A couple of years ago a burlesque artist moved in next door. There goes the neighbourhood!
Being of a certain age, your correspondent may justifiably claim unreliability of memory, but there is a recollection of once attending, in Sydney’s King’s Cross, a joint called The Paradise Club, a stereotypical strip joint featuring knee-boots and nipple bonnets, high drink prices and tired jokes. Probably one of Abe Saffron’s locales. The entertainment was clearly directed at men. The same appeared to be the case in a couple of clubs in both Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district and West Berlin in the seventies when, accompanied now by Mrs Oz, a different sample of nightlife was entertained.
All the constraints of a conservative, family oriented middle age then intervened, so it was not until post-regular employment in the “noughties” that attendance at burlesque and cabaret shows was again occasionally on the agenda. The one name that stood out then and now as a remarkable producer and exponent of the art was Moira Finucane, a particularly savvy producer, whose work appealed for its social commentary and biting wit, along with good old-fashioned entertainment. It was respect for Moira Finucane, who many might say works in a rather arcane segment of the arts, which led your correspondent to seek to know more of the work of the recently arrived neighbour.
Well versed readers will understand when reference is made to that old G and S Policemen’s Song: “When the enterprising burglar’s not a burgling…” . It is true too of burlesque artist neighbours who, saddled with the pressures of wifedom, motherhood, home ownership, car and all the other elements of suburban life, give little away about professional life. But an early reference to writing for an “obscure New York publication” sparked the interest of this fellow wordsmith. A stage name, revealed later, led to opening up a fascinating world. That obscure publication turned out to be Burlesque Beat, a source of vast information on the burlesque scene around the world. The writing style might not get you a piece in The New Yorker but it’s fresh and honest. 21stcentury millennial style perhaps? And while the amazing life’s journey of our neighbour is one element of this world and can, in part, be accessed in that publication, it is the size and development of the art of burlesque which also attracted the interest of your correspondent. This is how Burlesque Beat’s Contributing Editor put it in a 2016 article:
“Burlesque went mainstream—it happened, folks. It’s everywhere now, with hundreds of festivals, schools popping up like mushrooms, scenes thriving in small towns everywhere. It’s exciting. But it didn’t go “mainstream” like some of us hoped it would—it became more common, and maybe lost some of its outlaw appeal.”
That is not only true of the USA. In Australia there are competitions in all states except the Northern Territory, as well as a national title. There are schools all over. And even a museum. The shows may generally be found as part of fringe festivals or at smaller venues such as Sydney’s Red Rattler, The Old Fitz or The Factory Theatre. But they also form part of major festivals. Sydney Festival 2019 included a wonderful cross-cultural show “Shanghai Mimi” at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta produced by none other than Moira Finucane. What about Sydney Opera House? The Sydney Symphony Orchestra put on “A Night at the Speakeasy” as part of their 2018 mainstage opera house programming. Burlesque with classical musicians? That’s mainstream. The sector knows it’s made it, even if Shanghai Mimi and A Night at the Speakeasy were rather light on Burlesque Beat’s “outlaw appeal”.
The better shows in recent years have developed significant social and political edge which probably has been a boon, not only for the audiences but also for producers looking to add some grunt to the plethora of hula hoops and aerialists. Along with social commentary the sector appears to be wrestling with many issues concerning other sectors of the arts: diversity, inclusion, cultural appropriation and so on. Check out this passionate blog post from 21stCentury Burlesque. Depending on your point of view this concern may be natural or perhaps surprising given the genesis of the artform in nineteenth century Britain where it was designed to poke fun, satirise and send up mainstream performance arts and the society around which they revolved, through comedy, song and dance presented by both women and men. Crossing the Atlantic in mid-century, burlesque often presented female producers and performers increasingly questioning the way in which women appeared, challenging their accepted status and Victorian constraints. Politically correct it was not.
No doubt driven in part by the radical changes happening at the time in the entertainment industry, burlesque suffered a downturn in the mid twentieth century, sliding into a sleazy, strip based culture directed at primarily male audiences. Happily, the 21stCentury resurgence of the form as noted by Burlesque Beat has reversed this trend. Neo-burlesque perhaps. It has taken a while for realization to strike your correspondent. Why did shows have such enthusiastic female audiences? The female whoops and shouts far out clamoured the male. Then, one night at the Red Rattler, at a benefit show for a dance school, it dawned. The genre now represents what it did back in the nineteenth century in terms of female empowerment. In a similar way to the growth of pole dancing clubs, shows and competitions, burlesque has become the place for women to express a powerful presence and their individual millennial selves.
This is all very well but has a minor downside for your correspondent: he now gets emails from Sheena Miss-Demeanour. Better not tell Mrs Oz. And by the way, the neighbourhood is doing just fine, thanks.