The Anatomy of Burlesque

Synopsis: While striptease is burlesque’s most modern subversive stick in the eye, the tradition is ancient. Fine art has always belonged to the rich, but burlesque is the revenge of the poor – a thumb to the nose, a fist to the fates—an expression of doubt that proves that hope still exists.

As a repudiation of exclusion, Burlesque’s vulgarity is a weapon against the propriety of the privileged or the prudishness of the middle classes. In its mocking disregard for what is decent, burlesque becomes the people’s art form. Of all the arts, burlesque may offer us the truest mirror to our selves. Like the portrait in Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Grey,” it is grotesque, libidinous, fleshy, irreverent, and immensely watchable.

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The Anatomy of Burlesque 7.25

eyelights: its revealing look at the roots of burlesque.
eyesores: its weak bookends.

“Burlesque is graffiti on the walls of power.”

It’s funny. Despite having seen a couple of documentaries about burlesque (‘Behind the Burly Q‘ and ‘Exposed‘), I keep thinking that burlesque is just a silly strip show. Perhaps it’s because I went to see The Suicide Girls’ burlesque shows a couple of times and that all it was, really.

I don’t know…

But the fact is that, whenever connoisseurs talk about burlesque, they refer to it as irreverent and sometimes as politically charged. But it takes me aback every single time. It’s as though you can’t mix sex and politics, even though they’re often the greatest and most frequent bedfellows.

In ‘The Anatomy of Burlesque’, Lindalee Tracey explores the origins and history of burlesque, going back as far as the 1380s through to 2006, the year the documentary was produced. Armed with a bevy of historians, authors and even an aging burlesque dancer, she contextualizes it for us.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek affair, as befits the subject, with Tracey quipping and staging some of her narration in amusing ways. But it’s an otherwise straightforward affair, showing how burlesque began as a way for the lower classes to “poke bubbles of pretensions to dignity” around them.

It explores Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, John Gay’s ‘A Beggar’s Opera’, Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salomé’, the Can Can, Music Hall, Moulin Rouge, Vaudeville, Les Folies Bergères, and even a few performers, such as Lydia Thompson, Marie Lloyd, Little Egypt, La Goulue, Mata Hari and Josephine Baker.

It’s pretty broad-ranging. (ahem…)

What it doesn’t do, interestingly enough, is define burlesque; it assumes that its audience will know from the onset what it is and then goes back in time to trace its roots. I can only imagine how discombobulating this would be for someone who’s never heard of burlesque before this programme.

It also doesn’t do a good job of delineating burlesque from the late ’50s to the ’00s, basically skipping 50 years to provide a sketchy outlook of what lies in the future (with the help of footage from modern burlesque acts in Toronto, Ontario cabarets). However, it’s ambiguous in its conclusion.

So, while it goes a decent job of connecting the dots, ‘The Anatomy of Burlesque’ doesn’t frame its subject well. It remains interesting, but it probably would be of greater appeal to fans and performers, to people who want to expand their understanding. It’s not exactly the perfect primer.

What is burlesque, then? If I understand correctly, it’s “comedy plus transgression”. But that’s such a broad definition that it seems to me that it would encompass many things not one bit associated with burlesque. Is ‘South Park’ burlesque, for instance? I’m not really clear after this.

For that matter, is modern burlesque even burlesque by that definition? I mean, T&A is hardly transgressive anymore, so is a little skin and some humour (if any at all) enough to qualify these days? Or is that just stripping? These questions aren’t really explored in ‘The Anatomy of Burlesque’.

But I wish they were.

Story: n/a
Acting: n/a
Production: 7.0

Nudity: 2.0
Sexiness: 2.0
Explicitness: 2.0

Date of viewing: August 16, 2017

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