DEA BIRKETT: Back from the edge
Dea Birkett looks at how the once disgraceful theatre form burlesque became respectable – and now needs rescuing again
Has burlesque died twice? The art form that rose in the Depression of 1930s America and Europe was conquered two decades later by post-war prosperity. But then – half a century on – burlesque bounced back. New burlesque was a counter to the 1990s grunge and grime, promising sparkle, glamour and open, extravagant sexuality. Women threw off their black baggy pants and donned corsets instead, not as a symbol of sexual oppression, but liberation. Neo-Burlesque was born.
I have a late night confession. I was a burlesque fan. I used to be proud to say so – when it was edgy. But now burlesque is far from challenging. You can do burlesque classes in my local gym, alongside yoga and kickboxing. And the venues that host burlesque shows are no longer condemned basements but well-funded national venues. In becoming mainstream, burlesque has lost its purpose. It’s no longer subversive; the audiences are the same as any show at West End theatre.
Between the Sheets, starring Polly Rae, currently at the speigeltent on London’s Southbank, demonstrates burlesque’s move from illicit edge to centre stage. Miss Rae is of the old school of burlesque – pasties (the little round sequined discs that cover the nipples), feathers, corset, fishnet tights and impossibly high heels. Her show, like all Neo-Burlesque, is nostalgic, naughty but ever so nice. There’s writhing but very little rudeness. There’s a great deal of the suggestive but no nudity, on the assumption that it’s always sexier to tease than to reveal.
Between the Sheets felt very safe. I began to doubt my love for all things burlesque. Why did I, a proud feminist, spend the 1990s and 2000s seeking out those basements burlesque shows? Because although Polly Rae has an hourglass figure, burlesque largely escapes the body tyranny of regular casting. You can be quite plump: Dirty Martini is one of the most exciting and successful burlesque artists and undeniably fat. You can be a very, very skinny artiste, and the size of your breasts is not an issue as long
as you can glue a pastie on top. Amongst the extraordinary shows I saw in the first decade of this century include a six foot woman smearing a whole tray of Krispy Kremes over her body before licking them off, and another who added hair to every part of her body, so long that it hid her nakedness underneath. If these shows hadn’t happened at one in the morning in underground bars, they’d be called performance art. But they were Neo-Burlesque in its early reinvention, beautifully challenging feminine ideals by women using their own bodies.
Burlesque isn’t the only artform to live twice. We increasingly look back to move forward. Perhaps we need a set of artforms dubbed Revival Arts. That is, those that have thrived, died, and then been revived again. Ballroom dancing and baking could both be put in this basket. But the trouble with Revival Arts is that they are quite short lived. Often, like Neo- Burlesque, the result of a particular time and place, and once that moves on, so do they. They run out of ideas and invention. Then they fall back on their time before being reinvented, which just feels outdated and old.
Between the Sheets is a slick show. But for all its high production values, it finally buried my passion for pasties. I now have a new idea for Revival Art form – Neo-Vaudeville. So get out the bowler hats and banjos.