I first saw The Burlesque Hour a few years ago.
That was back when fortyfivedownstairs was a single-story venue and the Burlesque gals were relatively new on the scene. Now they are nothing short of a theatrical phenomenon, with a legion of devoted followers, a host of uber-talented guest stars, and an annual residency @ 45 where they perform to packed houses week after week.
The other night I braved Melbourne’s wintry, fog-crowned streets to reacquaint myself with the show.
I’m glad to say The Burlesque Hour retains all of its subversive power, humour and intelligence.
If you look up burlesque in the dictionary you’re likely to find something like this:
|1.||an artistic composition, esp. literary or dramatic, that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity.|
|2.||any ludicrous parody or grotesque caricature.|
|3.||a humorous and provocative stage show featuring slapstick humor, comic skits, bawdy songs, striptease acts, and a scantily clad female chorus.|
The show is, to varying degrees, all of the above. Okay, sure, there’s no scantily clad chorus line. And the humour isn’t exactly slapstick. But there’s a whole lot of material that vulgarizes the lofty and raises up the ordinary, and there’s a fistful of the menacing, the grotesque, and the parodic.
So where does one place The Burlesque Hour?
It is, according to co-creator Moria Finucane, an “explosive mix of circus, vaudeville, carnival, showgirl, magic realism, text, burlesque, music hall, dance, butoh and performance art; colliding in extraordinary images of liberation and oppression.”
True, there are an incredibly diverse mix of styles at play. But what really makes the show is its engagement with those twinned themes liberation and oppresion.
Burlesque has always been obsessively concerned with female flesh. A quick glance at the history of burlesque (thankyou Wikipedia) involves drawing an uncertain line between art and smut, satire and striptease. In other words, burlesque is a Frankenstein of an artform, a hydra-headed monster that draws from both high and low culture and in doing so smudges the demarcartion between.
In the wrong hands, burlesque can degrade into little more than a means of titilating the male gaze. The Burlesque Hour reworks its dramatic heritage into something profoundly feminine. There’s no shortage of female flesh, but it’s on their terms. And, with all due respect to the girls, we’re not talking perfect chorus-line bodies, but real women of all shapes and sizes.
I particularly loved Yumi’s vomiting Japanese businesswoman, Azaria’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” skit, and Moria’s demented Milk Maid. And what a job they have done of transforming the space. The red lanterns look stunning. And the cabarat seating works beautifully.
I have no doubt some might struggle with the show (after all, not everyone likes being confronted) but with a group of like-minded friends, a few bottles of bubbly, and a dimly lit table, it’s hard to imagine a better night out in Melbourne.
But watch out: these girls are mad, and when girls get mad, they get messy!