Last Tuesday, new documentary Exposed landed in the UK with a thump. Showing at the ICA until 16 January, the highly insightful documentary by Beth B goes behind the scenes of the New York cabaret scene, talking to many of its luminaries and showing off their onstage skills. If one quality ran through all the film’s subjects, it is that each one seeks to provide a considered counter-argument to society’s sexual and political norms by satirical burlesque of one form or another. In some ways, these performers stay true to not just the etymological roots of burlesque but its very intention: to act as a visual parody of the issues of the day.
On this side of the pond, Rubyyy Jones and her Familyyy Fierce are both brave and brilliantly provocative queerlesque auteurs who have recently secured their own regular show at Madame Jojo’s. Expect to hear more about this mob in 2014. North American in origin but based in London, Jones is renowned for her no-nonsense approach to cabaret. If Exposed had been filmed in London instead of New York, she would undoubtably have appeared in it. With that in mind, we appointed Jones our official envoy to see Exposed at its official opening and give us her views.
Last week I went on a little date with me, myself and I to the Institute of Contemporary Arts to see the first London screening of Beth B’s documentary Exposed, a backstage pass into the subversive centre of New York’s neo-burlesque scene. The film focuses on eight men and women portraying a real variety of different genders, bodies and backgrounds. While they are highly visible through their art, Exposed delves deeper into the lives of these misfits of NYC.
It was the perfect evening, not only because I ended up on the arm of performance artist and queerlesque hunk Lazlo Pearlman, but because I approached the ICA with a great hunger. I have been starving for true, living and transformational neo-burlesque artists I could look up to, learn from and be pushed by if only by their very presence on the scene. I have found Familyyy in neo-scenes of burlesque, cabaret and drag but I have not found mentors and, as a mentor myself, I was feeling depleted and downright pissed off at the sanitized, normative, male gaze productions happening all over the UK.
I had even begun to ask myself: “What is the point? Why should I fight so hard?” If I shaved my body, stopped eating carbs and did double pirouettes in a g-string, I could be working so much more. Ultimately, I do not believe these things but the constant push, fight and proving of yourself over and over, simply because you do something that is maybe a little wild, weird or naked, is exhausting at times. Last year was a long, shifting and sensational one but now, in some ways, I was in danger of facing 2014 feeling abandoned and betrayed by my community, colleagues and craft. So many of my wildly talented colleagues were burning out or selling out, while consistently being overlooked for work, opportunities and accolades. Show after show that bored me to death, no sign of narrative, academia or a nipple in the whole evening, white washed people. The hundredth producer who said with a furrowed brow “it’s a tricky audience” when really they should have have said “no fat chicks” or “we just want something sparkly”.
At the Exposed press screening, I joined an invited audience of cabaret innovators, kinky fans and art enthusiasts for the screening. For one night only, the film was followed up by Q&A with one of the film’s subjects Mat Fraser moderated by his ally and friend, Trixie Malicious. An interesting note, and one that was brought up in the post-screening discussion, was that the film was shot about six years ago when The Slipper Room was still very lewd and very naked in a tiny basement venue and Tigger! was the only boylesquer.
Exposed features some of idols and the crème de la crème of the NY cabaret scene: Dirty Martini, Rose Wood, Julie Atlas Muz, World Famous *BOB*, Tigger!, Bunny Love, Bambi the Mermaid and Fraser. Later in the Q&A, the latter responded to a question of mine by saying that another performer who could have been a suitable subject for the film would have Scotty The Blue Bunny (a hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe currently based in Berlin).
Veteran performers in burlesque years, the film highlights their work in front of an audience but also spends time with them backstage and in daylight and they are as raw, real and provocative in person as in performance and I felt fan girl about my colleagues for the first time in ages. So much of the discussion was about gender, freedom, art, normalcy, the F/M gaze, practice, ego, politics and how that influences and fuels their work; it was absolutely thrilling to hear burlesque artists speaking this way and seeing how it manifested in their work. Onstage, Tigger!’s BP oil spill showgirl finish, Julie Atlas Muz’s ode to Pina Bausch, Rose Wood’s homage to Vickie Lynn and Bunny Love’s lipsticked lips all educated, entertained and stirred me up. Offstage, World Famous *Bob* discussing her personal journey of choosing to be a woman, the precious Rose Wood pre- and post-breast augmentation, Fraser and Atlas Muz in bed John and Yoko style and Bunny Love sweetly smirking while discussing the “freedom of vulgarity”.
Exposed was a film about so much more than burlesque, the same as these performers are much more than burlesquers. It was a film about humanity, liberation and discovery. Moreover, these performers are artists, activists and pioneers, working for the kind of stage and world that I will continue to put all my heart and art into. It was a masterclass for this student and it made me realise how naive and disenchanted I had become, how I had let some setbacks in our industry make me forget that the fight had already begun, long before I bounded onto stage. It is no longer a battle. It is a movement.
Tigger! was the only boylesquer in New York at the time of filming and now there are boylesque festivals and events all over the North America and Europe. Dirty Martini has travelled the world, balancing her energies, sharing the stage with the queens of classic striptease in Dita von Teese’s Strip Strip Hooray! and other international classic of events while simultaneously touring with Cabaret New Burlesque, a band of bawdy, witty and wacky cabaret artists. Mat and Julie got married, have travelled and performed extensively in burlesque, cabaret and theatre including a sell out run at The Young Vic of their beautiful take on Beauty and the Beast.
On the way home, I thought about the many artists in London and the UK who in all ways, small and large, move us all forward and those bravely offering ourselves and our work as the embodiment of what Mat Fraser calls absolution in imperfections and I felt full, to the brim. It was a reminder that we do this, not to change the industry for the industry’s sake, but to shake up the ones who come to see us, who pay to see something real to happen right before their eyes and so we must continue to (in the words of Tigger!) “blow the fantasy for the pervs and bust prudes with talent and entertainment”. I would urge everyone in the industry and beyond to check out this limited screening at The ICA. Prepare to be inspired, entertained and shocked!
Full information on screenings and ticket availability can be seen here.
Image credit: Andy Whyland