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Burlesque is an art form that is currently enjoying a long renaissance. Experienced by some performers as empowering, it is has also been criticized by some feminists for reinforcing sexist norms. With the 9th incarnation of the Toronto Burlesque Festival opening tonight, Executive Director of Programming Coco Framboise discusses why she thinks burlesque is such a lightning rod for political opinion and how it can be used to channel current political debates.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is new about the Toronto Burlesque Festival this year?
What's exciting is what the newer artists are creating. I think we're starting to see a lot more crossover between a classic presentation, drag and contemporary influence like hip hop and it's becoming a lot more political in a contemporary way. I think burlesque has always had a satirical edge to it throughout history…but what's really exciting about it now is seeing the current times reflected in the work that we see on stage.
For example, Zyra Lee Vanity is a Black performer and she is really passionate about seeing other artists of colour on stage, pushing forward a message about the importance and wonder and magnificence of Black culture and diaspora. She's very vocal about Black Lives Matter. One of her two pieces in the festival is her Mama Africa piece. She really had a breakthrough with that particular piece and she's become a lot more comfortable and vivid and therefore a lot more impactful with her presentations. That piece has been booked internationally and she performed it on stage with Dita von Teese.
It's really exciting to see what happens when artists key into what is important to them as individuals and what is inspiring them and motivating them in contemporary culture and seeing that come through in their work in a way [that] no one can ignore. I think the audience always knows when they're seeing something very personal to the artist [and] I find that exciting to watch.
Two of the festival's showcases, Mixed Nuts and Rebel Yell, are advertised as "alterna-tease" and the future of burlesque respectively. Do you think burlesque is taking a new turn?
I think that culture right now is inspiring people to be more truthful to themselves and to push back when they feel they are being squashed and to really bring a light to those areas in our culture where people are feeling silenced or shamed. It's a really exciting time. And when I say exciting I mean people are being excited from a more passive stance. People have to comment now on what's going on. People will call you out if you don't. All of these things will start to come through the work more because it's not as limited as it once was.
We're used to seeing these very pin up classic images of a very narrow body type and now we're seeing more men performing, we're really seeing all genders performing. We're seeing a spectrum of artists presenting work on a variety of topics and I hope we will continue to see more…work that challenges us and makes us uncomfortable sometimes, makes us change how we view beauty, makes us change how we view culture. It's an art form that really allows us to sit with those things and allows us to update how we view ourselves and each other.
What is your response to one feminist criticism of burlesque that says women shouldn't be taking their clothes off on stage?
I think it is important to have criticism and it's important to have different opinions so that people can explore what they're doing and why.
The Coco Framboise character was much more vivacious than I was and in inhabiting that character…it gave me a broader range of emotional expression, it gave me practice at being more audacious and then I had that extended range of options and behaviours available to me in everyday life. So I could use that confidence, passion and certainty to negotiate better contracts for myself or to negotiate my relationships better. I could be more assertive, sooner. I could hold my space a little bit more. So that kind of empowerment came to me in much of a more day-to-day way.
I think everybody has their own feeling about it, and…some artists I know…especially the much younger ones…feel emboldened by all these choices that they can and do make. So they do feel personally empowered. What does that do in the macro? I don't know, we're still looking at it. But I think it's important to be able to make the choice, and to be able to make art and have the experiences and to be able to reflect on it and decide at a personal level.
Why do you think burlesque has had a renaissance?
As our culture has become more permissive in some ways, I think it is still part of human nature to want to rebel, to provoke. I think there will always be an interest in being edgy and what is edgy for the times will shift and change. I think it's really exciting to see what these artists are creating.
The 9th Annual Toronto Burlesque Festival runs from Thursday, July 28 to Sunday, July 31, 2016 at Revival Nightclub and The Virgin Mobile Mod Club. Headliners include audience favourites Dirty Martini, Medianoche and the Stage Door Johnnies. All headlining acts have regularly co-starred in Dita Von Teese's touring show, Strip Strip Hooray and have garnered many international awards
There is also a full schedule of daytime workshops for guests who want to try their hand at the art of the tease and for performers to enhance their art, grow and be inspired.
For more information and tickets: www.torontoburlesquefestival.com
Photo provided by Coco Framboise.
Laura Brightwell likes to think of herself as a writer. She is currently a PhD candidate at York University and can be found online at lipstickterrorist.wordpress.com and rabble and @mslauralipstick on Twitter