Burlesque and cabaret are pretty popular in London these days - huge hoards of women roll into darkened clubs and gym classes are filled with women sliding down poles. And while burlesque dancing is becoming more of a casual pastime, organisers are also doing well to promote its status as a glitzy high-end performance. This week Crazy Horse Paris presents its show Forever Crazy at the South Bank, an expensive and highly choreographed affair starring Kelly Brook.
I often love to watch these kinds of show but do feel confused over what to make of this so-called art form. Is burlesque another form of sexual exploitation or a way of championing the feminist cause? Well, I think inevitably it can be either, or both. Arguably it comes down to whether the particular burlesque show successfully subverts the conventions of other forms of stripping, as well as the powerless spectacle of the female body more generally.
Burlesque dancers do exert a certain amount of power in that they choose their stage name, costume, and – perhaps more importantly – how much flesh they show. Yet, a more significant area of consideration is the nature of the performance itself. Arguably, burlesque performances are far from a basic form of titillation, but subtle and intelligent works of art.
Indeed, burlesque has a long history of acting as a medium in which to explore the social and political issues of the day. Clickety Split, for example, is a burlesque group from Chicago that make statements on current issues such as abortion rights and war. And of course, pretty much all performances can be said to explore the idea of femininity. Sexual stereotypes and characters – such as the pin-up, housewife, and movie star – are playfully exaggerated to the point of parody and humour. In turn, the notion of the passive female is disrupted as the audience laughs and interacts with the show. In fact, unpredictability and audience interaction frequently comes into play, as performers actively surprise and challenge people in the crowd.
In addition, there tends to be different types of femininity on show – including women covered in tattoos, with shaved heads, and larger women. Shows can promote a diversity of shapes and sizes as well as personalities.
So perhaps burlesque can be seen as a way of celebrating the female form without displaying it as a passive sexual object. It is often about sensuality and lightheartedness, as well as politics and subversion. Of course, there will always be different forms and interpretations; Dita Von Teese has more of a classic look, seeming submissive and almost childlike in some of her acts. But I think, ultimately, it's important to have diversity. If something is to be creative, there can't be too many rules and set ideas.
Of course, the risk is that as more women perform burlesque and it becomes more mainstream, it loses its creative and political edge - instead becoming full of one-dimensional routines, bloated with clichés.
Like the idea of femininity, I think we should strive to think of burlesque as an open-ended and actively creative medium, full of play and humour.