michael j. morris


queer burlesque and the velvet hearts

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to Sofie Clemmensen’s Freshman Seminar in the Department of Dance at OSU. Sofie had invited me to talk about blogging (and now I’m blogging about talking about blogging—so meta) and writing artist’s statements. In addition to these main speaking points, I also talked about web presence more generally, the social constitution of identity (we are all always more than who we are to ourselves; both on the web and off, who we are is an aggregate of content the we have generated and content/parameters generated by others), identifying and articulating one’s contribution to the field, and some of my own work/reasons for being in dance. In the discussion of my own work, I talked a little about the work I’ve been doing this past year performing as a principle dancer in the queer burlesque company Viva Valezz! and the Velvet Hearts. I realized after the talk that I haven’t posted anything about that work here on my blog, and so I wanted to offer a brief account of my time with the company over the last year (plus).

I joined the Velvet Hearts in August 2012. I had never considered being a burlesque performer before then, but when I was invited to audition, it made sense. I had been going to burlesque shows for years, specifically queer burlesque shows, because I was interested in the staging of eroticism, the celebration of bodies, and the reconfiguring of the “traditional” (straight) strip show for queer performers and audiences. I was excited by the empowerment of watching women stripping for women, and how the orientations of these crowds seemed to influence the possibilities for the form that the burlesque took, such as gender ambiguity, androgyny, or genderfuck, overt lesbian content, and the way the audience related to the performers. At Velvet Hearts shows, I was always so moved by the overwhelming gratitude that the audience displayed; rather than demanding or catcalling performers to take things off, these crowds cheered and tipped when clothing was removed. When I joined the Velvet Hearts, it was in part because this was a culture that I wanted to be a part of, a culture that feels sex-positive, feminist, queer, and body-positive, right here in Columbus, Ohio. As so much of my own choreography and research interests engage directly with bodies, sexuality, sex, and porn, I was also interested in how choreographing and performing in this genre would open new avenues of exploration for my work. Going in, I knew that I was approaching burlesque as a choreographer/dancer coming from the contemporary/post-modern dance world. My interests were in the choreographic tropes and principles of burlesque—delay, anticipation, and reveal, the spectators’ gaze—the vocabularies through which “sex” and “sexy” are signified—things like shimmies, bumps, grinds, sustained, lingering touch, etc., as well as normative and non-normative gender codes—and the role of costuming in choreography; in many ways, what you wear determines what you do. The fashion of burlesque—boas and satin gloves and zippers and corsets and bras and pasties, etc.—prescribes certain parameters for movement, not only the gestures that are performed, but the sequencing on those gestures (the order in which articles of clothing are removed). In each of the pieces I have created over the last year, I have been experimenting with these formal properties of burlesque: how long can one sustain anticipation before a reveal? if I am only wearing one article of clothing (a sari, for instance, as in my solo “Like This”), is it possible to take six minutes to remove it, and what choreography does that costuming enable? are there ways to critique the gaze of the spectator—by which I mean, make it visible or appreciable as a certain norm, not critique as in criticize or demean—heightening the spectator’s self-awareness of their own gaze and desires to see, while also reversing the gaze, giving the spectator the sensation of being viewed or seen? what is “minimalism” in burlesque? if I reduce the choreography to only a few actions—a grind, a shimmy—repeated indefinitely, does the significance of those actions change? does their erotic potential/function shift into something else? do they become de-naturalized, and does the de-naturalization of certain erotic tropes open the parameters for what might then be appreciable/recognizable as erotic? in what ways does burlesque participate in what I think of as the larger project of dance, the exploration and presentation of what bodies can do, thus what bodies can be? if burlesque is an exploration/presentation of what [more] bodies can be, is it possible to consider burlesque to be participating in the politics of the life and livability of bodies, as it relates to sexuality, visibility, and recognition? These are some (not all) of the questions that I’ve been exploring in my choreography within the queer burlesque scene. I don’t have video footage of most of my performances, but I have been very grateful for the work of a number of photographers who have captured moments from my performances over the last year (credited below).

I’ll try to be better about posting about upcoming performances and shows, but if you are interested in this work, feel free to follow the Velvet Hearts on Facebook; all of our performances are announced there.

This video was produced as part of a solo I performed in the FIERCE International Queer Burlesque Festival. The piece was performed at Wall Street Night Club on May 4, 2013. This video was projected on screens on all sides of the audience while I performed the same solo on stage, facing away from the audience. This was an experiment in heightening the sensation of voyeurism and surveillance that is implicit within the structure of a burlesque performance. The choreography was derived from a solo originally choreographed by CoCo Loupe, who also shot the footage for the video.

rehearsal stills from "becoming emma, becoming imperceptible"

rehearsal stills from “becoming emma, becoming imperceptible”

fierce_burlesquebitch1

solo from FIERCE International Queer Burlesque Festival, photo by BurlesqueBitch.com

fierce_provocatique1

solo from FIERCE International Queer Burlesque Festival, photo by Provocatique.com

fierce_provocatique2

solo from FIERCE International Queer Burlesque Festival, photo by Provocatique.com

likethis_provocatique2

“Like This,” photo by Provocatique.com

likethis_robwalker

“Like This,” photo by Robert Walker

likethis_provocatique1

“Like This,” photo by Provocatique.com

likethis_robwalker2

“Like This,” photo by Robert Walker

trauma_provocatique1

Geryon from TRAUMA 2012, photo by Provocatique.com

trauma_provocatique

Geryon from TRAUMA 2012, photo by Provocatique.com

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