Written Sunday, April 27; the morning after I saw WesBurlesque 2014.
“…With our show, we hope to encourage both performers and audience members to carefully consider any preconceptions or reservations they may have about sexuality…”
“ ‘If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?’ –Ru Paul”
——Captions from the cover of the WesBurlesque 2014 playbill
Last night at 10pm, I attended one of the six WesBurlesque 2014 shows in the Westco Café. Since this is my first year at Wes as a transfer, I thought it would be important to check out the show not only because of my particular interest in sexuality and performance studies, but also because many people assumed I would be partaking in the event because I am one of the few femme-presenting, male-bodied dancers in the student body. After asking around about the show’s objectives and after tuning in to all the hype/mixed feelings about body-image during burlesque auditions week—I knew I would be attending the show from a different perspective than most of the other audience members.
The grandiose statement on the playbill (above) combined with the introductory remarks by directors, Jana Heaton, Naya Samuel, and Zak Malik, confused me. When they warned the audience about the consequences of touching oneself or exposing one’s “necessary bits,” I sensed what kind of disciplined sexuality WesBurlesque was asking me to “consider”…
Yes, I expected the bend-and-snaps, hair-flips, and twerking, but I found myself dismayed by the kind of PG-13 sexuality that some vignettes presented. Because of my personal interests, one particular piece with all men in basketball shorts stuck out to me; not because of the boys, but because of the incredibly mild gayness that it presented. Similar to another all-male skit with clichéd gay sailors to the touchstone song “In the Navy”, this sports-inspired skit to T-Pain’s “Best Love Song” also had lots of homosexually suggestive movements/thrusts. However, when two performers posed center-stage to kiss each other on the lips at a climactic moment, I realized the type of palatable, nonsexual gayness that could safely be “encouraged” to the WesBurlesque audience. Herein, similar to mainstream representations of gayness, an acceptable, non-threatening gay subject obscures any consideration of queer, butch lesbian, or trans sexualities, thus reinforcing a purportedly progressive, yet violently restrictive narrative.
But going back to my previous point, maybe the audience wasn’t so diverse. Recently, I learned that most of the people I talk to stop attending the show every year for similar reasons. Perhaps queerness beyond the hetero/homonormative is too much to ask for…so what about the femininity portrayed in WesBurlesque?
I found the all-female pieces strikingly similar with their conventional and, in my opinion, tired eroticism. A friend told me she wishes the choreography came more from the dancers, suggesting choreographers ask them what movements make each of them feel sexy. She also mentioned that the sexiness performed by those in the show could be more about “feeling whole.” Now that I think about it, what a radical idea…that someone’s sexiness be enough. All the pieces seemed to be so focused on enticing or satisfying someone else. I wonder what it would mean to stand in front of an audience and say, “I am whole, I am enough, I am in love with myself.”
I am in college, and I want to look through a keyhole to see the wildness and kinks of the pleasures that live within the Wesleyan student body. I don’t care about the normative sexuality that the mainstream media already reproduces. What about bodies of different shapes, big bellies, and different abilities; what about hair, sweat and awkwardness? What about embarrassment and discomfort? How about a sexuality that’s at least a reality and maybe an imagination? What about the labor of masturbation and the love of orgasm? And dammit, let’s take off our clothes! Sexuality is fucking messy, so why try and clean it up?
Another tension became prevalent in a skit performed by men in accessories/clothing representative of the “Lady Gaga gay,” replete with leather corsets and patent leather heals, exuding the “fierceness” that everyone finds spectacular and entertaining. Such a monolithic representation of the WesBurlesque queer resonated with similar racial tensions in the show, however, I am choosing to bracket such discussion as it deserve more attention than space and my knowledge/experience allow.
Even though it made me happy to see so many of my friends performing and getting hoot-and-hollered at, I am sad about the potentiality foreclosed by WesBurlesque. One can situate this event within a more common student hypocrisy at Wesleyan: a noncommittal critical engagement, which claims a progressive stance but inevitably avoids confronting racial, sexual, gender, and class tensions.
Why not work with the surplus of sexual energy on this campus and thus accept a critical engagement with the politics of sexuality through burlesquing. Let’s not forget its definition; Merriam-Webster defines burlesque as “a play story, novel, etc., that makes a serious subject seem funny or ridiculous; to imitate in humorous or derisive manner.” In my opinion, the only subjects being mocked in this show were queers: the sailors and the gay b-ball players. Everyone else seemed to be pretty serious about the kind of sexuality they performed.
For the above reasons, I found myself squirming throughout the show… the platitude on the cover of the playbill didn’t make me feel any better. Also, those RuPaul lyrics come from the song “Can I Get an Amen?” performed by RuPaul and the contestants of Drag Race many times, always in complete camp drag.
This year, WesBurlsque tickets nearly sold out as fast as Cam’ron, and it’s probably the most publicized, well-attended event of the year, in one of the few performance spaces not policed by the institution. The event deserves to be contested and reimagined.
WeShmurlesque is in the works.
Ivo is a member of the class of 2015.
This WeSpeak was updated on 5/3/14 to reflect a change made by the author.