When Becky Karpovsky (SC ’11) realized she had seen a lot of burlesque and was completely enamored with the performative aesthetic, she thought, why not? She was drawn to the concept of burlesque as an opportunity to perform the body and identity in just the way the actor wants them to be seen and perceived.
The realization occurred right about the time when Julia Pashall (PI ’12) came back from a semester in Amsterdam, where she saw a lot of avant-garde performance and thought that the 5C cultural space had room for more experimentation and excitement.
For Becky and Julia burlesque was a gateway to a “strong and wonderful empowerment of the body.” But that was not all. They liked the idea of queering not only the art of burlesque but everything that came with it: the stage, the space, the audience, the environment. And so was born Fantastische! A Queer Burlesque, an explosion of light, sound, movement and ideas that kept a small audience electrified and sensually excited for an hour and a half at Dom’s Lounge on the night of April 21.
The audience members, no more than ninety, were encouraged to come in costume, in drag, in lingerie, wearing paint and glitter, or in any way they wished. They were met by two beautiful bouncers glistening in gold and silver and were seated at tables with white furry tablecloths and exquisite centerpieces. They were touched lightly with peacock feathers and were served water in pink Solo cups. But most of all they were in awe, because they found themselves in a fairytale place where carrying a whip or unbuttoning your shirt all the way down to the bottom was not only not unacceptable, but warmly encouraged.
Flashback: Historically burlesque is a literary, dramatic or musical piece intended as a caricature of serious works, a mockery of sorts; the word comes from the Italian burla – joke, ridicule. In the Victorian era burlesque in theater was equated with extravaganza, an elaborate explosion of theater, music and dance, which included elements of parody, cabaret, comedy, variety and more.
Burlesque became popular in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when cabarets, clubs and some theaters offered bold and suggestive comedy that dealt with sexuality in uninhibited and provocative ways. Working with these definitions and putting a spin on them, Becky and Julia searched for a safe and exciting environment that allowed people to “display bodies that are typically hidden.”
“What distinguishes this show is that it has an objective to be queer,” Julia explained. “By queer we mean to challenge norms and deconstruct concepts that are established about sexuality and performance. I hope it is significant to the 5C community in that it showcases the creativity and talent of the many students involved in the production as well as broadens people’s exposure to their ideas of sexy.”
Every performer in the show had the opportunity to perform themselves the way they wanted to be seen and to embrace their body, while shedding or subverting stereotypes. Through song, dance and short skits, every member of the cast shared personal concerns and experiences, finding great interest and understanding in the audience. People were able to relate to what happened on stage on various levels, and everyone found something to hold on to.
In a way Fantastiche was an architectural project. “We tried to create a space in which people feel comfortable to engage creatively with ideas about bodies and express things they might not have other outlets for,” said Julia.
The result was powerful discussion between actors and audience that was empowering for everyone. “I want the audience to leave feeling good about themselves,” Becky said before the show. Her goal was definitely achieved during the course of the night.
Maybe the most poignant example of the implementation of this desire to free and empower was Julia’s act. Wrapped in a black robe and enclosed in a rectangular frame, she slowly sang an a capella song that artfully described her experience with and of her overweight body. As the song continued and the verses became more and more suggestive, the audience shook and gasped with excitement, which culminated as the performer disrobed and stood naked in the frame, singing and displaying her body in all its magnificence.
“I am giving myself permission to be sexy and bare without feeling ashamed about my body,” Julia said. “I have always thought that because I was fat I was not allowed to be sexy, not supposed to show my body. This is sort of a big fuck you to the way I have been taught to think about myself.”
And, as it became obvious during the intermission that followed shortly, the audience was in awe. “The body is just everything. Loving it!” Becky exclaimed.
“The show is about confronting heteronormative discoveries like the blindmaladaptive behaviors we have adopted out of fear of our beautiful biology,” said Ryan Weighard (PO ’11) who wrote the score for Fantastiche. Ryan and his band of musicians performed on one side of the stage, right where the Pub DJs are usually stationed on Wednesday nights.
The choice of venue for Fantastiche was a very important element of the event preparation and held conceptual significance for both performers and directors. “Initially we had thought of putting the show on at The Motley,” Julia explained. “But then we spoke to our faculty advisor who pointed out it might be cool to stage the show in a space that is not as queer friendly. Dom’s Lounge is mostly affiliated with Pub and for many people it feels like a very heteronormative space.” “We wanted to subvert that image and thus queer the mainstream,” Becky added.
For these and other reasons, Dom’s turned out to be a great place for the show. The way Fantastiche was set up and implemented brought out the swanky atmosphere of the room and emphasized organizational choices that are not often made during parties and events in the space. Dom’s became a friendly and beautiful place where one could relax and enjoy good company while drinking water (the only drink offered at the bar) and being tickled by the decoration hanging from the ceiling. It became a safe space where one could explore oneself and the freedoms and limits one feels. In short, it was a Fantastiche experience.