Some like it mediocre

Burlesque is ruffling feathers again. Ben Walters finds where art meets banality

David Walliams’s views on burlesque are evolving. ‘I thought it was like stripping without the really good bit at the end,’ the actor-turned-talent-show-judge told veteran-performer-turned-reality-contestant Beatrix Von Bourbon in last Wednesday’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ semi-final. ‘But seeing it tonight I realise there’s a great deal of artistry in what you do.’

Von Bourbon’s ‘BGT’ experience marked another stillettoed step into the mainstream for burlesque, accompanied by the now-familiar mix of backhanded praise and inane prurience. In performance terms, her audition (see below) illustrated much of the form’s classical appeal – charisma, technical proficiency, evident enjoyment – while her semi-final turn showed why it was never really going to work on ‘BGT’: a burlesque routine that lasts 90 seconds and leaves your tits covered is a non-starter. There was still enough to get the red-tops in a hypocritical tizzy, though: ‘Cowell strip girl in X-rated storm’, frothed the Daily Star’s front page.

Burlesque is regularly on the defensive within the cabaret scene too, sometimes for its use of nudity, considered politically retrograde by some, but more often for low standards. The latest jeremiad ran last month on, under the elegant headline ‘The Shittest Burlesque I’ve Seen’. ‘For every good burlesquer out there, there are three bad ones,’ wrote ‘Alita O’Ginn’. ‘Do it well or don’t do it at all.’ The article provoked strong responses both for and against; gentleman juggler Mat Ricardo argued on his blog that its protracted castigation of banal performers went against the supportive, familial environment that makes the cabaret scene special.

Ricardo certainly had a point, but the crux of the whole issue has gone unexplored. O’Ginn rightly insists that burlesque is about ‘the audience, not the bling’, but shows no curiosity about that audience herself. No one denies there’s a lot of mediocre burlesque out there, especially on the amateur scene, but no one is forced to watch it. Why, then, does it thrive? The answer, I think, has to do with aspiration. And, far from being a regrettable by-product, mediocrity could be seen as the whole point of a certain type of burlesque.

Dirty Martini Dirty Martini

If art is the creative expression of a unique sensibility, there’s no reason burlesque performers can’t be artists. People like Fancy Chance or Dirty Martini – to name just two – combine dance, clowning and stripping to offer meaningful insights into contemporary issues around identity, sexuality, culture and politics while demonstrating a palpable enjoyment in performance and a compelling engagement with their audience. That’s burlesque at its best and, as with any art form, the works are unique to their creators.

The other, more popular side of burlesque – often dubbed ‘cheesecake’ – is less to do with art than with the enactment of a certain type of aspirational glamour. That’s not to underestimate the talents of those who do it well: to combine attractive costumes and props with well-chosen music, accomplished choreography and alluring stage presence is no mean feat. But sometimes those elements appear to have been considered in that order of importance; success seems to be a matter of faithfully realising a model of established taste rather than expressing an individual sensibility through creative experiment.

This is where the aspiration comes in. There are few scenes in which the line between audiences and performers is more permeable than it is in burlesque, whose modern fans have always been predominantly female. Exquisite vintage outfits, ornate hairstyles and just-so make-up are almost as common off the stage as on it; some punters are better turned out than the performers. This shouldn’t be taken as mere superficiality – plenty of fans are as engaged in the form’s history and politics as its aesthetics – but nor should the mode’s materialistic aspects go unnoted.

Cheesecake burlesque might, as host Ant McPartlin put it on ‘BGT’, ‘get a lot of men hot under the collar’, but it gets more mileage out of tantalising women with its fantasias of diamonds and furs, designer labels, champagne cocktails and jet-set partying – the lifestyle alluded to in Millicent Binks’s Evening Standard column, or the Tupperware-party-style parade of lingerie sponsors’ wares that preceded shows at last week’s World Burlesque Games. Of course, it also promises liberated sexuality and economic self-determination – and it does so by buying into an outmoded system of sexual stereotyping: hey, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Dita Von Teese Dita Von Teese

Do most audience members recognise this fantasy as a fantasy? Sure. But they also enjoy the escapism and some of them find the reality of working as a burlesque performer appealing. In either case, there’s something to be said for watching mediocre or bland performers: the former offer confirmation that you could do better given half a chance; the latter make a more effective blank slate on to which to project your own image (just as many teen pop idols offer a banally transferable lust object). It’s no coincidence that the form’s most successful acts – Dita Von Teese, Immodesty Blaize – can seem curiously devoid of charisma when performing live, however adept they are at conceiving photogenic tableaux and building merchandising empires. The most successful burlesquers have got talent, all right, but it might not always be of the kind you’d expect.