FAQ YOU! What is Burlesque? Really?

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Based on the many years of answering popular questions the Ministry of Burlesque has compiled carefully considered answers to those tricky and frequently asked questions of modern burlesque, new performers and the ever curious press.

FAQ such as:

  • What is Burlesque? Really?

‘Burlesque’ has come to mean a number of things (it can be a noun, adjective and verb!) but overall, it is used to apply to something which is  performed in an exaggerated or ‘topsy-turvy’ style, often grotesquely so – with intended provocation.

Traditionally, it is a theatrical genre of musical comedy but it is often misunderstood today and wrongly used as a synonym for other (related) forms such as striptease (which is an art form in it’s own right). So let me share what I have learned…

Firstly, to burlesque something, is to make fun of it – to tease and lampoon it with theatrical flair. The literal definition is ‘to satirise’, ‘make mockery of’ or ‘to send up’. So, in it’s classical theatrical genre (going back hundreds, and arguably thousands of years), it is similar to the Travesty and pantomime as it is based on elaborate caricature and censure. Its  theatrical motifs include wordplay (e.g. punning, alternative lyrics, innuendo), sexually suggestive costuming (especially suggestive of female nudity),  overtones of historical, political and social satire with keen attention to the subversion of gender roles.

But although this ‘classical’ form is perhaps a little antiquated in comparison to what most people think of as ‘burlesque’ today it is indeed still alive and is regularly demonstrated, especially across the British scene and industry (MoB holds this as our particular specialty) and my own acts almost always payed homage this remit with a satirical or subversive gender comment as the base of each piece.

Secondly, it is crucial to appreciate that burlesque was (and still is) all about reinvention and challenge – the reinvention and challenge of societal norms and also the notions and protocols of theatre arts itself.

The form has continually undergone various re-interpretations to make it relevant for it’s audience and true to its legacy it continues to morph and respond  to issues of beauty, body and gender today – some with satire and others less so. From post-modern ideas about how men and women ‘ought’ to look and behave to ‘meta’ analytical drag-within-drag  and on to the less satirical more fashion inspired cabaret pieces often based on beautiful dramatic stripteases (known most for the novelty set pieces and expensive couture costume).

However it manifests burlesque will inspire as it is both beautiful in it’s ugliness and ugly in its presented beauty. It demonstrates that grotesque and glamour are two ends of the same spectrum – where any particular act lies, is in the interpretation of the beholder. This is why burlesque is an art form – it challenges the viewer to examine ‘ideals’ much closer and often with stark bare-bottommed honesty.

So, what we mean in the modern sense of the word, is a wider genre of ‘burlesque’ which  is overall, best described as ’suggestive performance art’. This wider genre encompasses many contrasting styles stemming from its classical satirical roots but also takes influence from 19th century showgirls such as those exiguous ladies of the Moulin Rouge et al. The more popular, modern styles today  involving striptease actually come from a recent 20th century American reworking – where the context of performance was no longer rooted in satirical theatre but adult entertainment. This new form of burlesque is performed with varying degrees of glamour, satire or ’shock’ value according to performer speciality.

The form has a rich history spanning the age of known history and culture. The classical genre has been popular in Britain for centuries and was popularised in the Late Regency and Victorian eras;  it spread to the USA nearly a hundred and fifty years ago in the 1860s but was entirely adapted in to a new form altogether.

This modern burlesque genre comprises of two main forms: the Traditional British Burlesque and the relatively modern American Burlesque Striptease (I have coined and use these terms to differentiate these sub-genres. This is for two reasons – 1) to maintain consistency of expectation in our clients 2) so that new performers realise there is an important satirical legacy to honour.

British Burlesque and American Burlesque are therefore two distinctly different forms, with very different histories but a shared moment in time.

British Burlesque is not American Burlesque or Striptease ‘as performed by Brits’. The British Burlesque act was more a Victorian sensation of women in breeches, dressed as archetypal or famous men making lewd and often controversial speeches and sending up the patriarchy through song and innuendo.

In the American form, the term ‘burlesque’ was used by early 20th century proprietors to describe the comic variety shows in which a striptease act would also perform. Eventually a blend of the comic and the striptease emerged with varying degrees of nudity and adult content. American Burlesque Striptease  is a hybrid form of two different styles – burlesque and striptease. Borrowing from the style of 19th century burlesquers (of the classical  and British tradition), the strippers adopted the gimmicks and comical parodying that characterize this sort of performance.

It should emphasised that the terms ‘burlesque’ and ‘striptease’ are not synonymous nor interchangeable and yet are often confused.  Striptease is an art-form in its own right although it is often used by modern burlesque performers who combine the two genres. Unfortunately there has been a tendency for some to use the word ‘burlesque’ as a handy media-friendly rebrand and buzzword – rather than understanding or upholding the genre itself leading to confusion and a watering down of the genre’s impact.

From performer to performer, you can expect to find a mix of satirical, bawdy, sensual, circus, political, risqué, classical, avant-garde and curiosity style acts. Each performer will employ a personalised interpretation of the term ‘burlesque’ which leads to the great variety of styles within the wider, modern genre. As the art form has undergone various reinterpretations it continues to employ many contrasting skills and is performed by both men and women drawing on different cultural and historical influences.

So… How risqué is Burlesque? Is it the same as Stripping?

In a nutshell, no.  But in saying this, we need to be clear in our semantics. Although a particular burlesque  routine may contain or even be based on striptease, it is generally not regarded as synonymous with stripping itself. It is not an issue of ’sanitising’ strip acts, it’s simply that they are performed for different reasons and effects. (Besides, many burlesque acts are deliberately shocking or challenging in nature – nude or fully clothed). Striptease is also a form in it’s own right and it is unfair to rob it of it’s identity by forcing a buffoon in to the scenario.

To explain why  there is often confusion we need to look at the history.
The term ‘burlesque’ means ‘to satirise’ and actually refers to an ancient theatrical tradition common to many cultures. In the West, this theatrical tradition arguably reached its apogee during the Victorian and Edwardian era and was largely, begun as a middle class entertainment. Although often bawdy and suggestive, it did not involve stripping  – and still doesn’t in it’s traditional form and yes, there are practitioners of this ilk today.

 

‘Burlesque’ is a classic theatre-form which in it’s true essence, is ‘Spectacular Satire’. Both splendid and thought provoking, burlesque is the home of high-brow musical comedy, ironic iconography, playful punning and bawdy ‘Brit Wit’. It is a sophisticated ancestor of the modern pantomime.  In Great Britain, burlesquing has remained relatively unchanged in 500 years and it’s history is steeped in powerful social change and icons of female empowerment. Among it’s most famous we count Geoffrey Chaucer, Eliza Vestris, J.R Planche, Gilbert & Sullivan, Lydia Thompson, The Western Brothers, Carry On and Monty Python.

Burlesques are traditionally performed by both men and women and are a type of elaborate censure based on social or historical caricatures. In this traditional form, burlesque tends to produce performance concepts that are often full of risqué suggestion, social commentary and bawdy gags. Such titillations were always as intelligent as they were saucy with the ‘tease’ often being one of verbal jest and jocularity.

The confusion over the burlesque content and it’s comparison to the stripping world comes as the form was reinterpreted to be less satirical and more risqué for it’s new American audiences, at the beginning of 20th century. Burlesque as practiced in Britain often relied upon the strict social class divisions of the day, with each class ‘burlesquing’ another. In America’s less class oriented society, the satire was largely dropped in favour of the bawdy bits. The term  ‘burlesque’ was then, some fifty years later used by new proprietors outside of the family-based vaudeville circuit, to describe the more adult-based variety shows in which a striptease act, or scantily-clad chorus line would also perform alongside comics.  Loosely speaking, in early 20th century America, traditional British burlesque was taken out of  ‘theatre land’, stripped of it’s previous identity, led down a back alley and then up some stairs to a ‘gentleman’s club’. Some of the theatrics were retained along with the bawdy humour. Borrowing from the style of 19th century burlesquers (of the classical British tradition), the strippers adopted the gimmicks and comical parodying that characterize this sort of performance. It was here that the term began to pick up its commonly perceived connection with adult entertainment.

So, burlesque in its earlier ‘classical’ sense, although often bawdy, actually had nothing to do with stripping or striptease – until recent days. By adapting to modern phrasing, we can confidently state that there are two forms of burlesque popular today – the traditional British form (often termed by academics as ‘classical burlesque’) and the much newer American burlesque striptease. Of course, as with any forms that share a point in history, you will often find elements from both genres overlapping in the modern burlesque performance.

It is also generally accepted that where striptease does occur in a burlesque performance, the striptease is designed as a transformation of character by costume, meaning that it is contextually relevant to the burlesque narrative. Otherwise, it is not technically a burlesque – it is a striptease. Again, it is worth emphasizing that just as burlesque and striptease are separate art-forms, so strip-tease differs from the styles of stripping that you’d see in adult entertainment venues. At the risk of over-simplifying, although both focus on teasing, the differences lie in intention of outcome and the levels of nudity, where the former rarely ends in actual nudity and the intention is to entertain rather than to sexually arouse.

The styles performed today are often a mix of the older British and the modern American styles. Some do feature striptease, others do not. Each performer has his / her specialty and preference and therefore utilizes their individual skills to deliver varying degrees of humour or risqué intent.

Considering the history and modern transformation of meaning, a 21st century burlesque can now loosely be defined as ‘suggestive performance art’. If you are concerned about the level of suggestiveness when booking an act, simply ask for clarification.

 

If using, citing or referencing please credit ‘K. L. Allan, Ministry of Burlesque’ and cite www.kittie.me.uk