Wednesday, July 18
The Painted Lady Burlesque Bar, Toronto
July in Toronto is hot, hot, hot and not just because of the humidity. It’s Toronto Burlesque Festival season and all performers, both local and across Canada, are gearing up for their chance to strut their stuff on the many stages of this great city. Freshmen are eager to be discovered at the Strip Search contest and well-practiced headliners are ready to showcase new pieces to their audience and the media.
2012 marks the 5th anniversary of the Toronto Burlesque Festival. Started in 2008 by Sauci Calla Horra and Skin Tight Outta Sight, its goal was to be a place for both new and established performers to learn from, be inspired by, and respect one another while at the same time establishing Toronto as a major centre for burlesque. Bravo to you, TBF! These goals have not only been reached, they’ve been exceeded. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a burlesque performer in this town anymore – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Toronto is in the orgasmic throes of a neo-burlesque revival mixed with a healthy dose of rockabilly and retro couture and it’s reflected in the sheer amount of individual performers, troupes, and artisans that participated in TBF2012.
This year’s festival was the biggest yet – with four days of official events, burlesque university, a Canadian movie premier, burlesque brunch, two living legends, the reigning Queen of Burlesque, and a burlesque art show to kick off the week!
The art show was held at The Painted Lady, a burlesque bar in the trendy Queen West area of Toronto. Known for their bartop burlesque dancing, they were a perfect choice for the exhibit and opening party that served as a kickoff for the festival. The art of Crossing Borders – a mixed art and photography show – drew back the velvet curtain to reveal burlesque as an art form that crosses sexual, emotional, cultural, and physical borders, coming together as a community that supports and celebrates this truly energetic, creative, and diverse subculture. As the exhibit curation sponsor, I worked with artists and members of the Vaudeville Visual Artists Alliance – all of whom are deeply involved in and committed to the burlesque community – to pull together a cohesive, compelling, and truly creative show. Artists included myself, Mopo Photography (exhibit setup wizard), Chris Hutcheson (master of printing), Ruth Gillson (print mounting queen), Angela McConnell, Patricia Horton, Kristi C. Holtam and Nicky Potter, the owner of the bar.
The opening was truly a feast for the senses! With huge 24” x 36” prints of burlesque stars up on the wall to ogle, the well-lubricated audience was treated to 2 rounds of Naked Girls Reading featuring the lovely St. Stella, Tanya Cheex (first inductee into the Canadian Burlesque Hall of Fame), Rubie Laframboise (of Glamourpuss Burlesque), and Dolly Berlin, who made the room cringe with her reading from a 50s manual on drag performances explaining how to tuck back your manhood using string and a rubber ball. All the men jumped a bit when they heard where that rubber ball went! OK, maybe not ALL the men.
Once the luscious literary ladies left the stage and everyone ordered more booze (more booze!), we were treated to the bartop burlesque shimmy-shaking of Skin Tight Outta Sight’s vixens Honey B Hind and Anastasia set to the rockabilly beat of Toronto’s own Big Rude Jake. Of course nobody moved – everybody was hypnotized by the sultry movements of the vivacious gals on the bar, especially once the peeling started! Each set these lovely lasses would dance, striptease, then go get dressed again to just peel and striptease all over again and again. You have to admire their stamina! It’s not easy dancing on a bar, as I found out later from Anastasia – spilled drinks making the surface all slippery, groping hands, flashing lights from phone cameras, and you’ve got a little over a foot of width to work with. My heartfelt thanks goes out to these amazing ladies – I probably would have fallen off the bar as soon as I got up there!
The first time I experienced the Toronto Burlesque Festival I felt like Dorothy, stepping out of my everyday black & white routine into the wonders and marvels of a colour-saturated new world. I can’t believe how far I’ve come since that first year, how much I’ve learned and how many good friends I’ve made. These men and women – fierce, independent, and rebellious – are the reason that I continue to come out to every show, and their confident sexuality inspires my work behind the lens. I love burlesque for its embrace and celebration of the body, in all its shape and sizes, with all its beautiful flaws, regardless of colour and sex.
Join me on a glittery romp through the Toronto Burlesque Festival as we explore the majesty of the Headliners and Producers Showcase, experience the cheers and tears of Strip Search International, get all dolled up for the Burlesque Ball, grab some nosh with our pals at the Burlesque Brunch, and wind everything down with the Closing Ceremonies. Hang on tight, it’s gonna be a long and dazzling ride!
Olena Sullivan (Photolena) is a Toronto-based model and performance photographer who specializes in onstage burlesque photography.
Photos ©Ruth Gillson and used with express permission by Burlesque Beat. Please respect copyrights and do not use without obtaining permission.