looking back on burlesque

The other night at my regular fire spinning gathering, I was talking with a friend I’ve not seen in months and I mentioned burlesque in passing.

“Don’t you miss anything about burlesque?”

This being a very amorphous group with people coming and going I didn’t actually get a chance to answer, but I did think about it.

And to be honest I do miss parts of it. But not necessarily the bits people think about.

 

The Red Queen

Kitten LaRue, Burlesque Through The Looking Glass, Triple Door

 

It’ll come as no surprise that I miss the spectacle and grandeur of the best of it. Productions by Verlaine/McCann or almost anything at the Can Can would leave me breathless. Or the performers who brought such a strong dance background that what they did could transcend “just” burlesque.

But I also miss the joy of the people who couldn’t perform and owned that shit. I shot for Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque for about five years, which was a mixed bag. There were experienced performers and neophytes. Some could rock the stage, some had never even considered it. And oddly enough, the students who knew their limitations and embraced them were phenomenal and memorable. Hell, I remember an act from the very first graduation class ever simply because it was so simple, silly and joyous. They may not have had the chops, but it was clearly fun, which was the best.

And as much as I loved the Triple Door, I missed the intimacy of places like the Pink Door. I hated having to shoot on the floor and management could be flighty, but the pictures were amazing.

 

Aerialista Ornament

Aerialista, Triple Door

 

I miss the variety of some of the venues. The ones that would bring in opera singers, aerialists, actors or even (ugh) performance artists to break the sameness of evening. Burlesque, burlesque, burlesque… and now a blues singer? Cool!

I miss the good emcees, whether classy like Jasper McCann or crass as fuck like Armitage Shanks. The ones who gave the audience a chance to breathe before the next Big Number. And I miss the time Jasper helped me mess with my parents when they came out west to visit me one time.

I made a lot of friends and I miss them. But I couldn’t share their enthusiasms anymore and it was painful to have to bite my tongue.

Belle Cozette - Bedtime for Belle

Belle Cozette, Pink Door

I miss the weirdly wonderful surreal experience of backstage or post-show conversations. It’s where the ephemeral and the mundane collided. Beautiful women, scantily clad, it’s a teenage boy’s wet dream… and they’re talking about the weather and holy fuck, that coworker? Or talking with Vienna la Rouge, a gorgeous and amazing performer, at the bar at the Pink Door about traffic. It was rarely about anything truly bizarre but it never felt normal either? So it was wonderful.

I’ll admit that selfishly I miss having a pool of talent to work with in the studio. But can you blame me?

Jesse Belle-Jones

Jesse-Belle Jones, in studio

Beyond that, I don’t miss anything. Granted, a lot of that is a function of having been intensely active in the scene for six years. I was on and off stage. At some points, I was going to more shows in a week than most people would see in a month or two. Familiarity bred contempt, weariness, boredom…

I don’t miss the de rigueur nudity or the hype. It’s too much like being shocked to see a fight at a hockey game, and the odds of that happening aren’t as good there. The odds of a fight are more like 90%. Or the crass, long-winded emcees who relied on that hype.

For that matter, I don’t miss the performers who only brought a willingness for a certain, specific form of exhibitionism and nothing else. Half-assed props, flimsy costumes and no choreography to speak of? Pass. Hard pass.

I really don’t miss the hypocrisy of such an “edgy” scene. You know, the kind where everyone wants to push buttons and test boundaries until they’re the ones who are offended? I saw a lot of that there.

I don’t miss the feeling of obligation to go to every show.

And ultimately I do not miss the culture of extreme politeness that seemed to preclude any kind of criticism. That everything was OK. Don’t believe me? Go check out Dan Savage’s review/critique of three shows in three nights from 2010 and then go read the comments. I love the people complaining that he didn’t go to have fun but, oh my, to be critical? How dare he!

Vienna backstage

Vienna la Rouge, Re-Bar (backstage)

Don’t get me wrong, for all my grousing on this topic, I neither expected nor wanted every performer to have Juilliard training or corsets covered with Swarovski sequins. But we are talking about an artistic community whose only real barrier to entry is a six week course. After that, you can perform for a long time.

On the one hand that’s great and encourages steady growth in the scene. On the other, would you see a band that had only ever played their instruments for six weeks? Really?

I think I’ve been in karaoke bars that had higher standards.

Would I go back? No. I did go to a show to support a friend of mine three or so years ago, but apart from her act, it was so ritualized and anemic. You know. Tits. Except my friend’s, which was about her breast cancer, so… kind of different emotional arc there.

Of course I miss the spectacle. But now I shoot fire. Hell, I play with fire. When I want to. With no expectations and no need for an audience.

Perfect.

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burlesque: a personal history

The Atomic Bombshells - Jazz FuneralThe Atomic Bombshells @ The Triple Door

In writing here, I realize I’ve written around my burlesque experience more than I’ve written about it. Christ, if I’ve made a post without referring to it…

I spent six years shooting Seattle’s burlesque scene before burning out. I have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for it anymore (much to the chagrin of some of my friends) but I can’t deny that it spoiled me in a lot of ways. More than that, it’s where I made my bones as a photographer. It’s how I learned, how I built my skills to capture movement and dance that still serve me to this day, not least of all in shooting fire.

So let’s talk about it.

I first learned about burlesque in the late ’90s when Dita von Teese was just starting to make waves and I was honestly captivated. It sounded titillating and captivating and classy as all hell. It also sounded like something that would never come to my college town. So file that away and move on.

Fast forward several years, I’m living in Seattle, playing in a samba batería when I meet a woman who says she dances burlesque and she’s doing a show that week. I’m the only one from the group who shows up and it was remarkable and mind blowing and I definitely felt out of place and impolite for the act of seeing someone… you know… in… *ahem* that is to say… she wasn’t… with the clothes? Eventually I got comfortable with it. Eventually I could enjoy the show for what it was, the nudity for what it was and cheer with the best of them.


Belle Cozette - Urban Fan DanceBelle Cozette @ The Pink Door

A year later, I’ve actually taken a class to perform burlesque and, in conversation with a local producer, I mention that I like taking pictures. When she asks if I’ve ever considered shooting burlesque shows, I think she’s kidding. And like that I’m the official photographer at the Pink Door for two and a half years. Everything followed from there.

I shot the first four years of the burlesque Nutcracker, went to Las Vegas to see Miss Exotic World, met up with performers from across the country and took probably hundreds of thousands of photos of it all. I was on stage, off stage, back stage, worked with burlesque related events like Dr. Sketchy’s and more.

And I was spoiled by it all. How could I not be?


The Heavenly Spies - Welcome to CampThe Heavenly Spies @ The Can Can

I loved the dramatic lighting (although those bastard orange spotlights could die the death). The performers were fantastic and gorgeous and the personalities they displayed were spellbinding. Never mind the energy and vitality to boot!

This is why I get frustrated by photos staged like water colors, lacking life or motion. Fine the composition is great and the exposure and blah blah blah. Why is she just standing there? Hell, why is she there?

For about three years, I was everywhere. Almost literally. I’d see more shows in a month than most fans would see in a year. And as the scene grew, I went to even more shows. Which is when the burn out really started to kick in.

Paula backstage
Paula the Swedish Housewife in the wings @ The Triple Door

I can’t say precisely when I started to burn out, but I think it related to the growth of the scene. We went from one or two weekly rooms with three (or so?) semi-regular troupes to more and more of both. What was once kind of rarified became commodified and with that, the standards changed as the audiences grew. For every show that pulled from the cream of the crop, there were two more

I started to feel like I was seeing more burlesquers and fewer performers. Most of the performers I’d seen had a background in dance or drama before they started bedazzling and stripping so the show had more to offer than just casual nudity. There were tap dancers and torch singers and vaudevillians and just plain weirdos on stage making it about the journey, not just the destination.

But with more eager graduates from the “academy” forming troupes and taking the stage, the bar for entry was lowered. All you needed to perform was be willing to take off your clothes. It felt like a ritual. Because the audience cheers when a stocking is removed Just So, more people would remove their stockings Just So. Tassel twirling went from a signature move for one or two performers to a common standard because it was expected. All you had to do was take off your clothes.

I knew it was over when I got sick of hearing emcees telling the audience: “You might even see some titty!!!!” And as the audience roared, I found myself thinking “Yeah but you probably won’t see much talent.”

Because I’d seen those tits already. Hell, I’d seen plenty of tits. And when that was boring, what were you left with? Everything else that was brought on stage. Terrified eyes, half-assed routines, cliched scenarios, the same moves, the same journey, the same destination.

And, yes, I know, nudity is great and sexy and all that. But without the context of intimacy or, at the very least, interactivity (*ahem*) it felt like gross anatomy.

So I left after a spot of personal drama. I left because I was tired of being told that this thing was sexy, told that the only polite response was a rousing cheer (because criticism wasn’t welcome in the community) and that the best thing about burlesque, when it wasn’t being vaunted as a historical art form of great esteem and culture, was that you got to see tits. The same tits. Artlessly. Again.

If I miss anything, I miss the personalities and the stage lights. I miss the big, bold moves and kinetic dance acts. I don’t miss the polite applause or the acts that endured due to inertia. I certainly don’t miss the ritual of it.

I actually went to a show about two or three years after I quit. A good friend was performing and I went to support her and, yep, ritual. Sexy because it was. Sexy because the ritual. Sexy because.

And that’s burlesque for me. It was real, it was fun, it was informative and it’s something I’m glad I don’t have to go back to any time soon.


Randi Rascal - GiftingRandi Rascal @ The Jewel Box