Girls girls girls

Photographs by Jean Levac
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Irish Von Spring of Bourbon and Spice is a burlesque company that performs around Ottawa. They will be putting on a special performance for Halloween.

They want to be identified by their stage names. After all, burlesque is all about being a more sassy, saucy version of yourself.

So here they are: Kerosene Misfortune, Shade Nyx, Charlotte Champagne, Fifi Flambée and Irish Von Spring, the members of Bourbon & Spice, an Ottawa burlesque troupe that combines comedy, music and naughty lingerie.

As Fifi Flambée — the one who wears a miniature chef’s hat and an oven mitt along with a corset and stilettos — puts it: “Our personae are set aside from our everyday lives.”

Bourbon & Spice was formed in January 2011 by Kerosene Misfortune, a music instructor who plays fiddle in two bands.

The members, who range in age from 22 to 33, joined by word of mouth. Irish Von Spring was recruited on Kijiji. The troupe, which creates it own costumes and choreographs its own numbers, performs about once a month to a wide variety of music, from punk to industrial and bluegrass.

Burlesque is hot right now, but it’s a resurgence that has been simmering for almost two decades. Vancouver and Toronto are considered among North America’s burlesque hot spots. Ottawa has about a half-dozen troupes, including its own “nerdlesque” troupe, the Browncoats, one of the few in Canada. Occasionally, the troupes get together to perform as the Ottawa Burlesque Collective.

This is how mainstream burlesque has become: Shade Nyx, who combines pin-up glamour with a fetish edge, says she got an invitation to apply for a job at a daycare at one show.

At its centre, burlesque is stripping — sort of. It is a long, slow striptease. The “queen of burlesque,” Dita Von Teese, has said she “puts the tease back into striptease.”

Some burlesque performers strip down to their pasties. Others, like the members of Bourbon & Spice, prefer to keep it to corsets and frilly underwear. The troupe prefers to “appeal to to the brains rather than the naughty bits,” as Kerosene Misfortune puts it.

“This phenomenon is not purely about the strip; it is more about tease than sleaze,” wrote Jackie Willson, author of The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque, in an essay for The Times of London. In fact, you barely see much at all, says Willson.

“It is innocent fun with an ostentatious use of costume and sexuality that is both pleasurable and risqué.”

The world has become over-saturated with overt sexuality, says Charlotte Champagne. “This takes it back and makes it sexy instead of sexual.” Kerosene Misfortune adds, “We wear more than many people do when they go to a club.”

While neo-burlesque is an homage to the heyday of the art in the mid-20th century, it is also something new. Burlesque performers consider their art to be empowering. There are usually a lot of women in the audience. The new burlesque is a paradox. It liberates at the same time it holds up the stereotype of the sexy babe.

“Much burlesque performance is charged with charisma and plenty of oomph but also with ambi­valence,” says Willson. “This is a spectacle that straddles subversion and coercion, a spectacle of paradoxical pleasures that resonate through one’s body and mind long after the performance has finished.”

Burlesque is all about the costume — the corsets, the fishnet stockings, the sky-high stiletto. Often, it is a tribute to the pin-ups of the ’40s and ’50s. But it is not about conventional beauty. San Francisco’s Rubenesque Burlesque, for example, bills itself as a troupe of “round and rowdy rump shakers.”

Charlotte Champagne likes burlesque for the way it plays with femininity, poking fun of social conventions. It has room in it for women of all sizes.

“It’s more accessible. It takes in every body shape,” Champagne says. “It’s a more all-encompassing view of sexuality and body image.”

Halloween burlesque

What: Bourbon & Spice Burlesque with Mystery Pill — front man

Peter Pritchard, singer Liz Foxx, fiddle player Karolyne LaFortune and mandolin player Jason Anderson of Mystery Pill will be backing up the dancers as they perform to live music.

Where: The Rainbow Bistro, 76 Murray St.

When: Wednesday, Oct. 31. Doors at 9 p.m.

Cover: $10

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