Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe
Directed by: Jon Manning
Starring: Angelique DeVil, Zora Von Pavonine, Babs Jamboree, Stage Door Johnnies, Sandria Dore’, Isaiah Esquire, Violet Ohmigod, Russell Bruner, and Ivizia Dakini.
Run Time: 77 Minutes
In Theaters: March 3, 2017
Available On VOD and iTunes: March 7, 2017
Over the past ten years there have been a number of documentaries produced about burlesque – some focusing on what it once was, others delving into the roots of the current revival, and most attempting to describe the current scene. Whatever the focus, you’ll find that most follow a fairly standard format, attempting to paint a picture of the scene through a mixture of performance, interview, and fly-on-the-wall footage edited to provide individual portraits of small group of performers that, taken together, provide a commentary on the whole through a study of its parts — the poetic device of synecdoche. Many are labors of love, the director or producer discovering burlesque, getting “hooked” on the people and the ethos, and wanting to spread the word about this outsider art form. And, yes, I got hooked as well and have been involved with the burlesque scene since 2003. However, my documentation is as a still performance photographer. As such I can appreciate the work that goes into capturing the imagery and editing it into a cohesive whole that tells a story — and the difficulty of paring that down to a length that viewers are willing to sit through.
Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe is the latest addition to that list and a worthy one at that. The producers and director shared an interest in various aspects of hidden worlds, fringe communities, quirky characters and families of choice. It is no surprise then that the burlesque community with its dedication to self-expression through a modern, somewhat subversive, performance-art take on a classic art form.
Given this penchant for outsider communities, they present the viewer with portraits of performers – male as well as female — based in Portland, Oregon. While not one of the major centers of burlesque, it is home to a vibrant burlesque community (as well as the annual Oregon Burlesque Festival). The cast is expanded geographically with the inclusion of the Stage Door Johnnies, a male troupe based in Chicago. The performance styles run the gamut from classic to comedic with a bit of fire and vaudeville tossed in as well, both in solo and group numbers, reflecting the diversity of today’s burlesque scene.
The film starts, as do many burlesque shows, with scenes of the M.C. [Armitage Shanks] briefing the audience on “burliquette” (make noise, the more you drink, the better we appear) intercut with the performers backstage in a pre-show group prayer/huddle. A montage of clips give a foretaste of what is to follow as the opening credits roll. If you listen carefully to the off screen announcement, you’ll catch the announcement of that night’s show as the Glitter Tribe Revue. (This opening is nicely complemented by the film’s close with a series of curtain calls from multiple shows as the end credits roll.)
In between the opening and the closing we meet the performers: Angelique DeVil, Zora Von Pavonine, Babs Jamboree, Sandria Dore’, Isaiah Esquire, Violet Ohmigod, Russell Bruner, Ivizia Dakini and the Stage Door Johnnies – Jett Adore, Bazuka Joe, and Ray Gunn. I have seen half of these performers on stage at the Burlesque Hall of Fame and other festivals and looked forward to learning more about each from the interviews.
The performance clips are professionally captured with good color balance and sound. Each one captured the ambience of a live performance. While obviously edited to keep the total runtime within limits, several clips even managed to preserve the feel and storyline of the complete number despite the truncated form.
The interviews give us an opportunity to hear how the performers view themselves, what led them to burlesque, what they seek to portray on-stage, how they come up with ideas for acts, how they view the audience, their perception of the difference between burlesque and other forms of dance, the difficulties of balancing relationships with a passion/obsession for performing, … . Among the quotes I scribbled as I watched the film: “dancing doesn’t make me feel alive, it makes me alive” — “this is not a money-making business” — “love drives everything I do now” — “[doing] everything at a level 10” — “[I’m a] character impersonator [not] a drag queen” — “we’re all just telling our stories”. There is some darkness revealed when one performer discusses experience with child abuse. Another performer had been called an “embarrassment” by her family – but a number of others report positive support from parents. Their stories combine to create a tribal sense of community and mutual support – “my burlesque family had my back”– “this is our celebration of being alive”.
What is unique about this film is the number of interviews with male performers and their perspectives on their place in what is essentially a female art form. One notes that “everyone is beautiful to someone” and speaks of his appeal as a “real” body to his female audience. Another references the Monty Python trope of “naked man, funny – naked woman, sexy” and the contrast between the many restrictions on presenting a woman’s body and the sole one for a man’s [watch the film to find out]. The Stage Door Johnnies are interviewed as a group and that gives an added dimension to the discussion of how they play with masculinity in both their solo and group numbers. As one of the trio noted, they offer the audience “one to romance you, one to fuck you, and one to take home to mother”.
That interplay within the group interview of the Johnnies made me yearn for a similar group discussion with Zora Von Pavonine, Angelique DeVil, and the other members of the Fringe Benefits troupe featured in the film. However, at a runtime of 77 minutes, this film may already be a bit long for some audience members and I would hesitate cutting out anything such an addition would require.
In summary, Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe is a welcome addition to the list of burlesque documentaries. It is a polished production and well focused on its subject. I enjoyed it. While it does not deal with burlesque history, it provides a good introduction for a general audience of enough of the wide spectrum of performance styles on the current scene. For those already involved in the current burlesque scene, this film, with its primary focus on Portland, complements existing documentaries focused on burlesque in larger cities, offering additional perspectives which may either reinforce or contrast with their own experiences.