G(u)ilt and Glitter: Economic Crisis and Burlesque in Ireland

Registration now open at http://dppskillnet.ie/index.php/event-registration/?ee=78.

Since the Victorian period, the art of burlesque has followed a trajectory marked by challenge and marginalisation, beginning with the radical involvement of “attractive women dressed in tights” in the performance of travesty and vaudeville. Cross-dressing by both genders was commonplace in this period and encoded a unique language of performative sexuality into the process, involving an implicit repudiation of normative social morality, and thus offering a heightened sense of play and experimentation. This sense of celebratory play, combined with a persistent resistance of socially-encoded gender roles, has characterised burlesque as an art form as it moved from family-oriented (though slightly bawdy) performance, through risqué entertainment geared towards a slightly voyeuristic masculine audience in the early-to-mid twentieth century, and on to its present incarnation as a heavily female-friendly “cheesecake” art form, with a decisive emphasis on reinterpreting nostalgic fashions and modes of gender performance.

The Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States ushered in a golden age of burlesque, with its illusions of opulence, luxury and freedom. The recent history of burlesque in Ireland – particularly, though not exclusively, in Dublin, suggests that a similar relationship is in play. In the wake of the economic catastrophe of the past several years, the burlesque scene in Dublin has grown in both size and ambition, encompassing a wide range of performers, venues and styles. In the relative absence of a continuous tradition of burlesque, the Dublin scene has flourished as a ground for innovative performance. Burlesque has become a fixture on the alternative entertainment scene in the city, including an annual festival that highlights the contribution of new acts, classic burlesque, cutting edge experimental performance, fashion and a range of musical and dance styles.

A one-day symposium will take place on this subject in Boston College Dublin on 5 September 2014, to include contributions from both interested academics and practitioners of the art form (including performers, designers, musicians and producers). The purpose of this symposium is to explore the growth, current strength and history of this art in Ireland from the perspectives of:

  • culture and influence
  • history
  • gender, identity and society
  • aesthetics (including staging, design, costuming and performance styles)
  • music

We are particularly interested in encouraging exploration of these themes from the perspective of the recession in Ireland, arguably mirroring the development and innovation of the art form in the US of the 1930s. Throughout and in the wake of the Celtic Tiger, Irish society has undergone a period of rapid change, both positive and negative. Questions of gender and sexuality have become particularly entangled with themes of economic struggle and renewal. Burlesque offers a creative space within which to explore renegotiations of cultural, economic and sexual power bases. The relationship between opulence and austerity, the transgressive performances of class and gender and the exploration of notions of morality, sin and pleasure on the burlesque stage situate the art in a relationship of exchange with concepts of economic guilt and illusions of plenty, hence the title of the symposium.

The symposium will be composed of four panels, each a combination of academic and practitioner perspectives, culminating in a roundtable to include Dr Claire Nally, from Northumbria University, Phil T Gorgeous, a performer from Dublin, and Sarah Cleary of Trinity College Dublin. Topics for discussion might include the response of burlesque to changing social norms, particularly the relatively rapid pace of change in social perspectives on gender and same-sex issues; the history of burlesque in Ireland; the culture of experimentation in performative gender modes, including various forms of transvestism; the major artistic influences on the Dublin scene; the conjunction of self-declared “feminist”/”postfeminist”/“non-feminist” identities on the scene and the challenges for gender and identity in a changing Irish culture, among others.This symposium will function at a nexus of interdisciplinary interests, including literary representation, gender and cultural studies, media studies, sociology and history, music and theatre/performance studies, combining academic discourse, practice-oriented discussion and performance. As a form of community engagement, collaboration with the practitioner community offers benefits to both interested academics and those practitioners seeking to raise awareness of the history and culture surrounding burlesque and neo-burlesque, as well as fostering a longer-term process of engagement with this art form and its growing contribution to the cultural identity of Ireland.

Please click here for a copy of the full programme.

With thanks to UCD School of English, Drama and Filma, Boston College Ireland, the UCD Humanities Institute and the Irish Association for American Studies for their generous support.