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LOCAL Review :: Art and Culture : Gender and Sexuality

CONFLUENCE: Bench Press Burlesque; Sex is Not a Dirty Word

Bench Press Burlesque is not a strip show, but rather a tease show. While the performers may arouse with their scanty costumes, with that hard-on come generous helpings of belly-laughs, live music, political satire, and gender-bending skits.
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Bench-pressing
While sex is frequently the topic of BPB skits, it is not exploited for the sole purpose of drawing a crowd. Spectators accustomed to seeing skin onstage may instead find themselves blushing at skits spoofing oppressive gender roles, the online technocracy, or the Bush presidency. In an age where exploitative corporate entertainment, Myspace-driven social isolation, and consumerist frenzy tend to dominate mainstream culture, BPB seeks edginess in the unexpected and under-appreciated.

Bench Press Burlesque began in 2005 when its founding member, Loretta Loveless, put up fliers in South St. Louis requesting performers for a new, political burlesque and vaudeville troupe. Loretta was particularly encouraged by shows she saw at the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival and by the Grotesque Burlesque troupe in Louisville, KY, encouraging her to bring together local musical and performance talent and form her own troupe. The response was enormous, and the first BPB show in February 2006 at the Shangri La Diner featured 7 performers, the troupe's band The Tin Lizzies, and a packed house. More shows promptly followed at the Ground Floor in Belleville, IL, Venus Envy, the Tin Ceiling Theater, and the Lucas School House, each before a crowded audience.

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Loretta Loveless
The members of Bench Press Burlesque reflect the troupe's diverse character, as not all are “ruffles and perfect bodies,” says accordionist and printmaker Fanny Smack. “Far from it. There are black-eyes and boygirls, bellies and booties, genderqueers and girlboys, singers and dancers, tale-tellers and tail-waggers.” Each member brings to the troupe unique talents for a largely DIY show, whether music, performance art, graphics, erotica, costume design, set building, bikesmithing, or plenty of bad puns. Each member also has say in the troupe's artistic direction, as such decisions about the show's content are made collectively. This process helps the troupe explore new material on a regular basis, and indeed their last performance showcased new acts with African dance, juggling, stand-up comedy, and skits with male-bodied performers. Likewise, the collective creative control helps keep members motivated as they juggle their personal, familial, and professional commitments through dozens of hours of rehearsals that precede each show. It is in no way easy to perform burlesque, physically or mentally, and the troupe as a whole strives to ensure its members find value in their individual contributions, large or small.

As part of BPB's message against entrenched patriarchy and restrictive gender roles, gender-bending and macho-bashing run strong in many of the troupe members' onstage personae. Troupe member Dollface boasts 4 ex-husbands who met untidy ends, and former member Sunnyside Down can oft be found “bending gender like a Gumbi doll.” Strap-ons, priest's robes, painted moustaches, and business suits appear routinely, and members may portray multiple gender roles throughout a show to highlight the performance aspect of gender, rather than the biological. Indeed, after the Venus Envy performance in April 2006, some members promptly appeared in a guerrilla freak show that crashed the fashion catwalk in protest of Venus Envy's unfair policies towards transgendered artists. The freak show garnered applause at each performance.

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Fanny Smack
BPB does not shy away from politics in its shows, because, as Loretta puts it, “we created this troupe for ourselves, so we could clearly express our creative political ideas, and in that regard, all shows are a success.” Anarchism recurs throughout the troupe's skits, and it becomes intertwined with the members' repertoire of performance. Lil' Petey Porkemhardt and Busty Brown of the The Tin Lizzies frequently perform an English version of the Italian protest song “Bella Ciao” that appeared at the Seattle anti-WTO protests in 1999. Likewise, there are skits that specifically lampoon George Bush, the Iraq war and military recruitment, and labor unions (or lack thereof). Fanny Smack sees the troupe “stretching the limits of feminism, sexiness, gender, and anarchism” to challenge not just what the audience feels below the waist, but also what it thinks. Noam Chomsky may do an excellent job promoting serious socio-political discourse about the state of the country, but he just can't do it like how Loretta and Busty Brown do it in their skit where a Statue of Liberty wearing leather bondage gets groped by a money-wielding caricature of a Monsanto([search]) executive.

A final word should go to the force that helps make BPB shows entertaining, which lends oomph to its political and social satire, and which prompts loudest cheers from the audience, and that force is sex. BPB has plenty of sex, and its shows flaunt every bit of it. Loretta's experience working in strip clubs showed her the uninspired, mundane, even repressive, character of the commercial sex industry, and she desires the troupe to be every bit liberating that stripping was not. Not all troupe members have (or want) perfect bodies, and yet that does not inhibit the sexual confidence they place in their burlesque roles. Dollface and former member Lipstick L’Amour have no qualms doing chair dances together over a Big Band beat, just as Fanny Smack, Boi Bella and Busty Brown have no qualms doing puppet shows about contraception. In the sense that sex is liberating and personally empowering, Bench Press Burlesque is damn sexy.

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Lil' Petey Porkemhardt
BPB will play November 18th at Mad Art Gallery. A Thanksgiving tour through St. Louis, Indiana, and Ohio is in the works. See them at benchpressburlesque.com.

Sidebar: History of American Burlesque

Throughout its history, burlesque has always been the art of using bawdy humor and sexual tease to push the envelope of social mores, just as busy-bodies and do-gooders have always sought to shut burlesque down. American burlesque started as a British invasion in the 1860's, when Lydia Thompson aroused the New York stage with an all-female cast in flesh-colored tights mocking male roles from classical mythology. Countless imitators appeared quickly, and burlesque blossomed into a vibrant arena for satire and parody of the aristocratic class, oppressive Victorian gender roles, and so on. Scripts were rarely written down (to prevent plagiarism), and storylines, lyrics, and melodies were frequently appropriated from “high-brow” stage productions like opera and Shakespeare plays, as evident in marquee titles like Much Ado About a Merchant of Venice, Kill Trovatore!, and Bend Her (a.k.a. Ben Hur, but featuring Roman chariotresses in tights). Early burlesques held unique fascination for their audiences, men and women alike, not just because they featured lots of skin in an age prone to conservative fashion, but also because they were frequently produced, choreographed, and acted entirely by women.

Although burlesque has always titillated its audience with sexual innuendo, such was not always the main focus of the shows. Rather, burlesque line-ups typically included comic skits (rife with edgy double entendres), parodies of mainstream stage productions, and a wealth of other variety acts. Many renowned performers moonlighted in burlesques (often under pseudonyms) to pay their bills, including W.C. Fields, Red Skelton, Mae West, Fannie Brice, and Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion from the movie Wizard of Oz). Nevertheless, the emergence of the strip tease in the 1920's quickly transformed the nature of burlesque, and graphic performances became the norm to draw in (increasingly male) audiences. This transformation did much to promote an arena of uninhibited, erotic performance art, helping entertainers such as Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee achieve mainstream celebrity, but it also made burlesque vulnerable to its critics. On one side, moralists seized the opportunity to badger civic authorities into banning shows outright, and on the other side, the emerging porn industry competed directly for the randy male crowd. The burlesque lost its social impact and uniqueness by the 1950s, with many of its art forms appropriated for Hollywood pinups, strip clubs, television comedy, and so on, lingering in obscurity until its revival this decade.

This story appears in the current print issue of Confluence([search]) Newspaper. If you would like to contact the author or the Confluence editors about this story, please use any of the following:

Tel: 314.771.8576
email: confluence(at)lists.indymedia.org
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CONFLUENCE
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