What is burlesque? Ask fifty people and you’ll get fifty answers. For modern usage, it’s safe to say that it is a form of theatrical entertainment rooted in 19th Century music hall variety shows, and usually features striptease. In what has become known as the new burlesque, neo-burlesque, or “the current revival,” what it is, exactly, is anyone’s guess, but it has often been described as humorous, “upside-down,” transformative, and risqué.
Looking at the body of burlesque as a whole can be disorienting. The historians dig up the bones of the art’s progenitors, spinning narrative out of few surviving artifacts. The living Legends reign, the beating heart of the community. And all over the world, new performers try to recapture a “golden age” or discover a new one, paying homage to the classics or taking new risks. The body is alive and kicking, flicking its pasties in preparation for a twirl. In which direction, we don’t yet know.
The conversation is double-forked. On the right, many proponents want to grow and expand burlesque, to push it into the mainstream, to help it become a world-shaker for the masses. The burlesque revival hasn’t gone far enough; not enough performers are well-known to the general population. With the right promotion, burlesque can compete with live music, dance, and theatre for the ticket-purchasing public. On the left, proponents want to encourage developing artists, to give them the space and time for more far-reaching and experimental acts, to give them the chance to fail. Burlesque worldwide is more varied and catholic than ever, encapsulating and embracing so many different styles that it must be encouraged to evolve. An emerging art form needs innovation; it needs daredevils to take risks, and it requires criticism to mature.
Big and mainstream? Or small and freaky? We can take our cue from the older forms such as straight theatre. Broadway is big, mainstream, safe, palatable for a large audience, and lucrative. Yet wild, experimental theatre takes place in tiny, dingy theatres every night. Performers have always had to juggle—the big gigs pay for the small.
Burlesque needs both. If anyone save the biggest names is ever going to get paid, we need more big, PG-13 events that can draw large crowds and spread the word. If the art form is to evolve and avoid homogenization, we need venues that encourage the avant-garde.
For all of this, we need better organization. We need greater promotion. We need better representation in the media. We need photographers and burlexicologists to spread the word. We need to communicate to performers and audience alike about upcoming shows, and we need to record the history of past shows for the benefit of future performers and for the benefit of would-be audience members.
This is our beat.
—J.D. Oxblood, 2010