As we take a dive into the history of burlesque, we learn that the term stems from the Italian phrase ‘burla” which means to mock, trick, or joke. In the 16th century, a burlesque performance could be described as a parody or an outlandish caricature like performance. Typically performers would mock famous artists or cultural figures of the time and create over the top characters. While burlesque often highlights the comedic nature, it wasn’t till later that the art of the striptease was introduced.
In the 1920’s and 30’s the tease became a prominent fixture of all burlesque performances. It quickly gained momentum throughout various parts of the world with troupes packing theaters everywhere they went. In America, the art of disrobing could be seen throughout the vaudeville and burlesque circuit, and in Paris The Moulin Rouge became a late night fixture for fans of the risqué performance.
My personal fascination with burlesque occurred after I was scrolling through Vogue, and I came across burlesque icon Dita Von Teese. Her skin was of porcelain and she had jet black hair and her lips always featured a fresh coat of red lipstick. She became a style icon regularly gracing the pages of magazines due to her immaculate style of vintage dress. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dita Von Teese don a pair of sweatpants or jeans. Her overall presence exuded the utmost level of femininity and she piqued my interest in this daring art form.
After a failed attempt of seeing The Moulin Rouge in Paris and only seeing short performances in DC, who knew that it would be Chicago that would treat me to my first authentic burlesque experience.
It all started with a chance encounter of a tweet with a link of a review for The Annoyance Theatre’s Burlesque is More. After clicking the link and reading the review, I knew that I had to check out this show for myself.
Burlesque is More is in its third year, and it remains one of the most popular shows at The Annoyance Theatre. The production directed by Mick Napier and choreographed by former cabaret performer Sarah O’Dwyer. Together, they helped Burlesque is More become the success that it is today. For a night, audience goers venture to The Rumble Room and follow along the unique yet quirky journey of seven women and their unique characters. In this whimsical fantasy we meet a woman whose husband has a Santa Claus fetish, a bad ass clown who’s really not all that bad, an extreme couponer, and a disgruntled flight attendant. What makes Burlesque is More so intriguing is that all the women write their own monologues as well as do a striptease after the act. Attendees would be surprised to learn that before Burlesque is More, none of the women danced professionally but choreographer Sarah O’Dwyer worked her magic and the rest is history.
Before I saw the show, I knew that it would be best to sit down with the performers and gain a better understanding of burlesque. Prior to the show, my images of burlesque were vintage icons like Bettie Page and Dita Von Teese. Admittedly, my perceptions of burlesque had limitations so I wanted to learn more about this seductive practice. In a sense, I wanted to look beyond the pasties and giant Martini glasses that I was familiar with.
As I enter The Annoyance Theatre, one by one seven incredibly talented and beautiful women come out and share their stories with me. They are, Sarah O’Dwyer, Colleen Ryan, Lindsey Finn, Chelsea Rendlen, Megan Johns, Kayce Alltop, and Rebecca Silber. My friends and I were welcomed with open arms into The Rumble Room; the setting for the night’s event. The room features a red tint almost reminiscent of the red light district and women’s undergarments pinned to the stage. The burlesque performers sit before us donning black corsets and fishnet shocking.
There was a high level of comfort among the women. No one was nervous and everyone exuded a high level of confidence and charisma. At one point, my friends and I are flashed intricately designed rhinestone pasties. The craftsmanship is warmly acknowledged by fellow performers and they too show off their own bedazzled creations. They then began to compliment each other on their well fitted corsets even noticing the purchase of a fellow performer’s new bra. It was then that I learned that burlesque goes beyond the performance, but it’s about the bonds that form when women come together for a celebration of femininity. The women of Burlesque is More have certainly created a powerful bond and the audience can’t help but want to join in on all the fun. Luckily for us, each night the audience receives an invitation into the sexy, whimsical, and hilarious world of burlesque.
While we have made strides towards the expression of femininity, safe spaces like burlesque shows are needed for self-identifying women to express themselves. There’s still this societal aversion to a woman owning her sexuality (ex: Kim K and Amber Rose) which makes the mixed gendered audience of Burlesque is More all the more intriguing. It’s certainly not a boys club and women are more than welcome. In fact, women make up majority of the audience. Because of the comical and slapstick aspects of burlesque, everyone warms up to the often times shocking nature of the performance. Let’s just say, burlesque is certainly not for the modest crowd. Funnily enough, by the end of the show the audience is exposed to all sorts of sparkling pasties and lace g-strings that we just get used to it. What was once a shocking display quickly becomes acceptable.
But beyond the striptease, it’s still difficult to zero in on the meaning of burlesque. After all, when we look at the example of The Annoyance Theatre, we see that it’s steadily changing and evolving with each theater adding their own interpretation of the art. Most theater’s will feature a variety of comedic acts with a few burlesque ensembles interspersed between. However, at The Annoyance, it’s seven alluring women each night who steal the show with not only their impressive striptease skills but also their witty monologues. In a two-hour show these women become dancers, craftsman, comedienne, actors, and writers all in one night.
Based on the seven talented women before me, it was clear that you couldn’t pin burlesque to one singular definition and there isn’t really a set image for a burlesque performer. Immediately I realized that burlesque is beyond the Bettie Page’s and the Dita Von Teese’s, but rather everyday women who grace the stage night after night liberating themselves and expressing their femininity.
In 2016, there is more room for women to push the envelope and be more open with their feminism. However, while Burlesque is More is a titillating show, we have to acknowledge that the women have impressive comedic timing. We are OK with women being sexy and objects of the male gaze, but what happens when we allow a woman to exude sex appeal and sometimes be downright vulgar and funny? While some can get uncomfortable, that’s the entire point. Essentially as one of the performers perfectly lamented, burlesque is about messing with people’s minds. It’s all in good fun but there will be moments when you wonder what the heck are you doing in The Rumble Room?
As the audience enjoys each set the envelope gets pushed further and further. We delve into a world of seduction and obscenities and we aren’t sure how we should react. As you catch your self bursting at the sides from laughter, you are then entranced by a seductive striptease performance that leaves just enough for the imagination. It is that unique juxtaposition that has audiences continuously packing The Annoyance Theatre for Burlesque is More.
However, outside of the tease and the comedy, there was another unique aspect of Burlesque is More that became readily apparent and that was the camaraderie among the women. Whether one is going through a bad day, having a rough breakup, or just on their period, they agreed that all changes once the lights go down and they hit the stage.
As you are watching the show, just know that it takes a lot of guts to get on stage and strip down to just your undergarments night after night. Sometimes you have a great crowd and other times the crowd could be lifeless. The performers shared with me that regardless of how the audience reacts, they always have a good time because you have your friends cheering you on the side of the stage. With each act, you could see a performer turn to the side of the stage to acknowledge her personal cheerleader squad. Multiple women shared how Burlesque is More is the most liberating show that they have ever been apart of and as an audience member, it was an honor to be a part of that experience.
Even though the show has only been around for 3 years, each of the women has grown immensely in their craft. In the beginning they disrobed and revealed plain pasties now audiences witness pasties that dazzle and twirl. If that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.
One thing is for sure is that Burlesque is More and here to stay and Chicago is already asking for much more.
Burlesque is More is showing at The Annoyance Theatre till April 30th.