Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Rubyyy Jones's Young Feminist Whores' at Mimetic Festival, 29th November 2014

Well with a name like that how I could I resist?  I figured if any show was going to get right up in my face with wide-eyed, experimental, angry-as-all-fuck political theatre it was going to be whatever Young Feminist Whores was.  As it turned out they were pretty young.  And they loudly shouted their 'whore-pride' (as the compère put it "you call us a whore it's a fucking compliment!") but feminist?  Well... I dunno. 

The evening turned out to be a relatively traditional neo-burlesque show, with the familiar old parade of tassles, sequins, pop music, glitter and elaborate (yet easy to remove) costumes. Our compère was Rubyyy Jones, a self-described "big fat fabulous queer Canadian", who did her best to whip the crowd up into a frenzy and laid out the basic tenets of the burlesque philosophy.  Prime among these is the notion that burlesque is an individual performative expression.  

From what I can gather, the ideal burlesque performance allows a woman to reclaim her body from patriarchal objectification.  In devising a performance that emphasises personal tastes, generally a cocktail of comedy, sexuality and forthright body positivity, you achieve a kind of personal liberation.  You're still being objectified, but in burlesque the performer chooses their own objectification, with the audience in the palm of their hand.  Elsewhere the power dynamic lies with the audience and their fistfuls of sweaty five pound notes, in burlesque it's entirely with the performer.

Problem is that all too often both boil down to the same thing: a roomful of people hooting and whistling at a woman furiously twirling sparkly nipple tassles.  So where does this leave Young Feminist Whores?  For long portions its an entertaining, if slightly predictable, burlesque evening.  So there's the sexy fan dance, a clown routine and a flamenco-y Spanish routine. All are focussed, talented performers, but we've all seen this before.  Give me novelty, dammit!

Pearl Grey at Burlesque Idol 2014
By far the best of the traditional performers was Pearl Grey, who just the previous night won Burlesque Idol 2014.  Dressed in a dazzling self-made Elizabeth I costume, sporting sky-high cheekbones and the haughtiest of haughty looks she dances to Lorde's Royals.  The sight of this sets off all my happy, smiley neurons, reawakening a hitherto forgotten teenage crush on Miranda Richardson in Blackadder II.  Just as we're settling into the rhythm of Royals, the act takes a swerve to the cheesy with a transition in Can't Touch This.  This is accompanied by a gold bondage vest and ass tassles, which I figure are hard as hell to get to swerve.  It's easy to see why Pearl Grey won big the night before.

That was great, but there was one act that stood head and shoulders above the rest, probably because it wasn't really burlesque at all.  That was Scarlett O'Whorea, who did a powerfully intense bit of mini-theatre confessional to what I instantly recognised as the supersecret hidden track tucked away at the end of Jagged Little Pill.  I was faintly astonished - I haven't heard or thought about this song in years.  Scarlett's act, much like Alanis Morrissette's vocal performance, works to strip away layers of performative bullshit and reveal an emotional core.  

Cards on the table, the 'art of the tease' doesn't really do much for me.  It's an archaic aesthetic, one designed by Victorian men in the late 1800s, deeply conservative and old fashioned in how it presents the female body. Scarlett busted this shit right off the map by quickly stripping down completely naked and staying that way for most of her act.  This feels like real body liberation, the raw emotion and matter-of-fact nakedness throwing a harsh light over the chintzy camp of the rest of the show.  But then, this wasn't really burlesque - more straight up kickin' rad performance art.

Scarlett's was the only act I'd unquestionably call feminist.  At this point you might be wondering: who the fuck does this guy think he is?  For me to imperiously march around waving my big review writing pen and saying that X is feminist and Y isn't is a bit rich.  If these performers feel liberated who is anybody to tell them they're not?

While I've got no doubt that performing burlesque can be an intensely liberating experience, it doesn't necessarily automatically make it a feminist one.  I guess the obvious counter-argument is that allowing women the space to make their own decision to perform how they choose is an intrinsically feminist act.  But while the act of choosing indicates autonomy, the actual choice made as a result of that autonomy isn't necessarily feminist. For example, I don't think a Tea Party Republican woman choosing to vote to restrict access to contraception is at all a feminist act.

Maybe I'm arguing in circles here.  My real problem stems from the compère angrily explaining that this definitely isn't one of those shows where women take off more clothes the more we cheer.  Instead it's one of those shows where the more clothes a woman takes off, the more we cheer.  The former is the epitome of misogynistic objectification, the latter is apparently an act of powerful liberation.  

Maybe this just isn't my kinda thing.

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