Burlesque is all over the Fringe this year. Is it empowering for performers, or just an excuse to watch women take their clothes off? Sally Stott investigates
Circus Burlesque **
Assembly @ George Street (Venue 3)
Kabarett: Alternative Variety ***
The Voodoo Rooms (Venue 68)
Kitty Cointreau's BraHaHa **
Zoo Roxy (Venue 115)
MUSICALS AND OPERA
Lashings Of Ginger Beer Time ****
C central (Venue 54)
The Last Trilogy Part 2 - Free ***
Laughing Horse @ City Café (Venue 85)
Your Little Princess Is My Little Whore **
theSpaces @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53)
A woman with an expression somewhere between a crack addict and a blown-up sex doll takes off her bra and drops it on the floor. The audience half-heartedly cheers. A scuzzy looking man wanders on stage, puts the bra in a Lidl carrier bag and wanders off. Welcome to the world of burlesque at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Despite scenes such as this, most burlesque performers see what they do as far removed from regular stripping and are able to cite numerous reasons why they aren't part of the sex industry, ranging from the vintage clothes they take off to the fact they have tattoos, are larger than a size six or cover their nipples with bits of tinfoil. Burlesque is frequently claimed to be feminist and subversive, sometimes even political, and nearly always "empowering". From Gok Wan's How To Look Good Naked to Nic Green's Trilogy, it often seems as if showing off as much of your body as possible is all part of being an emancipated woman who is actively taking control of her own image. But how much of this well-peddled philosophy, so easily embraced by the New Burlesque movement, is actually true?
In the programme for Circus Burlesque, Lola LaBelle describes the show as "(intellectually) stimulating" and lays out her vision for a world where "women are recognised for the beauty of their minds as well as the curves of their bodies". However, I defy any enlightened person to come away feeling anything other than depressed. Here, you'll have the dubious pleasure of watching a string of miserable-looking women, with the glazed expressions of porn stars, take off shiny nylon underwear in a way that is anything but subversive, or even sexy. It's not even retro. Set around a bizarre fusion of the seven deadly sins within a big top arena, the 'acts' are broken up by a ringmistress who keeps calling us "babies" and who can't deal with hecklers. She attempts to be topical with a song about seducing Gordon Brown, but this is about as political as Benny Hill in a shampoo advert. The show is nothing other than badly-done stripping with a few other 'acts' thrown in to break up the conveyor belt of half-naked women.
The Saturday night audience for the Lidl-loving Kitty Cointreau's BraHaHa are a more lairy bunch and I'm surrounded by gangs of beer-swilling lads who disconcertingly bang their feet on the floor every time a woman comes on stage. The stripping - although it seems overly generous to call it that - is intermixed with some good solid stand-up from the likes of Wil Hodgson and Stuart Goldsmith. The comedy should get at least three stars, but I can't bring myself to endorse a show where, in all but one instance (that of the brilliant acrobat act Circus Trick Tease), all the men are comedians and all the women are there purely to take off their clothes.
Burlesque dancing is supposed to be comic as well as sexy, something that Wild Card Kitty's Your Little Princess Is My Little Whore at least attempts to recognise through a show that explores the way women are encouraged to obsess about what they look like by the media. With routines such as a woman stripping in order to mark up her body for cosmetic surgery, and a recurring critique of fashion magazines, the show demonstrates the potential of burlesque to be something more than just striptease. However, while not all the routines involve the removal of clothes, there are a few - such as a Marilyn Monroe number that leaves little to the imagination - which feed into a predictable idea of women as sex objects and thus contribute to an ideology that other parts of the show are attempting to break down.
While it feels like it's aimed more at women than men, the repeated depiction of the dancers desperately trying to live up to unrealistic images of beauty starts to become saddening, even disempowering. An animated cartoon of Wild Card Kitty telling us all we're "ugly girls" and "will never be good enough" is another attempt at highlighting inequality that veers dangerously close to reinforcing it.
All three of the above shows are created/ produced by women who perform in them, in the same way classical burlesque acts of the mid-1800s such as Lydia Thompson's British Blondes were. The tradition of women as performers/ producers in the industry is something that also enforces the idea that burlesque is empowering, along with the fact it attracts audiences that often contain as many females as males.
In Natasha Walter's book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, though, she argues that burlesque fits into a new kind of gender inequality; one where women are encouraged to embrace the false idea that it's empowering to define oneself solely as a sex symbol. Interestingly, the decade in which Walter suggests this has happened is also the period when burlesque began its revival, after having all but disappeared since the 1960s. Bearing this in mind, it would be easy to see the New Burlesque movement as a convenient way for women to embrace sexualised images of themselves that they might condemn elsewhere.
Kabaret: Alternative Variety is a more balanced show with a nicer atmosphere, where burlesque sits alongside magic, acrobatics and weird little routines that are difficult to categorise but will probably appear on Britain's Got Talent at some point.
The only burlesque dancer at the performance I go to is Kiki Kaboom. Dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, she lip-synchs to Judy Garland, before popping some pills, having a drink and taking her clothes off. In the past, it was popular for burlesque performers, such as Dixie Evans, to mimic screen stars in this way, but here it feels rather tasteless since Garland was a troubled soul who didn't strip after taking huge quantities of various substances; she just died. However, the straight cabaret acts are refreshingly non-conformist. Indeed, my preconceptions surrounding Hula Hooping have now been shattered and I haven't seen a woman playing the trumpet in years.
Spencer Maybe, "Renaissance man and male burlesque dancer", is also a blow to stereotypes and he could really do with a later time slot for his avant-garde yet good humoured one-man show, The Last Trilogy Part 2 - Free. A cross between Robbie Williams, Russell Brand and Malcolm McDowell, he aims to address climate change through singing and stripping. It's an incongruous mix in which other (female) burlesque dancers join Spencer via film footage as he delivers songs and hippy-dippy thoughts on how we can all join together to save the planet and create world peace. He struggles sometimes to fuse sex with politics (most notably in his song Flesh which is pretty much just sex), but it's invigorating to see him trying to use stripping to do something other than to purely titillate. However, if you want to see something really empowering and much closer to burlesque's historical roots than the malnourished, surgically enhanced bodies in some of the other shows, you need Lashings Of Ginger Beer Time, a show by a "queer radical feminist burlesque collective" who promise "titillation for the brain". This may sound rather an odd mix, but in the mid-1800s, burlesque was typically seen as political satire which sent up popular culture of the day. Through subverting well known pop songs in the way many contemporary comedians do (also influenced by burlesque's history), Lashings Of Ginger Beer Time revive this lesser-known element of the burlesque tradition. The song Hakuna Matata, from The Lion King, becomes a celebration of being a lesbian, Rent's Take Me or Leave Me, a debate about dieting pressures, while an updated version of 1950s classic Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) pokes fun at a politically correct gay couple and their right-on ideas about rearing children. .
As with 'true' or classical burlesque, Lashings of Ginger Beer Time contains hardly any striptease apart from a single routine where a businesswoman miserably takes off her clothes in a way that brilliantly parodies all that is wrong with New Burlesque and stripping more generally.
Out of all the burlesque acts I've seen, the ones that didn't involve women stripping were the best - the acrobats, comedians and musicians. While back in the 1800s, it would have been highly subversive for a female performer to wear anything less than a full length dress, nowadays it sometimes feels like the most controversial thing a woman can do is keep her clothes on. If the latter, combined with real talent, is the future of burlesque, then perhaps a greater quantity of it will be genuinely worth watching.
• Circus Burlesque until 30 August; Kitty Cointreau's BraHaHa until 29 August; Your Little Princess Is My Little Whore until 28 August; Kabarett: Alternative Variety until 27 August; Lashings Of Ginger Beer Time until 30 August; The Last Trilogy Part 2 - Free until 29 August