“We Are Performers”

Scarlett James Pimps Out the Montreal Burlesque Festival

Scarlett James photo by Ruth Gillson

As fans of burlesque will know, the performance is more about the tease than the sleaze.

“There is so much more than the six minutes onstage of a girl taking her clothes off,” said Scarlett James, founder of the Montreal Burlesque Festival, which kicks off its fourth annual edition next week.

“There is a history behind it and I want to show that. There are so many disciplines around it: costuming, acting, singing, producing, photography, makeup, hair.”

The racy thrills are only one part of a burlesque performance. Focus is placed on humour, extravagant costumes, props and glamorous staging.

“I believe that burlesque pushes seduction to the extreme—because people have gone to the other extreme,” said James. “There is no romance whatsoever, no seduction anymore. [Burlesque] shows people how to play again.”

Essentially, neo-burlesque revels in performance artistry and coquettishness, celebrating the body in a world where sexual content is often delivered with as little ceremony as possible.

From Sept. 27 to Sept. 29, four shows featuring burlesque performers with broad-ranging styles interspersed with musical and circus acts will draw Montrealers into a nostalgic world.

A free exhibition displaying costumes, artwork and accessories belonging to burlesque performers, including props used by Lili St. Cyr, a prominent burlesque artist who performed in Montreal the ‘40s and ‘50s, is on view until Sept. 30.

The festival culminates in the Midnight Show Sept. 29 at Club Soda. It’s a new addition to the festival, regrouping its artists and accompanied by live rock and blues bands who will entertain the crowd into the wee hours of the morning.

There’s more to the festival than just being entertained, however. James noted that audience members often show up to the burlesque shows dressed thematically and are encouraged to cheer on the performers.

“The dynamic is a complete change from going to see [other kinds] of performances,” she said.

“Burlesque pushes seduction to the extreme—because people have gone to the other extreme … [Burlesque] shows people how to play again.”
–Scarlett James,
Burlesque Festival Founder

“There’s a relationship with the artist. It’s interactive and people are hooked by that.”

James first attended a burlesque performance in 2008, put on by Montreal’s Team Burlesque at the Mainline Theatre. She immediately saw an opportunity to thrive in the field and for burlesque to be a big thing in Montreal.

“I went home and for about six months I really studied burlesque, found out where it comes from, all the stories and legends associated with it and who does it. At the same time, I constructed my first act and my first costume.

“I got more involved with the community and tried to develop something for myself. I decided to make a festival because a lot of cities had it and Montreal didn’t.”

James admires burlesque’s cultured approach towards sensuality, by focusing on more mature performers. “The people who perform are usually in their late 20s and 30s, they’ve had the time to develop that knowledge and sense of seduction and sensuality,” she said.

When asked about the maturing of the festival itself, which has been growing in size and budget every year, James had a vision for how to bring together traditional burlesque for a modern audience.

“The formula has changed a little bit, now it’s oriented towards creating a great experience for a mainstream customer. I don’t want to remain in a vintage box.

“I’d like to bring together the best of the past and present,” she said, envisioning a show that also incorporates jazz, contortionists, opera singers, tango dancers, and musicians. “I’m trying to stimulate local performers from every field to participate.”

Amid varying opinions on the art of burlesque, James returned to an important point: “At the end of the day, we are performers. We want to perform. We want to have a great stage and a fun audience.”