Burlesque had its heyday in North America between the 1920s and ’60s. Stage shows featuring extravagantly costumed showgirls popped up in cities across the continent, attracting mostly male audiences.
Since 2000, there’s been a strong resurgence in burlesque, says Jessica Thorp, a PhD student at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, who is writing her thesis about the art form’s newfound popularity and also performs burlesque herself. Thorp is particularly interested in a new sub-genre called “nerdlesque,” in which the performers adopt personas from TV shows, movies, comic books and video games.
What intrigues Thorp about the new burlesque is its do-it-yourself ethic rooted in punk culture, its openness to amateur artists with a variety of body types, its embrace of older women and its appeal to queer audiences. She’s also investigating what she sees as a playful approach to gender representation (including the use of drag) and examining the “culture of performance” – who’s going to the shows (women now outnumber men) and who’s performing in them.
“In a playful and non-threatening way, new burlesque challenges notions of what is attractive and what is appropriate for people to do on stage,” says Thorp, whose own troupe, Nerd Girl Burlesque, has performed locally and in the northeastern U.S. “Everything is done with tongue in cheek and a knowing wink.”