Lately, I have read rants, threads and articles (here’s one) written by performers and non-performers alike decrying the fact that not all burlesque is created with the same standards. “Bad burlesque is bringing down the whole scene,” they cry. “We need to create standards for who can perform burlesque and what they can do!”
Aside from the logistical impossibility of enforcing any kind of arbitrary standards, could the burlesque scene at large really agree on one set of standards to follow? And, more importantly, should it?
Gratuitous photo to break up all this serious text! Bombshell Betty and the Burlesqueteers in the Hubba Hubba Revue at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco.
A few articles have come out very recently bemoaning the preponderance of the “shittest” burlesque and boring or mediocre burlesque, advising people to “do it well or don’t do it at all.” What these authors don’t acknowledge is that when they rant about ”good burlesque” and “bad burlesque,” what they’re really talking about is “burlesque I like” and “burlesque I don’t like.” How arrogant and unrealistic for these authors to think that the whole world of burlesque should be standardized according to their tastes! “You can put on as many sparkles and Swarovskis as you like, but if you don’t know how to move or be sexy then I’m afraid you’ll just bore me.” [Emphasis is mine.] So you’re bored, so what? Maybe the person standing next to you is enthralled. It’s not about you. Go get a drink or powder your nose and wait three minutes for the next act and try to find some perspective.
I know that there is burlesque I like to watch and burlesque I don’t like to watch. There is burlesque I like to perform and burlesque I don’t like to perform. I also know that my personal standards have nothing to do with the preferences of other performers or of audiences in general. Everyone has their own criteria for judging an act or a show, and I think that’s important to keep in mind.
This article makes a very interesting and valid point that part of the appeal of burlesque for some of the audience is its aspirational quality. Audience members can watch the performers and envision themselves doing similar acts on stage, so it is inspiring and empowering for the audience members who are not used to thinking that they could be sexy. A number of my students have told me that they decided to take classes and perform burlesque because they went to a show and one of the performers had the exact same body type – and she was so sexy! And the audience loved her! So my student thought, “If she can do it, I can do it,” and she did!
Scarlett Black at the Elbo Room in SF
So while the aspirational element is there, I disagree that audience members will make the effort to get dolled up and pay a cover to go to a show because they want to see “mediocre” performances so that they can feel smarter or more talented than the people on stage. Who would want to waste their time and money like that? Burlesque audiences – like any audiences – go to shows to be entertained. What these articles neglect is that the preferences of burlesque audiences are as varied as the performances offered.
For example, I produce student shows, and they are promoted as such. Some people don’t go to them for that reason. Others say that these student shows are their favorite burlesque shows and only go to my shows, because they love the playfully creative and experimental acts and the atmosphere of joy and fun they know they’ll find at my shows more than they enjoy the level of polish they’ll find at some other more highly-produced shows. Other people are looking for something else entirely and go to other shows, or like a wide variety and go to all the shows, or don’t go to burlesque shows at all.
Lezzie McFaggerson and Vadge O’Fonor with ostriches at the Elbo Room in SF!
As a performer, I have personally been called a genius and been told that I “give burlesque a bad name.” I think I’m rather somewhere in between those two extremes, but this is another good demonstration of how much of burlesque is in the eye of the beholder.
The fact that there are a wide variety of shows and styles is good for the burlesque community, and it’s one of my favorite things about burlesque. It’s fascinating to see each performer’s interpretations of the art form, and I know that I (as well as much of my audience) would be bored to tears and simply drop burlesque altogether if it became homogenized and predictable, as would be the case with enforced standards.
I was thrilled to read this article about Trixie Little, a New York based performer whose style I personally admire (I’m partial to performers who combine glamour and polish with quirky humor and surprise). Here’s my favorite part:
I am continuously working on a handful of ‘NYC gig acts’ that fit on tiny stages, don’t take up a lot of space and are mostly improv. These are the acts I typically chose from when I’m ready to take an act up to the next level. When they are ready for the polishing stage, the first thing I do is take my starter costume to Garo Sparo to remake professionally. Then I start setting the choreography and moments so it’s not improv any more. But the improv part is an awesome part of my process because I’m a character actor more than a dancer, so I get to learn what the juicy moments are this way.
It was a relief to finally read some acknowledgement that different venues and productions require different levels of polish. Of course you wouldn’t perform the same act in the same way at your local dive bar and at an international burlesque convention! This seems so elementary to me, but this is the first time I’ve seen this acknowledged publicly within the burlesque scene.
And guess what? None of this is earth-shattering news! Think of any art form, and there are artists you like and artists you don’t. Some people like art house movies. Others think they’re pretentious and lame and prefer Hollywood blockbusters. Should there be standards that make only one of these film styles possible? No! There’s a market for each of them. How is burlesque any different? Why do people seem to be so personally offended by the existence of burlesque that they don’t like?
Here’s another perspective from Mat Ricardo:
And you know what? I’ve seen this happen before. A long time ago, when my circuit wasn’t cabaret clubs, but was street theatre. There was a time when the established performers felt a little threatened by the influx of new performers. In response, some rules were discussed that would favour the old guard – make it easier for them to get better show times, stuff like that. The rationale was that because the younger performers didn’t have such good shows, they shouldn’t get the lucrative lunchtime slots. It was ugly, transparent and nasty. And you know what happened? The young performers went elsewhere and spread the word that the Covent Garden performers were cliquey, unwelcoming bullies. And they were right. The scene stagnated and the level of quality of the shows dropped. It harmed everyone.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s commendable and wonderful that so many performers are taking burlesque out of the low-brow dive bar and bringing it into the realm of high art. I love that. Burlesque is about exaggerations and extremes, so it is fitting that both extremes are represented. There is room for Dita Von Teese and her high level of visual spectacle, and there is room for DIY burlesque at the local dive bar. As long as there is an audience that wants to see it, there is room in burlesque for every interpretation and permutation.
And I love that, don’t you?
So what can you do if you see a lot of what you consider to be “bad” burlesque, and you’d like to help raise the bar for burlesque in your area?
The answer is not (as has been suggested) for more experienced and highly trained performers to go out of their way to critique the “inferior” performers. Constructive criticism that has not been requested is not going to be heard the way you want it to be heard. It’s not going to make performers whose style you don’t like suddenly decide they want to be more like you. It’s just going to make you look bitchy.
Now, criticism that is requested is another story altogether, but it’s still important that you deliver it properly if you want it to be heard. Red Velvet wrote a great article on how to give good feedback, which I recommend reading. My two main tips for giving feedback are:
1) Make sure the target of your feedback has requested your feedback.
2) Learn how to give a feedback sandwich.
Red Velvet and Lezzie McFaggerson at the Elbo Room in SF.
If you are serious about wanting to raise the bar for burlesque in your area, and not just wanting to verbally slap your unworthy competitors for daring to perform (even though you think they suck) and daring to be successful (perhaps even more successful than you? How dare!?!), one good way to set up a situation that will make this kind of feedback welcome would be to organize and participate in peer review workshops in your area.
Not willing to expend this kind of energy to help your competitors? Then it doesn’t seem to me that you’re really interested in helping the burlesque community in general, and you’re really only concerned with promoting your own interests. Which is fine, just acknowledge it and stop pretending to be altruistic when you verbally slam the newbies (or whoever it is you don’t like).
Here’s a reality check: No one is going to stop performing because you don’t like them. So why not help them improve and make the scene better for everyone rather than complaining and wishing people would wither in the face of your scorn and blow away? Because I guarantee you they won’t.
If you don’t want to be associated with the “bad” or “mediocre” burlesque at your local bar, it’s up to you to differentiate your act or your show. It’s not up to the burlesquers you don’t like to tell their audience that you’re somehow superior. Their audience might not agree. It’s up to you to show your audience that they should want to get up off of their couches and spend their time and money to indulge in an evening out with you, rather than at the bar down the street, or worse – sitting home hitting the refresh button on Facebook!
Cherry Chapstick at the Elbo Room in SF.
If you don’t like that show producers are hiring what you consider “inferior” performers, and you don’t want to perform in the same shows with them, don’t. Create your own show and hire only the performers you think are the best, and see what happens.
Because really, if you’re a top-notch, highly professional performer or producer, and you can’t compete with the “amateur hour” at your local dive bar, guess what? Quite frankly… you’re doing it wrong! Get out there and get some basic marketing skills and set yourself up as something different. Make it happen! No one’s going to do it for you.
And if you’re doing well, have a big following and successful shows, what are you so worried about?
The long and the short of it is that we’re all in the entertainment business. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to entertain everyone at any time or anyone all the time. So we just have to do the best we can, always strive to improve, and hopefully… live and let live. I believe that diversity and variety are strengths within our community and that the more we embrace them, the stronger our art will be.