Sunday, November 29, 2009

Play With Fire

Burlesque as a tradition of performance has a history that stems back to the legacy of music hall and vaudeville shows and evokes memories of such performers as Gypsy Rose Lee and Fanny Brice. The variety show, a once standard and well-loved style of artistic presentation, was marked by “comic effects, erotic stimulation, or imaginative astonishment”. (Marinetti, 421) A pastiche of musical numbers, spectacle and circus acts, exotic dancers and any number of other niche routines were ushered on and off the stage in a wonderfully irreverent amalgamation of the beautiful and the grotesque. The contemporary theatre, or sphere of performance art as a whole, however, seems to have veered away from this longstanding tradition in favour of a (very generally) much more naturalistic and narrative-heavy aesthetic. Although we may fancy ourselves a more progressive and liberal generation that those of the early 20th century that gave birth to the burlesque and variety traditions, we seem to have effectively quelled the impulse to examine the marginal and extraordinary that these forms celebrated.
The question stands, then, whether or not burlesque and the variety show still have a place in today’s theatrical spectrum. A relatively small and underground community that has re-emerged and thrived over the last several years, especially in New York City, would suggest that they do. Currently celebrating its one- year anniversary, The Sunday Show at the Lower East Side’s burlesque haven, The Slipper Room, has worked to create (and made tremendous headway in doing so) “a censorship-free monthly exposition of performance artists which aims to sharpen the lost edge of Lower Manhattan’s underground art and music scene in the form of an unpredictable variety show.” (About…) Created and hosted by Kiki Valentine, The Sunday Show brings together a diverse cast of performers who represent a range of talents from fire swallowing, knife juggling, strip-tease, fan dancing and more. One such staple performer at the Slipper Room every month is Justina Flash, a hula-hoop burlesque dancer and fire specialist. It should be noted that (as the author of this analysis) I have the privilege of living with Justina Flash and knowing her intimately as both person and performer, which has offered me a unique perspective on the nature and intention of her work.
In his essay 1913 “The Variety Theatre”, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti outlines essential elements of the variety show of his time that remain completely applicable to Justina Flash’s performance at the November installation of The Sunday Show and to contemporary burlesque. The emcee comes onstage, scantily clad in a sequined and beaded brassiere and briefs, a headdress and braids; ironic and somewhat disdainful homage to Native Americans, the theme of this month’s show being “Thanksgiving on the Lower East Side”. At once, Marinetti’s “powerful caricatures…abysses of the ridiculous…delicious, impalpable ironies…all-embracing definitive symbols” are brought to mind as she introduces the opening act. (Marinetti, 421) She says that this Thanksgiving, Justina Flash is thankful for love and for danger, winks, manually draws the curtain on the tiny proscenium stage, and exits as the routine begins. The song “Lovefool” (by The Cardigans) begins to play and Justina turns to face the audience, framed by her already ablaze hula-hoop and blows a kiss to all of the faces hidden in the otherwise dark and dingy room, a definite scent of alcohol and clinking of glasses and bottles underscoring the coy air with which she greets her spectators and lowers her prop around her tiny waist and begins to spin.

To give a descriptive account of the beginning of her routine calls to mind certain notions of familiar ritual that can be identified even by an inexperienced onlooker. The imagery of the bawdy host(ess) and the exaggeratedly made-up performer, the anticipation of some risqué revelation in tandem with the physically dirty performance space is well-known to many individuals who have a familiarity with the cinema or with the area of popular culture that can be exemplified by works such as Kander and Ebb’s infamous musical Cabaret. This type of performance is inherently nostalgic at first glance in a modern context, despite Marinetti’s insistence that is “born…from electricity, is lucky in having no tradition, no masters, no dogma”. (Marinetti, 421) Although Justina Flash’s performance is very much of the moment in which it occurs, its roots are not unfamiliar: the spectator expects unusual talent, the removal of clothing, the closing of the musky curtain in completion, and that is what they get. It is also true, however, that burlesque is bound up in so much intention and implications about the body as a social and political object and subject.
Justina’s performance could indeed be classified as spectacle based and exhibitionistic, but what is important to understand is that it is also very conscientiously an act of subversion that trumps any assumptions of base behaviour for the sake of base behaviour. Burlesque, while highlighting the female body that is absolutely sexual, works also to undo conventions of gender and sexuality. Judith Butler provides a helpful means by which this assertion can be expanded upon through the lens of the drag act, which is actually quite similar in nature to the burlesque act. One could even argue that burlesque and strip-tease are themselves forms of drag as Butler describes it. She asserts: “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency”. (Butler, 75) Justina’s costume is absolutely performative of the objectified female: a partial corset, a black lace brassiere and matching tutu. She wears a great deal of make-up that accentuates her eyes and lips, hyper-erogenous aspects of the face. Her legs are bare and amplified by high heels. When she slowly and teasingly removes the brassiere, a cascade of pink rose petals fall to the floor and in place of pasties are more petals framing her nipples, an ingeniously obvious image of stereotypical femininity if not specifically female innocence, an ironic nod to the act of stripping itself. All of this she circumscribes with her burning hula-hoop, which inherently necessitate both sensual movement and danger. The synthesis of all of these elements amounts not simply to a woman exposing herself to a crowd, but to an individual imitating and mocking the idea of “gender” as it has been constructed by society, as Butler suggests: Justina’s act observes, interprets, imitates and disembowels. By (in a way) making her femininity the focal point of her act, she fights her own objectivity as both woman and subject.
This notion returns to Marinetti, whose Variety Theatre
is a school of heroism in the difficulty of setting records and conquering
resistances, and it creates on the stage the strong, sane atmosphere of danger…disparages and healthily tramples down the compulsion towards carnal possession, lowers lust to the natural function of coitus, deprives it of every mystery, every crippling anxiety, every unhealthy idealism. (Marinetti, 423)

Because Justina, as the performer who dictates her own relationship with her audience, very forwardly presents her own body onstage, she takes the power out of the audience’s potential for desire and reclaims it as her own. Very little is left to the imagination, as some would say. Although it may appear to be quite the opposite, this solidifies her identity as unstable as the spectator is able to grasp it. With “everything” put out in the open, what does the audience have left to hold over her? This act of unexpected empowerment is what Elizabeth Grosz describes as “abjection”, which she defines as
the body’s acknowledgement that the boundaries and limits imposed on it are
really social projections – effects of desire, not nature. It testifies to the precarious grasp of the subject on its own identity, an assertion that the subject may slide back into the impure chaos out of which it was formed. It is, in other words, an avowal of the death drive, a movement of undoing identity. (Grosz, 145)

Grosz, like Marinetti and Butler, is interested in the social stigmas placed on the body as both object and subject. By creating a caricature, an amplified image of woman and of the female body as there to please, there for the taking, without actually being either at all, Justina Flash embodies the ideas of all three of these writers.

The subversive and underground nature of the burlesque scene and the variety show framing of such performance art, while perhaps initially appearing sentimental and less than topical in form and content, are, in reality, quite charged as a form of social commentary. Justina Flash’s act, specifically, raises questions about what place, if any, the construct of gender has in contemporary culture and (subsequently) on today’s stage. Her performance is not one that should qualify her as vulgar, shameless or ostentatious as many may ignorantly presume. On the contrary, her act is completely courageous, progressive (even with its roots in a very familiar performance tradition), and socially responsible as she strives to undermine exactly these misconceptions. In a generation saturated by fantastical notions of sex and sexuality in performance, what could be more appropriate or necessary?

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