Burlesque is back!

On Tour

On Tour

Since my teenage days, I’ve always been a huge fan of Las Vegas grind tunes, which by proxy led me to the wonderful world of Burlesque – perhaps the live embodiment of the sound. You know the kind of thing… sleazy saxophone, bongo rhythms, nasty guitar with a tone to make you feel like it’ll flay your back (think Link Wray), and low-tom drumming just to give that sense of jungle exotica.

Thankfully, a good amount of these sounds were propelled out of obscurity and into people’s lounge-rooms by Tarantino on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Another fine example of the sound is Henry Mancini’s most brilliant soundtrack to the Orson Welles film A Touch of Evil (1958), which is filled with the wild and reckless abandon of hop-headed teenagers, corrupt cops, Cadillacs with bigger fins than I don’t know what, and seedy hotel rooms.

For a teenager into music, this sound had everything – especially the taboo, which is something that the lurid record covers could only scratch the surface of.  The taboo, of course, was the music’s association with Burlesque culture, as these tunes became the unofficial soundtrack.

For the uninitiated, Burlesque is a strange mix of early striptease (with an emphasis on ‘tease’), ‘carny’ vaudeville, side-show weirdness, off-colour and off-kilter humour, and exotic dance. It’s an environment where stockings, suspenders and corsets rule, where velvet smoking jackets and cigars are the order of the day, and where the politically correct takes a back seat to the larger-than-life. No body type is unsexy and no inhibitions are allowed. Where Marilyn Munro was the Hollywood pin-up, Betty Paige was the alter ego.

In the years following my teenage-hood, Burlesque became lost in a sea of popular culture. Lost, but never forgotten, the wonderful world of New Burlesque landed in front of me in about 2004 through a documentary made by Burlesque queen, Augusta, entitled The Velvet Hammer Burlesque (so called as it documented the unique stylings of Michelle Carr’s pioneering troupe of the same name). Burlesque was back!

The Velvet Hammer Burlesque

The Velvet Hammer Burlesque

Over the last decade or so, this New Burlesque movement has become a staple part of alternative culture, reaching international audiences through festivals and shows. There is even a Miss Burlesque Australia crown. Burlesque’s impact on the world of fashion, art and music goes well beyond the niche, with its iconographic statements being seen daily on the street in a multitude of contexts, from books to tattoos to coiffures to clothing. And let’s not forget that household name, Dita Von Teese (well – in my household anyway), who seems to be a ubiquitous addition to any classy party.

The speed at which the New Burlesque movement has been embraced has been rapid, and it’s hard to nail down why. Is it the complete time-warp the style lives in? Is it the touch of weird? Is it the playful innocence set against what may ordinarily be considered lewd? Is it the enduring idea of looking through a keyhole to see what we shouldn’t be allowed to see? Is it the classic lines of the art, fashion, photography and music? Is it the reckless abandon? Or is it simply that it wraps all these things together into one fantastic, tassle-twirling gift where each layer has its own texture and sense of surprise? For me, it’s the whole package.

While the scale of the movement internationally is perhaps a surprise, the fact that the spirit of Burlesque has been captured in a new feature film isn’t – it was only a matter of time. To see it done so truthfully, though, is a different thing altogether. It was with enormous pleasure, then, for me, that one of the big winners at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival was Mathieu Amalric’s excellent drama On Tour. Following a troupe of American Burlesque dancers across France, the film has a truly authentic feel – largely because the performers are, in fact, performers. And anyone who has spent time on the road will easily identify with its ‘backstage chaos’ feel.

So as the planets align at ACMI (well, perhaps just my personal planets) a not-to-be-missed opportunity presents itself as film combines with a taste of the real thing on the 5th of May. For one special evening, in conjunction with the Australian Burlesque Festival, ACMI presents three of Melbourne’s top Burlesque artists over four classic routines, followed by a full screening of On Tour. Featuring Dolores Daiquiri, Sapphira and Sapphira’s Showgirls, Lallah L’amore, Miss Lulu Bisou and complimentary champagne on entry – well, you can’t go wrong.

If you haven’t had a chance to experience Burlesque in the flesh, you simply must – it’s a whole new world of everything. I can feel a tattoo coming on right now!

Richard Sowada
Head of Film Programs

For full details of this special Burlesque film event, see the ACMI website. 

On Tour screens at ACMI from Thursday 5 May to Monday 16 May.

Dolores Daiquiri

Dolores Daiquiri

Sapphira's Showgirls

Sapphira's Showgirls

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