Toronto filmmaker Rama Rau takes on a world of sequins, pasties and g-strings in League of Exotique Dancers, a documentary about retired burlesque dancers getting another chance to step into the spotlight at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Las Vegas.
The nine women at the centre of this film came up in a time when the world outside their doors might as well have been the size of a house in the suburbs. In the late ’50s and ’60s, a woman could only make money plugging away at menial clerical work or performing. If you could swing it, starring in “the pictures” was the big time; for others, the promise of a big paycheque and a spot under the limelight became a call to burlesque.
In addition to capturing the ladies’ preparations for the big night, Rau has them tell us about the evolution of their trade, from the elaborate routines involving props and comedic shticks of the ’50s and ’60s (often accompanied by a live band), to the “show more and do it faster” mentality that began in the ’70s and continues to this day.
The documentary also suggests that a parallel history of second-wave feminism happened on stages across America. While performers peeled down and reclaimed their bodies in front of an appreciative audience, “women’s lib” feminists protested in the streets and rejected the makeup and high heels that helped the dancers earn their wages.
Such ideas are food for thought in the form of pithy remarks like this one from the Grand Beaver of Canadian Burlesque: “Feminism wasn’t about burning your bra and not shaving your legs. Feminism was shaving your legs and working in a bar as a ‘sex object’ but knowing that you were, and not trading your soul and your pussy for a wedding ring.”
These women bare themselves for the camera, physically and figuratively, often revealing harrowing pasts. When they’re unabashedly raw and honest, they are at their most interesting. The documentary is strongest when it follows suit, dropping the sparkly feather boa from around its shoulders and letting the truth shine instead.
Fri, May 20 – Thu, May 26
Directed by Rama Rau
Metro Cinema at the Garneau