Speaking before going onstage at the Sixth Annual New York Burlesque Festival in 2008, Angie Pontani tried to encapsulate her genre of performance. “Some people say it’s, like, how many ways can you think of to take your clothes off,” she admitted, patting cream on her face. “But burlesque is all about tease. At the end you know people are going to be scantily clad, but what you remember most … is how they got scantily clad.”
Burlesque has been undergoing a revival, helped by the mainstream fame of performers such as Dita von Teese and the underground renown of others, such as the larger-than-life Dirty Martini. But even in the most famous, most supposedly outré versions of ‘the New Burlesque’, the tropes of sexual enticement are familiar to the point of being traditional. The girl slowly gets naked before splashing about, lonely for company, in an oversized martini glass. Or she dances with large fans, barely covering her, top and bottom. Or the standard routine, which starts in an evening dress and gloves and ends with a vigorous, anatomically unlikely, nipple-tassle tussle. Most acts involve some combination of corsetry, feathers, sequins, glitter eye-shadow and bras that unclick miraculously with one hand, and all are performed to recorded music without the woman opening her mouth, other than, perhaps, to gasp. The element of risqué consists, if at all, only in the open statement of what female desire might look like if it were sponsored by Revlon, Victoria’s Secret and ostrich farmers.
In burlesque the striptease is mostly tease, because anticipation, as the performers well know, is the longer part of pleasure. Each act is a drawn-out come-on. And so it must, at its core, contain an invitation. But trying to please – while being a reasonably reliable recipe for pop music and MasterChef and dog-whistle populism – is not a good starting point for an art that genuinely thrills. For that, you need Moira Finucane, whose starting point is somewhere else altogether.
Moira is one of the stars of The Burlesque Hour: Salon of Live Ladies, which she created with her partner, Jackie Smith. At well over 6 feet tall in heels, slim-hipped and dark with a long, dramatic face, it is impossible to imagine Moira as sweet, or coy, or inviting. She is, like desire itself, a force.
The Burlesque Hour has played in many countries to some 55,000 people and rapturous reviews. I saw it almost two years ago, but the acts have a primal power that makes them hard to forget: a shy gorilla, for instance, who strips to reveal a bawdy, simian human underneath. Moira’s are seared in my mind. In ‘The Queen of Hearts’, she is an Amazonian streak in a red bikini, with red helium-balloons floating off her mane of black hair and a couple trailing from her behind. Slowly, she removes the heart-shaped covers on her breasts, pubic area and bottom to reveal – not sequined tassles, but 3 inch pins. And then, pop pop pop, the queen impales the balloons with herself, only to turn around and find two car-sized clusters of them floating in waiting. These she attacks like a magnificent, mad, pincushion doll doing what she was made for. In ‘Soup’, Moira comes onstage, serene in a silky white halter-dress, holding before her a bowl of red liquid and a spoon. It’s not possible to do justice here to her rising enthusiasm for the soup, but suffice to say she swaps the dress for a red drenching and, satisfied, saunters offstage in nothing but heels and soup. Before her next act the audience is issued with plastic raincoats. The night I was there, there was a sense, by this stage, that we were in the presence of fearlessness, both psychological and physical. We were being taken places we would not usually go; all conventions of theatre, of performance, indeed, of civilised human behaviour were suspended. And it was thrilling. We meekly put the macs on. Then the ‘Dairy Queen’ emerged: Moira in a white bikini, heels and extravagant strings of pearls, holding in each hand a 2 litre plastic milk bottle with a perforated lid. To raucous music she moved, as threatening as she was beautiful, squirting milk, from breast level, in huge arcs. We needed the raincoats.
When I visited her in the North Fitzroy home she shares with Smith, I expected to find a wild woman, liberated beyond belief. Moira may be these things in some hidden, internal way, but clothed and out of character she is a thoughtful, gentle, articulate person with two-year-old twin daughters and a history of deep commitment to human rights and the environment.
At the time I was sprayed by her ‘Dairy Queen’, the twins, who were born when Moira was 43, were only six months old. She was having to express milk for them between shows at the Sydney Opera House. “It was gripping,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes. But the act dates from the early ’90s and its origins, like those of all her work, lie deeper in Moira’s psyche, and in “the symbolic”. Some of those influences are from her “Vatican II-type” Catholic upbringing (social justice values, and a familiarity with the iconography of suffering). Others, from the fairy stories that move her still because they show that “tiny kindnesses and tiny cruelties can have epic consequences”. And, perhaps crucially, when Moira was 13 she read The Communist Manifesto. “There’s a difference between this,” she says of her work, “and an ordinary strip. Who owns the ‘means of production’ dictates the meaning.” In Moira’s case, the means of production is her body and she is not, or not solely, putting it out for the profit and pleasure of others. “Our belief,” she says, “is that seeing something – a vision of liberation, of beauty, of heartbreak, of oppression is extremely powerful. When art seduces people … extraordinary possibilities arise with audiences; possibilities for change and for engagement. Our work is not didactic. It is not agitprop … It is a rigorous discourse on humanity dressed up as a fairground or, in the case of The Burlesque Hour, a discourse on humanity dressed up as a hot night out.”
And she’s right. I did feel liberated when I walked out of the show. It was not temporary liberation from desire. It was a strange, amalgam liberation. I felt bizarrely wholesome, which is what the sideshow, the bearded lady and her ilk have always done for us. But more than that, I felt the liberation of watching clever, brave performers in control of the means of production. We have not imagined everything that is possible outside of us and in, and that single, solitary fact will always be more exciting than any tease.