Dear Alberta… I’m not mad, I’m disappointed. Well, no, that’s not entirely true… I actually AM pretty mad, as well as disappointed. Right now the source of my ire is the AGLC or Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission. Over the Rockies, just one province from my own, there is judgement most foul.
I take for granted that I can, at any given time, express myself creatively through my chosen art form – burlesque and striptease – and not face legal repercussions for doing so. It’s something I’ve very much taken for granted. When I used to tour through AB in my old band doing burlesque, sideshow and magic alongside the live music, I was told a number of times that if someone from the AGLC was in the house, to ‘Boston’ up my acts.
For those of your not au fait with the term, it means doing a more conservative version of my show. My show got kind of raunchy sometimes, and being the headstrong 20-somthing I thought ‘fuck that’, and did my show regardless. This resulted in friction between myself and the band leader, but I refused to compromise the integrity of what I did. Little did I know how bad it is in Alberta…
There is an AMAZING performer there by the name of Raven Virgina. She wrote a great piece on the state of discrimination against burlesque and striptease by the AGLC, and I wanted to share it. It’s my hope others will, and hopefully, much like the Rio Theatre’s Corrine Lea and their liquor license fiasco with the BCLB, affect some positive change, and help get the Alberta bureaucrats caught up with the times.
Little Miss Risk (PS: Pasties and nudity are not crimes)
My name is Raven Virginia and I am a professional actor, a burlesque performer, a feminist, a mother, a joker, a high kicker, a rabble rouser and a mother fucking clown. Here’s a condensed history of burlesque as well as an account of modern issues burlesque performers face in Alberta:
Burlesque is a century old practice of performance art that invokes all the greatest aspects of Vaudeville such as humour, satire, sexuality, dance, costume, narrative, clowning and music. Many people believe burlesque and stripping were created solely for male gratification but what they might not know is that burlesque birthed from an era where a demoralized lower class chose to challenge the status quo. In its development, women were at the fore – choosing to break free of the suppressive and predominantly misogynistic attitudes of the Victorian period, sometimes risking life and limb to do so. The earliest forms of burlesque included political, social and artistic parodies of respected theatre such as Shakespeare and Wagner. The “dirty” aspects of Victorian burlesque included, but were not limited to: gender reversal, parodies showcasing women in leadership roles, wearing tights and sometimes even loosening their corsets. As unintentional players in the approaching feminist movement, these women paved the way for female artists in every genre.
The neo burlesque movement is a present-day spin on burlesque of the past. Influenced by the history of burlesque, theatre, cabaret, stand up comedy, vaudeville and clown and with a decidedly Do It Yourself attitude indicative of the Punk Rock age, small bands of artists were attracted to the nostalgia and sophisticated style of yesteryear. This modern movement has also created the incentive for women to reclaim their sexuality in a society where we are required to keep it under lock and key. By working to omit the misogyny, we have been free to reinvestigate our female form in all it’s splendor and on our own terms. Now, burlesque is predominately run by women, for women, empowering those watching and performing to express themselves artistically, spiritually and sexually without the sexist pressure and judgement too often handed down by society.
That being said, as burlesque has become more commercial, on occasion we’ve seen a shift from something subversive that works to redefine beauty and sexuality, to something that is reenforcing the beauty magazine and fashion industry images. My company has been requested for work where we would be required to “hide” certain aspects of our body or do a weigh in before performing. We declined these requests and while I wouldn’t condemn a performer for accepting the work (we all need to put food on the table) I fear that the more the mainstream attempts to homogenize the art and co-opt the word burlesque, the more diluted the performance experience will be. In order for burlesque to maintain it’s potential for the promotion of body-positive, sex-positive feminism in a climate of sexism, participants must be free to explore their relationship to their body without restriction.
Like our burlesque legends of the past, burlesque performers, such as myself, have faced our fare share of backlash. From nasty comments on social media to snide remarks from colleagues, many people grapple with the concept that embracing, researching and reformatting for myself what many consider morally foul, has opened up a world of possibility for me. Not just in how I choose to present my body but in my activism, my relationships and how I create art.
This leads me to the most disappointing example of discrimination we’ve faced in Alberta. The AGLC or Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission is a branch of the government that exists and functions unchecked in this province. The AGLC came down hard on my company and community in 2011 claiming we were in violation of their Nude Entertainment laws. The AGLC views an individual as nude if their breasts are revealed – and not just any breast – specifically female breasts. (Don’t even get me started on how frustratingly naive representatives at the AGLC are about the elusiveness of gender or the stats on how many people in the World are transgender.) The AGLC exercise the right to censor what you see in a minors prohibited establishment if liquor is being consumed in the vicinity of breasts. What you might not know when witnessing a performance in Alberta, is that we are strictly prohibited from coming within one metre of you once our pasties were revealed, that we cannot have any props or costume pieces touch you, that we are not allowed to share a dressing room with any other staff or non nude entertainers and even some of the actions we may have choreographed into the act – something suggestive with banana perhaps – have to be edited out. The rules are intentionally ambiguous and restrict not just the body being presented, but the content of the art piece itself – all in the name of protecting you from the potential “filth” of it all. Burlesque and exotic dance are not the only entertainment affected by these rules; ballet, dance, theatre, cabaret are all subject to the same regulations though we have been targeted more than any other artistic genre. They also claim that they have handed down this judgement based on what Albertans want but there have been no elections or referendums to decide these rules and the people enforcing them have not been elected to their positions. They have decided for you that what you are seeing is morally objectionable and by proxy, the performers engaged in entertaining you are objectionable too.
While the battle for equality is ongoing, we continue to strive to create more thoughtful, captivating and engaging burlesque. Despite attempts to stifle our voices burlesque continues to thrive as more people discover how freeing and delightful the experience of creating art and revealing oneself can be. Is burlesque dirty? Certainly. But is it wrong? That’s another issue entirely.