Montreal, Undercovers

Two Festivals have something for the naughty and the nice

Subtlety gives way to self-expression at the Montreal Fetish Expo. Photo Gary White

Montreal is a city of contradictions: it’s a hot-blooded city that suffers through a long, cold winter. It’s notorious for having strip-clubs inches away from downtown churches. For years, the city was dominated by the church while still boasting the title of Sin City North.

Perhaps it’s because of this historical duality that formerly “underground” sexual events have gained more and more mainstream acceptance over the years.

Our cosmopolitan city has the reputation for being the sex capital of Canada and two major events contribute heavily to this perception: the Montreal Burlesque Festival and Montreal Fetish Week.

The brrr in burlesque
Scarlett James, a burlesque dancer and director of the Montreal Burlesque Festival, was proud to acknowledge that of all the cities in the world she has travelled to, Montreal is the most unique, especially when it comes to sexuality.

“I grew up in sexually-liberated France, where nudity is the norm, but that doesn’t compare to Montreal, a city that was Las Vegas before Las Vegas even existed,” said James.

Sexuality, according to Sigmund Freud, is the main motivational force of life. James agreed, and went on to say that the sexual aspects of burlesque are more than just a performance or entertainment, but a way to worship the excitement of sexuality.

“I enjoy burlesque because it captures the beauty of foreplay—it entices and teases. Burlesque is about learning and mastering the art of seduction. It’s not what you wear, but how you take it off,” explained James.

The erotic attraction of the show crosses gender and generation gaps—the people who attended James’ burlesque show were not limited to any single demographic. The audience featured both men and women of a wide range of ages.

“The people who have come to my shows in the past and those who will come in the future are not only coming to be entertained, but to celebrate the duality of sexuality and sensuality in Montreal,” said James.

James was intrigued by “[1960s era singer-actress] Dalida and her marvelous outfits, Brigitte Bardot, May West, Sally Rand, classic pin-ups, Marilyn Monroe and other mythical American sirens of the silver screen,” according to the biography on her website. “She began to dream that, one day, she would have the chance to perform on stage and dazzle audiences in costumes as extravagant as those of her favorite glamorous stars.”

Burlesque spanned North America in the 20th century and is defined as a “humorous theatrical entertainment involving parody and sometimes grotesque exaggeration.” Burlesque events generally are comprised of a variety show, with a striptease performance as the main event.

James takes great pride in continuing the tradition of not merely putting on a show, but a spectacle. At a recent event, when the velvet curtains opened and she trotted out in her elaborate period costume, the crowd’s jaws drop in unison.

“Burlesque is provocative, but classy at the same time,” said James, explaining the growing mainstream appeal. She added that the show is “just a tease, a dip into the waters of sexuality,” rather than a full-fledged hedonistic escape.

With two feathery props that she wields with deadly and seductive skill, the scene on stage resembled the masked-sex cult in the film Eyes Wide Shut. Unlike the movie, the focus of the show is simple fun, albeit adult-oriented.

Putting the Fête in Fetish
While the redevelopment of lower St. Laurent Boulevard has brought a gloomy feeling to the area, Cabaret Cleopatra still holds a strong sexual presence that lights up the block. The club, which is deeply rooted in downtown Montreal culture and has been around for over 35 years, hosts Club Sin on the top floor, which, once a month, becomes a fetish event.

Montreal Fetish Weekend is a three-day spectacle of techno music, disco balls and dozens of scantily-latex-clad stage performers entertaining the crowd with their sexualized energy. Performers act out roles of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, with some in cages or dog chains and “punished” with light spankings.
One notable performer was dressed as a goat-like pagan god, completely out of dark latex. Aside from performers dressed up in unbelievable designs and costumes, the audience themselves were spectacles to be seen. Montreal Fetish Weekend at Club Sin is unlike any Halloween party that one could attend. The events are essentially unconventional sexual fantasies becoming reality.

Eric Paradis is the producer of Fetish Weekend. Paradis described his event as a time where people, regardless if they are members of the audience or stage performers, can exist as an “expression of the moment” and of their sexuality.
“Montreal will always be one of the best cities in the world to put people together and have celebrations, especially ones that revolve around sexuality,” he said.

According to Paradis, Montreal’s sensitivity to sexuality is a result of the Quiet Revolution during the ‘60s, which coincided with the sexual revolution happening in North America.

“This phenomenon opened an awakening to the beauty of sexuality and sensuality and that the human body was not something to be kept in a closet, but to be celebrated,” he explained. Paradis opined that Montreal was “reborn” in the ‘60s and is currently in its sexual prime.

Our history isn’t the only factor in our sexual identity, as Paradis listed the weather as a crucial contributor to Montreal’s sexuality.

“Montreal really only has two seasons—winter and summer,” he said, only half-jokingly. The wide disparity between the boiling summers and freezing winters make for “endless cycles of rebirths. When the winter ends, the sensuality of Montreal and its inhabitants reflourish. The month of September and mid-October is such a crucial time in Montreal because that’s the dying days of summer and sensuality. But this cycle makes Montreal such an extraordinary city because Los Angeles and other huge cosmopolitan centres don’t have [it].” James chose September to host her event because people want to end their summers with something fun, sexy and exciting before going back to their regular routines.

“I think the month of September is a time where people want to reconnect on a sexual level, before going into their nook for the winter,” she said.

*Wake me up when *
September ends
The mood in Montreal is slowly changing with the colours of the leaves. Both Paradis and James agree that Montreal has a unique open-mindedness when it comes to sexuality and sensuality.

“Every year, it’s so incredible to see the sexual energy that people bring to my events,” said Paradis. “People come from different backgrounds and professions, slap on some latex and other types of costumes and bask in the beauty of their identities as sexual beings.”

As for how to survive the coming cold, James had just one piece of advice.
“Find someone warm to curl up to.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 09, published October 12, 2010.