Culture  Life is a cabaret

International festival hits a high note for bringing art back into the burlesque scene

R emember the age of cabaret, pin-up girls, and burlesque supper clubs? Unfortunately, our generation missed out on the glitz and glamour of the cabaret supper club scene of the 1920s through the 50s, with fabulous women performing sensational burlesque acts every weekend. In the 1940s and 50s, Montreal was a hub of burlesque performance and risqué nightlife – “Vegas before Vegas even existed,” Scarlett James, a Montreal burlesque performer and co-producer of the Montreal Burlesque Festival, explained in an interview with The Daily. The overwhelming success of this festival, in only the second year of its existence, is testament to an ongoing revival of burlesque across North America.

Montreal’s nightlife scene has long been instrumental in this revival. The second annual Montreal Burlesque Festival took place Sept 23-26 at Club Soda, with 35 artists from all over the world performing. James produces the festival with her husband, David Grondin, and has big plans to bring the world of burlesque back to Montreal. They transformed Club Soda into a club reminiscent of the iconic play-turned-movie Cabaret; doused in old-world glamour, the audience could sip cocktails while watching one act after another perform on stage. From a singer to a contortionist, stand-up comedy to classic burlesque, the festival had it all. In describing the festival, James breathed, “Cabaret: it’s an experience.”

Grondin emphasized that the festival was aimed at anyone and everyone over 18, attracting a varied audience. “Women really seem to enjoy the show,” he said, explaining that women made up about sixty per cent of the audience members. James believes that the festival is so popular because everyone can find someone to identify with. “[The festival] celebrates women and the woman’s body and all its differences.” Women don’t feel threatened by the performers, instead they fall in love with them. “[The acts] emphasize beauty in everyday women,” said James.

James, a performer herself, really wants to focus on the artistry that goes into a burlesque act. “[The festival] promotes what [burlesque] is when it’s well done,” she said. “[These] artists are committed to what they are doing…real work goes into it.” As a result, the festival is a delicious sensory overload night after night. “With real artists, of course the show is going to be great,” stated James.

“[We] received really positive feedback [this year], people really, really, enjoy it and love [the festival],” James explained excitedly. Last year, promotions were weak and the festival passed almost unnoticed. This was far from the case this year. The festival garnered a great turnout, selling out Saturday night for the grand finale. Opening with a fashion show of pin-up clothing as well as couture lingerie by Lise Charmel, the festival continued over three days featuring acts by both local and international performers, and workshops – on topics like learning about one’s body and how to find your “burlesque self” – that anyone could attend.

Favourites of the festival were Satan’s Angel and April March, two performers that began performing burlesque in its heyday of the 50s and 60s. “They were amazing stars of their time,” admired James. At 66, Satan’s Angel hasn’t lost her edge either, with her performance featuring tassels lit on fire. Boylesque was another festival favourite – consisting of two boys from Chicago, the act was so well received on Friday that they came back for an encore performance on Saturday.

Burlesque festivals are growing in popularity all over the world, with major events in New York and Vancouver, among other cities. But whereas New York’s festival is more oriented toward performance art and aggressive, shocking acts, the Montreal festival’s edge is its sophistication and glamour – a throwback to the traditional acts of the early 20th century. Having received positive feedback from international burlesque authorities, James is happy to count her festival among the best in the world. Fast becoming a highlight of Montreal’s festival calendar, the Burlesque Festival is cementing its status as a true art form.