A casual look over any event calendar worth its salt this summer is proof that burlesque is making a revival in Toronto. From events like the 3-day Toronto Burlesque Festival, now in its sixth year, to established local troupes like the Great Canadian Burlesque regularly performing around the city, it is clear that there is an appetite.
Historically, the Toronto burlesque scene had its heyday between the 1940s and 1960s, with the opening in 1941 of the Victory Burlesque Theatre (named in anticipation of defeating the Nazis) advertising itself as the “The Best in Burlesque.” Though it was illegal at the time for a woman to show her bare ta-tas, the venue was well-stocked with pasties and g-strings to keep clients entertained. Reports of the occasional wardrobe malfunction, about 50 years before Janet Jackson did the same, were not uncommon in the 1960s though there was spotty enforcement of laws. By that time, the Victory Burlesk (as some called it) was hosting four striptease shows a day, seven days a week with a movie and stand-up thrown in to give variety to the nights and the ladies on stage a break. In the face of burgeoning strip clubs, the Victory closed in 1975.
What has brought on the revival of this art form, which one should note is not (just) pole-dancing and getting naked to gratify male arousal – though if this does happen to you, gentlemen, nobody will fault you – but rather acts of striptease (there is a difference between this and stripping, FYI), mystery, sensuality, entertainment for both genders, comedy and playfulness in performativity. In the past few decades, burlesque has made a return in the form of neo-burlesque, which carries a certain nostalgic feeling for the glamour and spectacle of the classic scene of old, with Dita Von Teese as its unofficial spokeswoman. Whether her popularity and recognition in mainstream culture is what has made the art form more prominent among urbanites once again is a guess, though with the release of films such as The Great Gatsby this year, perhaps there is a backlash of sorts against the hot mess starlet obsessions of the mid-2000s (I’m looking at you LiLo, Paris Hilton, and, more recently, Amanda Bynes) and a novel desire to return to more classic Hollywood glamour and vintage style (I’m looking at you, hipsters).
Also, there is something to be said for the playful, striptease sensuality paired, often, with comedy that comes with burlesque as opposed to the fast sexuality and lack of personality in pornography and mainstream pop culture. Among the LGBT community, there has been a huge burlesque resurgence not only as an art and entertainment but also as gender-play. Having experienced a few in my years, there is nothing like seeing a drag queen flash her 15-pound polyurethane breasts before slapping you with them. In any case, if you want to catch some burlesque and missed the Toronto Burlesque Festival this year, fear not, as it appears the art form is back and here to stay.
For upcoming Great Canadian Burlesque, check here.