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In Boston, we’re lucky enough to live in a community where the word “burlesque” means more than a despicable Christina Aguilera movie. A time-honored tradition dating back to the sixteenth century, burlesque is a blend of adult entertainment (ahem) with the classy feel and dress of a theater to make for a night of performance one isn’t soon to forget. Today, we have the Boston Babydolls performing in Coolidge Corner eight years running to huge crowds and great acclaim, but the Neo-burlesque movement of the past twenty years has a lot of history to contend with — that’s right, it’s learnin’ time.
The art form first found its footing in the Victorian era in France and Italy, trickling into the English culture and largely considered a vulgar parody of more dignified forms of entertainment. Starting out as a term applied mainly to popular literature (even heavy hitters like Shakespeare and de Cervantes weren’t immune to the term), “burlesque” was applied to works that appealed to large audiences and critiqued society in the moment—think of it like how sketch comedy or programs like The Daily Show function today as of-the-moment thoughts on the world. As the years wore on, music became included in the umbrella term to describe a sound that was high-spirited, exaggerated, and farcical, and composers as famous as Bartok and Hummel incorporated it into some of their larger works.
Finally, the Brits translated burlesque into the theater style it is still recognized as today in the 1800s, often being interchanged with the title “Extravaganza” and defining itself as a light-hearted parody of musical theater. Very much based in comedy and pantomime, anything was fair game for the early years of the art form—parodies of Shakespeare plays were common, as well as over-the-top sketch comedy accompanied by the burlesque musical style and ladies in short dresses (although this was not yet the main event). It wasn’t until burlesque crossed the Atlantic mid-century to New York, where the shows consisted of several acts including musical performance, sketches, social commentary, and a rousing conclusion with exotic dancers. As burlesque faded from the English consciousness it flourished in America, becoming more focused on the final act and competing seriously with vaudeville, a competition that would last into the cinematic era.
As the world began to prefer sitting in front of the screen to the stage, burlesque began to transition to the strip joints that are still very popular today, leaving the theatrics to Broadway and the movie musical spectaculars of the studio era in Hollywood. Some famous actors and comics that participated in burlesque’s waning years in the early 1900s were W.C. Fields, Red Skelton, and Bert Lahr, but these acts quickly became more profitable in films and they scattered from the burlesque and vaudeville stage, and both theater forms disappeared from America’s stages.
For a while, burlesque disappeared altogether—after the transition of popular entertainment to film, the culture found their fix in less reputable forms of adult entertainment that grew raunchier and raunchier as the years wore on. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the glamour and kitsch of the burlesque came back into public consciousness, specifically in the United States with the popularity of Dita Von Teese and even exercise videos, training classes, and touring shows. From its origins and into the present, burlesque has remained a parody of both the sex industry and sophisticated theater all at once, a very self-aware art form that caters to its audience with dignity and good humor. The Boston Babydolls were founded in 2004 and have been a local institution ever since, and there you have it. Burlesque is just another great example of theater’s hard-wired history, and that even your secret traipses in Coolidge Corner are just the next installment in the thousands of late-night dives into the work of the burlesque. And no, the Christina Aguilera movie still doesn’t count.
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