Friday, March 1, 2013

Butts and Rebutts (Mostly Butts)

--> When I co-produced my first sci-fi themed burlesque show in 2005, we had difficulty finding enough extant acts to fill the bill and ended up commissioning or creating half of them; now, in 2013, "nerdlesque" is a thriving sub-genre of its own with dozens of dedicated shows around the world, and has already profoundly affected the art form of burlesque.

The Lady Aye recently published an article on, “Some Thoughts On Nerd Burlesque,” which sparked lively discussion amongst burlesque professionals in general and geeklesque performers in particular. The following is a somewhat edited version of a personal email that I wrote as part of that discussion. The Lady Aye very eloquently spoke to many points I’ve been striving to articulate for some time, and so this is not so much a ‘rebuttal’ to her piece as an expansion on it, with some thoughts of my own.

First off, I have to say I've known Aye for a long time, and have had many a thoughtful discussion with her over the years about 'where all this is going' and the potential for burlesque to transcend the tiny-hat-and-corset model (especially when it seemed that was the only option out there). Now that geeklesque is a huge percentage of all neo-striptease performances, it's natural - and valuable - that the discussion is shifting from 'Is that even burlesque?' to the nuances and specifics of this type of performance. After all, it's been a major discussion in the 'straight' (ie non-geeklesque) genre for ages.

So I found The Lady Aye’s article overall very supportive of geeklesque: urging geeklesque performers to strive to transcend their 'source material' says very clearly that we can be as transcendent in our performances as any other kind of burlesque act (rather than geeklesque only being throwaway pop-culture reference).

I would argue (and I’m not the first to make this point – see Sailor St. Claire’s article in Burlesque Seattle Press, for example) that all burlesque is “cosplay” in some sense, and therefore could - must - benefit from a similar self-scrutiny: how does that fan dance / stocking peel / classic strip to 'Feeling Good' contribute to the dialogue and transcend the source material (Gypsy Rose Lee, the 1940's, the male gaze, etc., etc.) here, now, in 2013? The fact that geeklesque gets singled out more in this respect is, I think, simply because we're now reaching beyond the established vocabulary of burlesque (tassel-twirling, fan dance) and adding new 'words' to that 'vocabulary’ – for the same reason, boylesque has sparked a similar discussion over recent years, too.

The fact is, geeklesque does use other people's material (characters, costume designs, games, plots) as jumping-off points for new performance. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself - it has led to some of the most exciting, innovative, delightfully transgressive burlesque performances that I've ever seen. But just like "I put on a pretty dress and a pretty song and took off my pretty dress and I was wearing pasties" isn’t necessarily adding to the discussion, "I put on a Dr. McCoy costume and a song about Star Trek and took off my Dr. McCoy costume and I was wearing Star Trek pasties" says nothing new, either.

The only reason that the geeklesque version gets more focus in this respect (and rightly so) is that no one can really say for certain who 'invented' striptease; but we know that Dr. McCoy is Gene Roddenberry's artistic creation - and to co-opt it without any commentary seems to border on … maybe plagiarism isn't quite the right word, but something like that. I've retired numbers myself that were basically stripping-out-of-a-costume, simply because I wasn't comfortable with the idea of just using the character and doing nothing with it.

It's what marks the difference between dress-like-the-character, strip-to-the-theme-song numbers and (for example) Mary Cyn's “Data” act, B.B. Heart's Dementor, Anja Keister’s Dolores Umbridge, and lots of others. Likewise, it's what makes shows like The Pink Room, D20 Burlesque and the like actual unique experiences beyond "We like nerdy stuff!” And it’s important to acknowledge that there are performers and producers who are striving, going beyond, carefully crafting geeklesque numbers and shows that are thoughtful and provocative and funny and sexy and really hit the spot with geek- and non-geek audiences … and to keep pushing ourselves to go further in those directions with our work.

The Lady Aye’s article touches as well on the idea of wide appeal: "Would this act translate to an audience of the uninitiated? If not, then perhaps your focus is too narrow and you should think of ways to let the audience in."  This is, ultimately, the performer's choice: but for me personally as both performer and spectator, the most successful and satisfying geeklesque numbers are the ones that require minimal-to-no previous familiarity with the source material, where the specific elements are Easter Eggs for the initiated but I don't feel like a total idiot for not getting any of the act (again: Data, Dolores Umbridge - these are stories that any audience will understand, whether or not they know of Data's 8-season character arc about finding his humanity, or the nuanced depths of Dolores' sadism etc. etc. It's all in the acts.) If one is creating an act for a show based on, say, one specific episode of a particular cartoon series - and the show is being presented as such, and cultivating an audience of fans of that cartoon series - then why not add as many tiny in-depth nods and references as you like? With, of course, the understanding that in a wider context (a 'general' burlesque show, or even a 'general' geeklesque show) those specific references might pass by much of the audience. It's all about understanding what acts to bring to what shows, which is a skill we all learn pretty quickly (hopefully).

The fact that geeklesque is being discussed ‘as if it were real burlesque’ is amazing and hugely important, given the fact that 6 or 7 years ago the reaction to, say, my (long-retired) Tron number was befuddlement and 'That's not burlesque.' Whether it's our primary performance focus or not, enough of us now put enough time, effort, talent, intelligence, and thoughtful critique into our geeklesque acts/shows that it's starting to show up the lazy and un-thought-out geeklesque acts just as well-crafted and expertly-presented 'classic' burlesque has always highlighted the 'I bought a corset! I'm the next Dita!' acts. Part of being a permanent and legit genre within the art form is going to include more critique and discussion and - as long as it's in non-troll form - that's only a good thing.

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