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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.