- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

TORONTO | Bada-bing, bada-boom.

The naughty, bawdy art form of burlesque is skipping, singing, dancing, joking and stripping its way back onto stages across North America and Europe to remind us of a time when tease and fun was a show of not showing.

While the original burlesques aimed to shock conventional morality with outlandish and sexy satires, Toronto’s just-ended, second annual Burlesque Festival, headlined “Tassels Without Borders,” celebrated the sexy, the funny and the tease, with 85 performers and 160 performances over four days and four nights.

Judging by the cheers of the mixed audience and standing-room-only crowd, it seemed that everything old was new again.

“There’s more cabaret and vaudeville clubs opening all the time,” said Los Angeles-based Jessica “Sugar” Kiper (of “Survivor” and “Gilmore Girls”), who took her 1950s pin-up girl look to the stage as host of opening night.

“Burlesque is a naughty throw-back and a tease. Strip clubs can be depressing and nasty. This is creative people coming together, and men and women both enjoying it and participating with their applause and cheers,” she said.

Along with “Sugar,” who took her name from Marilyn Monroe’s character in the 1959 burlesque comedy, “Some Like It Hot,” there was a long line of others paying homage to the great burlesque performers of the past.

From Paris came Evangeline Demone with her delicate, Sally Rand-style feather-fan dance reminiscent of a scene in the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff.”

A performer named Akynos brought to the stage an empowering tribute to Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a slave from South Africa who performed as the Hottentot Venus in the 1800s.

Las Vegas’ Cha Cha Malloy added a Gypsy Rose Lee number as she swayed her way across the stage. In her 1890s-era, draped green evening gown and gloves, she made the audience feel that a glimpse of stocking could be something shocking.

Fun and playfulness mocking the over-sexed world and the costumed enthusiasm of the acts and the audience made the festival feel like a gathering of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fans.

One of the festival’s comedy acts - Parker and Seville - provided corny, Abbott-and-Costello-style comedy routines happily saved by superb timing.

“Performers are chosen according to their professionalism, creativity, act and costume. We like to mix up things from classic burlesque to modern and show there’s more to a tease than whipped cream,” said festival co-founder Sauci Calla Horra.

Indeed, props and winks went together like pasties and panties as performers took to the stage riding merry-go-round ponies, twirling fiery tassels, dressed as demure teachers and covered in balloons.

The male routines ranged from a Frank Sinatra-style Rat Pack tipping their hats to a Rasputin surrounded by women in Russian fur coats and hats.

The half-clothed aerial acrobatics of Peter Loung of the Zero Gravity Circus was a reminder that the word gymnasium means “naked exercise.”

Cici My Playmate, another festival organizer, said this year’s festival included a marketplace selling beautiful gowns and clothes. She said all the shows sold out.

“What makes burlesque different is that we’re open to all body types, as you may have noticed. That’s because burlesque is about self-expression and celebration, not leering,” she said.

To help aspiring burlesquers, the festival also featured classes from Toronto’s own Burlesque University with training sessions in fan dancing, performance style, photography and make-up, publicity and vaudeville comedy.

The blues, jazz, rock, French and classical music that accompanied the performers’ routines must have awakened old ghosts in venues such as the Zero Gravity Lounge, which was called the Classic Burlesque Theatre in the early 1900s.

In the last few years, burlesque festivals have been held in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Dallas, Boston, New Orleans and London.

The next festival is scheduled in New York in October.

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