Burlesque bounces back in Toronto

Toronto is a city rich with titillating diversions, and burlesque has been part of the scene for decades.

And while burlesque has been enjoying a renaissance of late, its popularity is firmly rooted in venues such as the 1960s-era Victory Burlesk Theatre to today’s Gladstone Hotel, which offers its stage for the Toronto Burlesque Festival.

Mysterion is both a professional entertainer and co-producer of the Toronto International Burlesque Festival. He said burlesque had its heyday in the Toronto of the 1950s through to the 1970s and Mysterion says there’s a reason for this.

“Porn theatres didn’t really exist in the 50s,” he said. “This may be the only place to go and see a live women strip.”

Burlesque dancer and instructor Coco Framboise has been in the industry for eight years. She said part of burlesques’ success was that it was something racy, but not sleazy.

“In the 50s or 60s, I think it was more risqué to see a (mostly) naked body,” she said. “Now I think it’s different because we’re more used to it.”

Mysterion would agree. He believes “the death of burlesque in Toronto was the birth of strip clubs.” Prior to their arrival he said men went to burlesques houses to see a striptease.

“It was really the only form of, dare I say it, pornographic entertainment, unless you went to a prostitute,” he said.

Though burlesque was by no means exclusive to Toronto, the city does have a special tie with it. Filmmaker and movie house enthusiast Morgan White says many theatres in the city hosted vaudeville shows, which included burlesque acts.

There is, however one venue that made history, and not just because it was the first place the rock band Rush played.

“The Victory Theatre, which is now a Royal Bank, at the corner of Spadina (Avenue) and Dundas (Street West), was in fact the first place you could see a topless woman, in North America, dancing,” White said. “And it had burlesque acts from all over the world come and perform.”

White said the advent of strip clubs, offering full nudity, changed the demands and expectations of consumers, and burlesque, with its emphasis on fan dances, satire, theatre and storytelling, couldn’t compete.

“Theatres became expensive to operate and they probably had to close because of that,” White said. “Times change and venues change with the times.”

He added that as social taboos changed, burlesque had to change too. Framboise calls this “image literacy.”

“I think that as people get used to certain kinds of imagery the impact of those images change,” she said.

This is why she says today’s burlesque performances differ from the classic fan dances seen in the 60s. The acts still include elements of saucy humour, storylines and other creative components to woo modern crowds.

Said Framboise, for today’s audiences sex is not such a taboo: “You can see more on the evening news than we ever did.”