For the past year the marquees of Guelph (and it’s constellating surrounds) have winked and shimmied with the name The Femmes Rebelles. It could be that this bloggish paparazzo just has a starry-eyed – if not slightly boozy – way of arriving on the scene but the appearance of burlesque at the top of downtown’s bill is a welcome bump to our somewhat prudish daily grind. Shedding as many feminine cliches as fine costumes, these Rebelles tease a timely yet classic distinction between strictly choreographed entertainment and ironic gender performativity. Framed within the storied arcs of the silver-screen, Lilith Lemons, Ruby Moon, Olive von Topp and Co. will restage some iconic roles for this Friday’s anniversary show. Not keen on projecting my maybe misdeveloped views, I requested some further direction from Olive von Topp.
-Brad de Roo, who thinks that catching a film at the Bookshelf cinema before trying to catch up to The Femmes Rebelles (Friday May 29 at 9pm in the eBar) is good for local show biz
Okay. Opening Credits. Who’s starring in this production? How does each Femme enter the scene? What do we immediately know about them?
The Femmes Rebelles
Olive von Topp
Maria Juana (Toronto - The Harlettes)
Sassy Ray (Kitchener)
Marilyn St. Evans
Ruby enters somber and sultry. Immediately you know she is an artist and her performance is going to be on the darker, more dramatic side. Often her acts tell stories of longing, desperation, and fantasy. She’s an incredible dancer and her epic numbers will entrance you.
Lilith enters coquettishly and confidently, though you never know what character you’re going to get. However, immediately you know you are going to be entertained. She invites you into her acts, yet she still manages to pleasantly make you feel like a voyeur. Her acts are a well-balanced blend of adorable, coy, sexy, and funny. It’s evident through her acts that she went to school for theatre.
And Olive probably enters by tripping over something or with a lewd gesture. Her acts are often brazen, humourous, awkward, and usually tell a story. She’s kinda in-your-face and doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. She’s known for using a lot of props and extras, but is trying to do less of that because it’s a real pain in the ass.
What sets a Femmes Rebelles show apart from the movies?
Besides a much lower budget?
There is no take two. In live performance, you don’t have the luxury of multiple takes. Anything can happen, but I think that is part of the excitement – knowing anything can happen. Mess-ups can happen at anytime and a lot of the funniest stuff I have seen in burlesque comes out of improvisation, costume malfunctions, and people feeding off of one another’s energy. It’s a lot harder to get that in the movies.
What happens behind the silver screen? Do you have a director, producer, costume designer? Or do The Rebelles take care of all the business?
Mayhem. The show production is all The Rebelles; set list, performer bookings, show concepts, promotion, logistics, group choreography, and group costumes. Ruby does a lot of the costume design and performer bookings and handles music and set-lists, Lilith handles a lot of the stage management and promotion, and I do a lot of the promotion and venue booking, etc. Usually we all contribute to the choreography, though there are certain numbers that are more heavily choreographed by one person. We sort of all contribute different skills and work really well together.
Oh, and we hire a stage manager for the night-of, Coco, who is amazing and we have very helpful "stage kittens" who pick up clothes, help with props, etc.
What movies are on Olive von Topp’s night-stand?
Ha! Currently Boogie Nights and Purple Rain. Literally.
For the quiet censors and prudish advisory board types, what rating will Friday night’s show get?
Oh geez, depends on your level of comfort: M for mature audiences (though arguably a lot of the content is pretty immature). Of course there are boobs (with pasties) and very suggestive content, so viewer discretion is definitely advised.
Music is essential to film for relaying character emotion, for creating suspense, for emphasizing humour or fear, for controlling pacing and so on. How does music work in burlesque? How is it selected? What does it give to the scene in action?
Similarly, music is essential to burlesque, for conveying emotion, humour, anticipation, tease, etc. Usually punchy music with big hits is really great for performing burlesque. Pauses are good for creating suspense or anticipation; slow, sultry music for tease.
Every performer has a different method for selecting music, I’m sure. I often come up with a concept, character, or theme, and find music that fits in terms of feel, lyrics, etc. The rest of the time I find a piece of music I love and choreograph a number to it. A lot of choreo starts off as a love for a song. And you have to love it, because by the time you listen to it 4000 times and break down each phrase, count out each beat, etc, you may not love it the same way.
Hollywood definitely still traffics in gender stereotypes. Many stars and their characters might as well be CGI tweaked super-hero deities of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. How is burlesque’s approach to gender different?
I think in one way, burlesque is a highly sexualized performance that subscribes to gender stereotypes of ‘ultimate femininity’. But that’s exactly what burlesque is, a performance. It’s not suggesting, like many movies, that this is what women should look like or act like, it’s playing with these stereotypes, enjoying them, owning them, and transforming them. In some ways, it’s a satire of this (totally unachievable) societal expectation of what femininity should look like. And the power is in the hands of the performer. I think most performers are aware of gender as a performance (both on and off stage).
In a lot of neo-burlesque, gender is often turned on its head, as lines of gender and sexuality are blurred and stereotypes mocked; women playing men, women playing men who are playing women, performers juxtaposing ideals of femininity and masculinity and mixing them together, etc. It’s fabulous! There’s definitely a lot of parallels to drag, again in that gender is a performance. I’ve done one ‘gender-bender’ where I transformed from man to woman, and am doing a drag number in this next show. Actually, there are quite a few drag numbers in this show. I love playing with the lines about what a woman or man is supposed to look like, how they’re supposed to act, making fun of ‘ultimate’ femininity and masculinity, gender binaries, what’s considered conventionally attractive. It’s a lot of fun.
Does burlesque lend itself to method acting?
Ha. I guess so, in a way. I like to think about what my character is like, what they would be thinking, how they would behave, so it’s consistent throughout the act. I also like to think about what they’re motivation is for taking their clothes off. Do they know they have an audience? Are they trying to be sexy? Powerful? Funny? What are they do they want the audience to know?
Ever pitched political satire scripts to the troupe?
Nothing really political, though we do throw around silly ideas or social commentaries, some of which come to fruition. That did just give me an idea though, so thanks!
How should an ideal show leave an audience feeling?
Confident, sexy, inspired, and satisfied. They should for sure leave in a good mood.
What’s next for The Femmes franchise? Sci-fi burlesque? TV-themed? Sock-hopped? Senate-scandal inspired? Climate Costume Change?
Well, our reality TV show hasn’t taken off yet, so I suppose more shows. We’re hoping to put on a bigger soft-seater Victorian-themed show either at the end of this year or the beginning of next. That and trying to perform as much as possible in other people’s shows. We’ll be performing in some shows coming up in the summer as well as in the Toronto Burlesque Festival in August.