Inevitably, almost every article about contemporary burlesque mentions the art-form’s “burgeoning revival.” (There I go, line one.) But from within that world, Olwen Bell doesn’t even see that particular R-word as the appropriate one to use while discussing burlesque.
“I like to call it a burlesque renaissance,” she says, “because burlesque didn’t ever really go away. It just changed. And right now I think there’s a fantastic mating of a lot of the classic burlesque together with a lot of the modern or neo-burlesque that has a lot of the edgier or political focus.”
Whatever the term, Bell’s looking to celebrate the increasing popularity of the art form in all its shapes and styles. She’s president of the Edmonton Burlesque Festival—more colloquially, the Festival of Bump and Grind—which is seeing its third iteration this weekend.
The festival emerged after Bell had spent a bit of time in Edmonton and its burlesque community. She realized the scene was gaining traction, but it then lacked an anchor event.
“As you can probably tell from my accent, I’m from Australia,” she says. “Burlesque was huge in Australia when I left, but it was still kind of just blossoming here. But burlesque is also huge in Vancouver—they’ve had a festival for 10 years now. Toronto’s about its sixth or seventh year. I could see that it was a growing community [here], and Edmonton also loves theatre. … I just figured there was room for it here in Edmonton.”
The city’s confirmed her suspicions: now in its third year, the festival’s been expanding every year, trading up venues to match: After selling out last year’s weekend at Fort Edmonton Park, it’s moving its showcase of all things coquettish into the Royal Alberta Museum.
The lineup pulls from across the continent: There’s James and the Giant Pasty—who was just in town for Oh Manada!, which saw a sold-out Fringe run—as well as Minnesota’s Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams, who have seen celebrated stints in Vegas. There’s a bevy of locals talent too, of course, with the total number hovering somewhere around 50 performers taking to the stage over the festival’s three-day run.
The nuances and hustle of putting on a festival aside, there’s just one other major concern on Bell’s mind. The AGLC’s increasingly taking issue with the art form in the province, often refusing to make a distinction between burlesque—which Bell notes to be non-fully nude performance art—and exotic dancing that doesn’t stop its stripping at pasties. The latter requires a specific licence that, if made necessary for burlesque, would prove problematic for certain performers.
“There hasn’t been a demand, in terms of getting exotic entertainment licences, or anything like that,” Bell clarifies, noting that the AGLC’s inspected a few of her smaller shows, but generally it seems to be a more difficult issue in Calgary than in Edmonton. “We’ll see how things go. We’re hoping things don’t step up, because that would it impossible for a lot of burlesque artists to entertain. Because they’re school teachers, or real estate agents, and they’re doing performance art—they’re not stripping. So having an exotic entertainment dancer licence would be completely contrary to a lot of their other employment that gives them a lot of their regular income. Burlesque is just a side interest.
“We’ll see how that plays out,” she adds. “It’s definitely interesting times.”
Thu, Sep 10 – Sat, Sep 12
Royal Alberta Museum