Culture  Queerlesque in the Spotlight

"The U-Haul is waiting, queen! Get in!"

This week, the Daily  sat down with Avery Burrow, known by her burlesque name CiCi Garette, co-founder of Vice-Versa Productions. Founded in February of 2019 along with their business partner La Gourmande, Vice-Versa is a queer event production company aimed towards creating spaces for queer women and non-binary people in Montreal. Together, they have organized four Queerlesque Shows, and the upcoming Queer Cabaret, “Morbid Decadence.” Avery, an undergraduate student at Concordia, also produces “Blush”, a lesbian disco dance party series.

The McGill Daily (MD): How did all of this come to be?

Avery Burrow (AB): So, this project started in February of 2019. I was thinking I really wanted to start producing just chill, burlesque shows only with only queer casts. So I contacted NDQ, which is a bar in Little Italy. And I was like, hey, can you just like give me a Wednesday or Thursday night just to try out my show? So it started out as super small thing where we mostly only had new performers. We couldn’t guarantee a minimum because the minimum payment in burlesque is seventy-five dollars. And I was like, I can’t guarantee that we have enough audience to pay six people seventy-five dollars. So the first show we had the cut was around forty-five or something. But everybody loved it and they said they couldn’t wait for the next one.

So I worked out the date and was starting to get my promo ready and to think about what performers I was going to ask.Then my friend, the person who got me into burlesque, who I met last summer said “hey, so between you and I – we probably know enough queer burlesque performers to put on a whole burlesque night.” And I was like, “I already booked the date. Let’s collab.” And so that was really cool.

Then basically we put on the show four different times. The second time was with Art Matters festival, which is this huge undergraduate art festival. We submitted to them and then they paid our artists, we had big names which was nice. The fourth show, which was in August was the last show of that format. It was with Festivals Soir – which is a music festival they have in different neighbourhoods in the city – and they asked us to put on a show with them. Eventually, the show got too big for NDQ. We went from being like “Oh but will we be able to pay people to being like ah, this space is too small.” NDQ said we had way too big of an audience, it’s a fire hazard you have to go find somewhere else. And I was like I respect that. So now we’re on the hunt for a new location. Our next queerlesque show will be in December. We’re having in it Cabaret Berlin which is a new bar that opened in the Village.

So that’s kind of how our Queerlesque nights started. Then in the summer, I received a message from Rosie Bourgeoisie who’s this really incredible non-binary burlesque performer, and is also an internationally recognized plus-size model, and also a huge inspiration to me as a queer person doing burlesque. Then they were like, “Hey, so I’ve heard you’ve been doing this thing and I really want to invite you and your co-producer to come in and be in my show that I’m doing at Pride,” – which is also only burlesque by queer people.

So we did that and then we made friends with this person and they were like before the show at Pride I really, really want you to come over because I want to talk to you about collaborating with your company. And so fast forward to now. We’re putting on this huge party at the Drugstore, which is a club that closed down in 2014. It was like the only lesbian club in Montreal which now its been re-bought and they’re putting on events again. So the party is two floors. We have five different deejays, six really big queer performers, and we have twelve go-go dancers. And then the project that I do on my own Blush. Which is a lesbian dance party, and it doesn’t claim to be anything else. We have go-go dancers and we have projection art, but that’s it. I’m not putting on a sort of show. You’re here to dance because we (we as in lesbians) don’t have anything like that.

MD: What are you trying to achieve with the project? 

(AB): I’ve been doing burlesque for a little while and I felt the scene didn’t have any good spaces. It’s like if you’re a person with a different kind of body, than normal burlesque whether that means you’re bigger, you have more body hair, that you are more masculine-presenting in your femininity. There’s only space for one of those people per a “normal” burlesque show. You’re a number. Even people of colour are considered a “number” in burlesque in the normal scene. Which I was not okay with.

And as for the dance parties, I mean it’s not to say that the lesbian scene doesn’t exist in Montreal. And when I say lesbian, I mean lesbian with a star at the end, like a woman-oriented queer space. Because there are “5-7”’s or happy hour lesbian events. But there’s definitely a big need for those spaces, there isn’t a place where you can go in know there’ll be gay women here always. The scene of performance spaces and nightlife that are open to all gender expressions and sexual orientations are super cool and amazing. That’s why I started this – I was so inspired by all those people.

MD: What is your personal connection to burlesque?

AB: I think it was through burlesque that I discovered myself as a queer person and became comfortable with my sexuality and my sensuality. I didn’t want to do drag. I didn’t want to be a drag king and I don’t really want to be a drag queen. And so I would say burlesque for me, is like drag, but it’s the drag of my sexuality versus the drag of my gender. I wanted to see a burlesque performer who expresses both femininity and masculinity onstage. And so I said, why don’t I do it?

MD: Burlesque can definitely be associated with a very particular representation of femininity. As a queer woman how do you see that in connection to your own gender expression? 

AB: That’s been the most amazing thing about putting on burlesque shows only with queer people because it really gives them a chance to make the burlesque that they want to make, not burlesque that they’re going to get booked for in main gigs. In my numbers usually I start in a suit or a mechanic costume, and then I end up in hyper-femme lingerie. That’s my schtick. It’s taking the butch and the femme, blurring those lines. I definitely found that hard. I don’t want to talk too much for my co-producer –their burlesque name is La Gourmande – but they said they found it really difficult going to burlesque classes and having to always be around like “I’m here to explore my femininity or I’m here to explore my feminine side, blah, blah, blah”. And then being like, “yeah, no, I have other things I want to explore and this is not that”. And I definitely feel that, too. But, you know, whenever we’re backstage putting on our makeup together, we’re like “haha, getting into drag”.

Although some queer women are femme – and hyper-femme even – the mentality of expressing your femininity or the image of femininity that burlesque is, is not necessarily a hundred per cent harmful. With femme women, their sexuality is not seen in the same way because they can pass as straight. Walking through the queer world like that comes with its disadvantages, whereas walking through the straight world comes with its privileges for sure. I think that being able to experience that is a positive thing, but I just think that the rhetoric around that being the ideal is what needs to change. And also, being told that I’m not going to get booked unless I shave my legs, like, it’s 2019, sir.

MD: You were kind of touching on that earlier, especially about beauty standards and barriers in burlesque. Do you want to speak to that? How you are trying to break that down?

AB: We book anybody. If we like your number and it’s not problematic, we don’t really care what you look like. In most burlesque spaces, you get to have one drag performer or one fat person in this lineup and it’s like, no, we’re going to have the people who fit the bill best for this. It doesn’t matter what they look like and that’s how it should be. But we have a really strong policy that we prioritize queer people of colour. We try to prioritize people with differently-abled bodies and people of different sizes. So if you’re not a thin, white person and you submit to our show, we would definitely pick you above somebody with the same level number. Our show started out as a newbie show where we would only have one big performer.

And now it’s moved the other way, but we still always have a newbie spot. We put a call-out every time we do a show, we allow one person who has never had the chance to go on stage, to go on stage. And I think that in the Montreal scene, you have to be super polished to get booked, you have to be perfect before you’re getting on any stages. You have to have rhinestones everywhere, your outfit has to be incredible and your number has to be super polished before you’re getting on any stages – that’s really toxic to new performers. That’s something that’s really important to me. When I was in Europe, Berlin was a bit like that, but they still have a lot of separate newbie shows. In Paris, you can just get on stage and do whatever the fuck. I loved it. People would come up to me and be like, “your number was so polished” and I was like, “I made this number in my Airbnb”. But I just come from a background where like you have done so put together to get on stage that I was in my Airbnb for a *long time*. If you want to fuck with gender and do a sexy dance, they let you just have fun.

MD: You’ve talked before about the lack of specific spaces for queer women and non-binary people. Why is that so important?

AB: The two main lesbian nights that we currently have in Montreal, “Lez Spread the Word” and “L Nights”, I love them, but they are definitely white spaces, created by and for white francophones. A lot of my friends, who are lesbians of colour, I don’t want to speak for them but I know that they don’t necessarily feel like that’s the space they want to occupy. Regardless of how I feel about actually being in those spaces, they are not clubs. It’s not that I don’t want to go to the bar and mingle and chat with lesbians – that’s great, that’s awesome. I really want to make a space where queer women can go and interact with other queer women and not feel watched by men, and can just dance, listening to music played by other queer women. That’s my thing, it’s been my goal to only book queer people: I only book people who identify as women or non-binary. It just makes such a good feeling in the room: to know that you’re dancing with and to the music of people who understand your experiences. In the end, we have a huge turnout it’s awesome. Everybody leaves at like 2:30 a.m, but that’s because they’re lesbians and they have to go home to their cats and their girlfriends. The U-Haul is waiting, queen! Get in! Anyways, I think people want this, it’s not just me. And yeah, people are really craving these spaces.

MD: You talked about how the community has an issue with representing intersectional experiences. How do you see your positionality in making these spaces within the community?

AB: It’s not that it’s hard to make these spaces, but it’s hard to have a position on this as a white able-bodied person with thin privilege. The priority has always been to remember that in booking – there’s so many amazing queer female or non-binary DJ’s of colour in this city, there’s no way I’m not going to book them. And then as far as performers, it’s interesting. When you’re a queer company and you’re putting “equity” on the call-out, we’re already all queer and we already face certain prejudices as queer people. But there are people who face more daily oppression. Obviously, I get weird looks on the metro holding hands with my girlfriend. But that’s not the same as facing actual prejudice in my work environment. So for Vice-Versa’s shows, we don’t charge Indigenous people entry, people of colour have different entry prices, and for “Blush” we have a pricing option where people can do work for us either promoting or working the door and get in for free or you can just ask a pay what you can price.

To learn more about Avery and Vice-Versa, visit her Instagram @cici_garette, or Vice-Versa’s Facebook page. They have two upcoming events in November, “Morbid Decadence” on November 9, and “Blush: II” on November 22.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.