. The closest it came to subverting community norms were a few nods towards paedophilia (“I was 8 before I was 7”) – and while some may find Shirley Temple impersonations sexy, it’s a niche market. [Chris also pointed out that the performers were 100% white. Read into that what you want.]
Secondly, there seems to be an inverse-cube law at work here. No matter how elegantly you dress it up, sexuality works best when it’s up-close, personal, in your face, and moist – not thirty rows back in an auditorium seating nine hundred people. In that kind of location, no matter how enthuiastic you are, even the wildest of abandon is gonna end up spread pretty thin. By removing the intimate element, presumably as part of taking out the “sleaze”, they’ve also sanitised it, to the point where most of the acts were closer to modern dance than anything else.
Whether we attend future Burlesquefests is uncertain. It will likely be influenced by the potential Devotchka quotient, as much as anything else (a little goes quite some way!). If it was the same people performing the same acts, I’d probably be less inclined to go, since variety is the spice of, er, variety. A different selection of artistes would probably see us there though – on the other hand, I’d definitely miss that version of Anarchy in the UK…