Adriana Rolston

Armitage Shanks, the host of the Burlesque Ball, resembled a cross between a carnival ringmaster and a philosopher with a PhD in striptease and pasties. In a gruff, booming voice he announced, “Tonight we’re going to touch you in ways that feel uncomfortable. Tonight we’re going to make love to you individually and collectively.” It was a promising start for a night of boundary-busting burlesque at the Mod Club, which was transformed into a den of titillating entertainment.

This was merely one of four nights of the fifth annual Toronto Burlesque Festival, where the queens, kings and gender-bending stars of the Canadian and international burlesque scenes converged to shower the city in a flurry of sequins, feathers, cheesy puffs and some other things that may surprise you. That’s the beauty of burlesque: it’s a medium that lends itself well to the ridiculous, the rebellious, the salacious, and looks damn sexy while doing it.

Coco Framboise, festival co-producer and founder of Toronto’s Coco Framboise School of Burlesque, thinks the acts that stray from classic burlesque can often shock people.

“I think the mainstream flavour of burlesque that people think of is that pin-up look and I think sometimes people are a bit offended when it’s lewd, which I find endlessly amusing,” said Framboise. “There’s so much to be inspired by and horrified by. I really hope this festival will invite people to begin exploring and to see what’s out there. Beyond the war rolls and the red lipstick there’s so much to see.”

With a slew of performances, workshops and a strip search competition for new performers, there certainly was a lot to see. At Saturday’s Burlesque Ball, you could watch everything from a cheeky Marie Antoinette putting a new spin on “let them eat cake” by doing the splits onto one and rolling in the frosting, to a number involving a rebellious fat camp that eats its instructor and strips while Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” blasts in the background.

It just goes to show that while burlesque can be sexy and glamorous, it can also be an edgy, powerful medium that challenges mainstream stereotypes about size, race, beauty and ability/disability.

“Our troupe, Skin Tight Outta Sight, has always had women (and men) appearing who don’t necessarily conform to mainstream definitions of beauty and this has not impacted our audience numbers or our ability to attract corporate clients,” says Sauci Calla Horra, founder and executive producer of the festival. “Ultimately, the sexiest organ is our brain and if we can do a show that is hot as hell yet challenging the status quo, then we have achieved our goal.”

Framboise agrees that when burlesque makes you think, it can be very hot indeed.

“To me, smart is my favorite kind of sexy. I love when I think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that,’ or ‘Of course, it was right there the whole time and I didn’t see it!’ I love that, it’s such a delight,” said Framboise.

On Saturday, many performances delved into the unexpected by mixing different genres with unique skills. For instance, one performer wore an orange fuzzy bird puppet on one arm that kept eating her clothes off, while another came out in a welding mask, wielding a sander she grinded against her metal corset, sending a shower of sparks into the audience, as the Dr. Who theme song played. According to Calla Horra, as burlesque has gained popularity, diverse performers are bringing more to the table, such as aerial, hula hoop and fire stunt acts, as well as pole-dancing.

“I personally find this inspiring and exciting to watch. Our scene has become much more dynamic and there are more shows than ever for an audience to choose from,” said Calla Horra.

Performers also have a lot to choose from when planning their acts. Will they tweak an old classic or bring something fresh to the table? Calla Horra tried out a new act at the Burlesque Ball called “The Night At The Opera” which was inspired when she saw the opera “Tosca.” She mixed the melodrama of opera and teenage angst in a comedic way by drinking lots of alcohol and then committing suicide while subtitles on a screen read, “Will you miss me? Adieu.”

Framboise also performed a very sensual piece which she considers to be in its embryonic stages. She played Cleopatra in a golden cape with half-naked attendants on either side of her fanning and adoring her. At the end of the piece, after she had stripped, she put her cape back on, which came across as a show of power. For her, the reveal at the end of the performance doesn’t have to be the frosting on the cupcake. In fact, it can be something else entirely.

“Sometimes it’s something quite different from what you were expecting and that can be quite fun, too,” said Framboise. “Sometimes you’re thinking that you’re going to get a cupcake and you end up with a banana.”

At least it’s a sexy banana.

“Adriana Rolston is a sex-positive feminist, a journalism grad and a freelance writer/researcher who currently works at a sex shop in Toronto.”