BURLESQUE REVEALS ITS PORTLAND SCENE
Progressive as Portland is known, it was one of the first major cities in the United States to elect a female mayor: Dorothy McCullough Lee.
In a sort of progressive irony, however, she set out to eradicate in the late 1940s what's now considered to be an art form that is celebratory of all body types — burlesque — along with many other "vices" in the city at the time. All of the venues hosting burlesque events were shut down, and popularity floundered in ensuing decades.
Rose City has gone through its ebbs and flows of popularity of the striptease skit performance — and it seems for now, it's back in the flow. A new feature-length documentary about the "new wave" of burlesque was 98 percent filmed in the city, by Portland-based director Jon Manning. (Ever see a commercial for the Oregon Lottery? It was directed by Manning; the lottery has been his biggest client for the past 17 years.)
Called "Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe," the documentary features a number of Portland-based dancers and the city's handful of burlesque venues, including Star Theater, Crush, the Funhouse Lounge, Paris Theatre, Dante's, Alberta Rose Theatre, the Lovecraft Bar and Hawthorne Theatre. The film, opening in 25 cities across the U.S., will show at Living Room Theaters for a week starting March 3.
It started when Manning and his wife checked out a burlesque performance at Hawthorne Theatre eight years ago. He noticed, in contrast to strip joints, which often have a mostly male-dominated audience, the show's audience included a lot of the dancers' family members.
"You kind of realize it's not necessarily something you hide from the people you know — there are mothers and fathers who are supportive," Manning says. That provoked his curiosity, and so he set out on a seven-year journey to understanding. What he found is that burlesque had morphed over time from being traditionally thought of as a raunchy striptease to a celebration of body and self.
And, he realized, "Portland had a great group. A great tribe of people."
The documentary focuses on eight to 10 people, and all together Manning says they probably shot 50 different shows. After spending enough time together, he said it felt like family. He heard someone reference that feeling of family in the burlesque scene as a "glitter tribe."
Among Portland's "glitter tribe" is Angelique DeVil, who doesn't provide her real name. She is featured in the film, and in Portland, one can find her on stage at a number of different venues, including Star Theater, Paris Theatre, Bossanova Ballroom and Crush. She's also part of the burlesque troupe The Fringe Benefits.
She moved to the city in 2008 and considers herself an "OG" (original gangster) of the new-wave Portland burlesque scene.
That is, not necessarily the old element of tease with classic music and a big costume, but more hip-hop and different styles of dancing.
Like many dancers, however, she has a regular day job because burlesque doesn't pay particularly well — something she hopes will change eventually.
"A good chunk of performers, they do side jobs like costume work, or they run a dance school; they have other ways to make income because, yes, burlesque is not extremely lucrative," she says. "We do it for the love of it."
Angelique says she enjoys burlesque because "you change as a performer every year" with more experience from doing more shows.
"You get to decide," Angelique says. "It's very much personal and creative in that you choose. Your costume, your concept."
She enjoys working in Portland, but it has its "moments of oversaturation."
"There's so many performers and there's so many shows, but Portland burlesque fans and audience members are fickle," Angelique says. "Sometimes it's impossible to get people to come out — to an event, music, theater or whatever."
One of the longest-running burlesque producers in Portland blames the fickleness on the city population's personality type.
"Portland is a very different city because people are passive aggressive," says Chris Stewart, also known as Zora Phoenix or simply Mr. Phoenix. Zora is his drag character while Mr. Phoenix is his "boylesque" character. He produces and hosts burlesque shows at Crush.
"Depending on the weather, people won't go out. Or they wait to buy tickets at the door," says Stewart, who moved to the city in 2007.
Stewart also is director of the Rose City School of Burlesque, which he says has helped instruct a whole new generation of Portland burlesque dancers, aiding in the city's resurgence of the act.
"As the school of burlesque came, the more people that were introduced," he says. But he says it wasn't easy. Fighting body shaming and getting people to be comfortable was a challenge.
"We had to fight the stigma, but also educate the public because not a lot of people understood that there was a difference between strippers and burlesque," Stewart says.
It's almost impossible not to compare the burlesque scene to the strip club scene; though any burlesque dancer will immediately point out the differences, they are historically intertwined.
Angelique DeVil says in Seattle more people will head to burlesque shows versus strip clubs because of Seattle's nudity laws, which are more restrictive when it comes to alcohol. But in Portland, she says, all the strip clubs serve alcohol.
"(There are) a zillion strip clubs to choose from and a lot don't have a cover. So a lot of people don't seek out a burlesque show," she says.
But in burlesque, Manning and Angelique point out it's more about the theatrics and the message.
"I've heard dancers talk about that at a strip club you're kind of taught to zone in on a person, because you make money in the champagne room," Manning says. "(Burlesque) is a show for everybody in a sense that it's easily more than the sexuality part."
Manning says a burlesque skit performance could be entirely about feminism, or about the male-female relationship. Sometimes, it's even political.
Manning saw a show where a woman painted body shaming words all over her body and washed them off on stage as if to show that the words didn't faze her.
Angelique thinks political burlesque is making a resurgence.
"Especially in this current political climate, people are desperate to express themselves and take a stand, and burlesque is an opportunity to do that," she says.
But she doesn't disparage stripping and understands burlesque's connection. What was more shocking to people back in the early days has just evolved.
"It's really important to never make such a distinct line or talk disparagingly about it when our ancestry, our history of burlesque is in striptease. It's a collaboration and it's evolving," Angelique says.