The art of Burlesque has a rich history and has evolved and changed through time. Even though our contemporary perception of burlesque might be a strong association with strip tease; comedy and ridicule are the foundation of this art form.
The Oxford Dictionary defines Burlesque as: 1. an absurd and comically exaggerated imitation of something; especially in a literary or dramatic work; a parody. 2. a variety show typically including a striptease.
The origin of the term Burlesque stems from the Romance languages. The French / Italian / Spanish word burla translates as joke, mockery or ridicule. From this derives the term burlesco. Burlesque means to send up in a comic fashion.
The History and Evolution of Burlesque
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The earliest form of Burlesque was on the scene in ancient Greece. Aristophanes is known as the greatest comedian of his age. He lived sometime around 450 BC to 350 BC. He was the original burlesque play write; mocking culture, authorities and religion.
Francesco Berni was an Italian poet who lived in the early 16th century. He was known for a literary form of Burlesque known as poesie bernesco. His widely circulated works were called Opere Burlesche .
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By the17th Burlesque as a literary term had become wide spread throughout France, Italy and eventually England. The term referred to a mockery of dignified aspects of culture; or a grotesque exaggeration of the pathetic side of the human condition. The genre overlapped with the descriptive terms parody and mock heroic.
During the 17th and 18th century Burlesque was divided into two main categories: High Burlesque; wherein a lofty and elevated manner was used to depict commonplace or comedic inappropriate subject matter. And Low Burlesque which mocked and exaggerated serious subjects.
Victorian Burlesque, otherwise known as extravaganza or travesty, became very popular through Europe and New York during the Victorian era. This late 1800's, early 1900's form of Burlesque took on a theatrical form. Comedic parodies were made of popular plays, ballets and operas.
Out of Victorian Burlesque evolved American Burlesque. In the mid 1800's this genre of variety show; derived from elements of Victorian burlesque, music hall and minstrel shows, became popular. American Burlesque evolved to feature striptease and lewd comedy. By the early 1900's American Burlesque was a mixture of satire, adult entertainment, performance art, music hall and variety acts.
American Burlesque during its early years could be seen in cabarets, music halls, theaters and clubs. Costumes, lighting, music and stage sets became more mood oriented and dramatic. The primarily female performers wore lavish, colorful costumes. Novelty acts such as fire breathing and contortionists were used in the shows; as were pantomime artists, singers, comedians and dancers. The striptease became a common component of these variety shows.
By the 1940's Burlesque lost some popularity and took more of an underground turn, as there was somewhat of a sociatle crack down. It was however still flourishing in some parts of the world, like New Orleans. From the 1930's to the 1960's, the Burlesque genre was depicted in Hollywood films. The Pin Up girl phenomenon evolved out of Burlesque performers, actresses and models creating photo advertisements to promote themselves.
Burlesque has made a comeback! In modern times Burlesque has evolved into many different styles within the art form. Neo Burlesque is a resurrection of the classic style; while Cheesecake Burlesque demonstrates the cheeky, quirky aspects. With some degree of controversy, pole dancing has been included as a component of Burlesque. Whatever the style, Burlesque is back with all of its outrageousness , beauty, flair and pizazz. There are Burlesque troupes popping up from big cities to small towns. There are Burlesque competitions that receive international attention. Big and small venue shows happening all over the world.
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In the 1920s, the old burlesque circuits closed down, leaving individual theater owners to get by as best they could on their own. The strip tease was introduced as a desperate bid to offer something that vaudeville, film and radio could not. The strippers soon dominated burlesque, and their routines became increasingly graphic. To avoid total nudity but still give the audience what it wanted, the ladies covered their groins with flimsy G-strings and used "pasties" to cover their nipples. This was usually enough to keep the cops at bay, even though pasties were far more vulgar that a plain naked breast.
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