Why Burlesque? / by Stratton McCrady

Every question anyone might ask me about this vast, burgeoning set of photographs I’ve made returns to one abiding issue. Recently an old friend of mine asked it. He said, “So why Burlesque? It’s like stripping-lite or something, right?”

So why Burlesque?

The prurience hound, that adolescent straight boy who lurks at times, deep down inside most members of everyday society thinks he knows the answer. You know that kid. The one who walks up to the Venus Di Milo and grins sheepishly at you sidelong. He says, “Huh huh huh, look, boobies, she’s hot,” or “who doesn’t like naked chicks?”

Right.

I’m sick of that voice. That adolescent prurience hound will always stay thirteen. I’ve grown up and moved on. For most of my life, I tried not to question the appeal of such things, yet that stands in direct opposition to a deeper need to take my work seriously. Over the last three years, I’ve written and thought, prayed and pondered both the work and the topic itself. I’ve looked at it through so many lenses. I’ve tried on the anthropologist, the feminist,  the enthusiast, the academic. Mostly though, I’m a passionate informed observer. The art of photography, I believe, is the art of seeing, of observing. Painters may observe passionately, but in the end they work constructing a canvas painstakingly, via brushstrokes, smears or spatters. Photographs are exposed. Exposure represents an instantaneous decision, based almost entirely on observation.

An art made of watching, Burlesque explodes, demanding us to watch and engage. Very much like the binary of two hands clapping, Burlesque requires audience. Burlesque demands attention. That attention functions, not in static silence but as an active ingredient. The sympatico of the audience, is no less real, for having become a cliche. Every single performer of any form will describe the moment when performing art becomes alive, transforms, via the energy shared between performer and the audience. I believe performance remains one of those purely human endeavors. My incidental act of pointing the camera at performers, purely instinctive for me, started after many years of working with, and for actors in theatre. Almost instantaneously I felt (please forgive the pun)  something click, when I began photographing actors. I’ve written extensively about the scopic binary of exchange in the portrait relationship, but what I do in Acting Out is even more specific.

I seek out groups, individuals, or companies, who perform contemporary burlesque and invite them to engage in portrait image making. I’ve become fully aware that while it shares many specific details with burlesque performance, unless they are actively onstage doing a show when I’m shooting, the picture performance is something else. It’s not burlesque. It’s portraiture about the feelings, the urges and motivations to perform in these ways. It’s also art about how I experience these individuals. This leaves the other major question I get asked a lot. What’s in it for them? I’ve learned that each performer’s act of creation seems to long for a lasting record, proof if you will. These people want their expressions, changeable as they may appear, captured -- to flirt with iconography. They long to reflect and radiate image. They live moments which they wish to hold onto. As Jacques Lacan put it, they are scopically complicit. The portrait exchange between photographer and performer is to make, and to be made.

So what is Burlesque today, then? It’s dance sometimes, music always. Some practitioners call it stripping. It’s about sex. It’s comedy, certainly. It’s history; of sleaze, of glamour and kink, of objectification sometimes, of women liberating themselves from antebellum culture only to be re-enslaved. It’s vaudeville and minstrel show, reborn and abandoned. It’s the Bowery, Union Sq. and 42nd Street of the 1940s, horny shore leave sailors at hand. It’s Nashville’s lower Broadway long before the cleanup, and Boston’s combat zone. It’s Gypsie Rose Lee, Bette Midler, Dita Von Teese, Bettie Page, Tom Jones, Monroe and Madonna, all with a little Pee Wee Herman mixed in. It’s third wave feminism absolutely, awash in an, as yet, undefined fourth wave. More to the point, it’s the geek who never fit in at school, the hipster, the queer guy, bear and queen, show and drag, the lesbian, thespian,  the dyke, the slut, the athlete and the ballerina, and yes, the everyday mom, (who happens to be every one of those souls), embracing a sacred opportunity to loose the bonds and get his/her freaky on - on stage - in community. I believe what we’re actually seeing in Burlesque is the entertainment arm of a second wave sexual revolution.

Many will sneer at this, but I think that Burlesque reflects an important cultural moment unfolding before us. We stand, deeply lost in cultural dis-ease. Politically, this American landscape could not get more dysfunctional and fractured. The liberal ethics I hold dear are reviled by a large portion of my fellow citizens. Here, now, in 2016, racism flows as strongly as ever, homophobia seems only slightly less acceptable than before, and Ted Cruz could be our next president. Radical Islam wants me dead. In Spite of all that, gay marriage is the law of the land, and more than ever, freedom to express non-traditional sexual identities, and the freedom to choose, ignore, or redefine classic gender assignments has never been more public, more visible. In the United States, we might soon elect a woman president.

Recently a loved one of mine attended a show with me, while in residence photographing the Vermont Burlesque Festival. He guilelessly described a simple, deep and wonderful reality of what I’ve discovered in this art form. “Wow, these people are really comfortable with their sexuality,” he said. That comprehensively sums it up.

I’ve always held sexuality as sacred. All animals fuck, but, now and then, we humans make love. We elevate sexuality, in many casual, and sometimes outrageous, and glorious ways. The very first glimpse of sexuality in open expression of the revealed female form in America came with the French Ballet in the 1840s. It had caught on in European high culture and Americans wanted some. Nothing demonstrates the sort of elevation I describe better than complex, delicately choreographed dance. From Greek sculpture well before the birth of Jesus, all the ways down to the wildest porn on the internet today, our generations of culture have celebrated and indulged in examples of sexuality, elevated. The elevation witnessed in burlesque today, beautifully and sweetly reveals the elaborate freedom of expression I describe, and also gnawing hungers.

After so much television-cellphone-internet, people crave real performance on a stage. After so much web porn, people want raunch which feels happy, honest and innocent because maybe it truly is. People crave the chance to laugh about each other without contempt, to laugh at sex, to lust after bodies they can believe and relate to -- and to do all this in company of friends and lovers without shame. When we go, we find ourselves not hiding in a grim room, shared with other pervs, stuffing $1 bills into a g-string, but in welcoming venues filled with all sorts of humanity and light. The audience, remarkably, resembles the performers, embracing the rainbow. It may hug the edges of the mainstream, but that’s still the mainstream. Burlesque has done now what it could never do through those decades it spent evolving into the modern strip club. It welcomes and actually attracts everyone. People go on dates to the burlesque. I don’t have to keep this project a secret from family and friends. This all has happened because of one salient truth. In our lost world, the Burlesque is joyful.