Our city got a little bit hotter over the weekend as the Toronto Burlesque Festival teased, taunted and traipsed around from July 24th Playing host to renowned burlesque and cabaret performers from around the world, this festival had a little something for everyone. And we were lucky enough to bear (bare) witness to four out of the five shows.
Hotel Tryst: Rendez-Vous, Thursday July 24th
The festivities kicked off on Thursday night at Revival Bar with Hotel Tryst: Rendez-Vous where attendees were checked-in at the front door, given an individually numbered room key and told to “enjoy your stay,” although we were a little disappointed when the keys were only used for a short mind-reading bit by one of the performers. Such a great little prop could have been a creative way to increase the audience participation in the show; perhaps to get audience members on stage? Or to draw for door prizes? But we digress. Our little room key sat unused, but whimsical nonetheless.
The show opened on our host for the night, Armitage Shanks aka The Carny Preacher (Seattle) who doubled as the concierge in charge of the rag-tag group of employees who paraded reluctantly onto the stage to the beckon of his whistle. As they lined up, ready to open for business, the guests began to arrive one by one, coming down the center aisle of the venue. Characters ranged from the sexy and mysterious to the loud and nerdy, but all of them intriguing and leaving the audience guessing as to what would unfold onstage.
A hotel show is a great way to create a storyline for a night of burlesque instead of the typical intro-performance-intro-performance format, and the producers used it to their advantage. The audience was peering into rooms, watching various vignettes with char acters milling about at the bar, sometimes trying (and failing) to seduce others, and entering and exiting through the elevator doors in the lobby. These lovely set pieces huddled in front of the stage added to the charm of the hotel theme.
As for the performances themselves, they ranged from the sensual – a slow, red-hot pole number by Ruby Moon (Guleph) and Toronto’s own Obskyura smoldering to Tell Me Something Good – to the surprising – Albert Cadabra (New York City) made us flinch and blush simultaneously when he proved to be fearless at starting fires with various body parts, while local legends Dew Lily and Coco Framboise (Executive Director of Programming, Creative Director and one of the founders of the festival) were hilarious with their over-the-top American tourists who tipped with coupons in fanny packs, but had a dirty little secret after all.
Coco and Dew Lily weren’t the only hometown heroes who won us over; the trio of maids who, having remained in character throughout the evening, wowed with a chair dance. Led by Pastel Supernova, these members of Love Letters Cabaret shook and shimmied into everyone’s hearts. Speaking of hearts, Lucky Minx and James and the Giant Pasty performed the most adorable set of the night when they gave us their take on what it’s like to hook up with someone for the first time. Leelando Calrissian as the lip-syncing, high-heel strutting bellhop had us cheering. Finally, Suki Tsunami dazzled from high above the crowd when she worked her aerial silks routine, closing the show with a little romance and robbery.
We were sad to have to check out of the Hotel Tryst but good things can only last so long, and we left thoroughly satisfied. Plus, we had two more nights of naughtiness to look forward to.
Wanderlust: Tour du Monde, Friday July 25th (7pm)
Friday night’s first event, along with the three remaining shows of the festival, jumped across the street from Revival Bar to the Mod Club, an excellent venue to house the throngs of thrill-seekers rushing to get a spot close enough to be glitter-bombed.
Cabaret seating is the norm, with a few rows of seats at the front of the stage reserved for VIP ticket-holders and sponsors, so for future reference, ensure you get to these events early so you can snag one of the only other places to sit in the venue, like we managed to. So either shell out the dough for guaranteed seats (and extra treats) or make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes, because it’s pretty much standing room only.
Tonight’s early show was hosted by Toronto’s SMB, and our favourite MC of the festival. Between his colourful silk robe, his even more colourful language and the sheer enjoyment that he expressed after each performance, we couldn’t get enough of him. The show had a loose Around the World theme and it began right here at home.
The first performers jump started the evening with a sassy Canadian Men’s Bobsled Team number in which four members of BoylesqueTO warmed up in their red and white onesies while growing increasingly close to one another. We were in stitches to say the least.
As the night wore on, we were treated to sets from performers hailing from all over the map: Perth, Australia (Kitty Littéur), San Francisco (Rasa Vitalia), LA (headliner Kitten de Ville), Seattle (headliner Inga Ingenue), and a whole slew from NYC (Albert Cadabra, Dangrrr Doll, Nasty Canasta & Laura Desiree). Again, the sets were as varied as the performers presenting them, with all variations of sexiness, comedy and even political statements: Wrong Note Rusty of BoylesqueTO did quite the Vladimir Putin impression.
We were in awe of Red Herring’s (Toronto) gorgeous carrousel horse in one of the most elaborate set pieces of the show, and of the performance she gave on and around it. Lucky Minx (Toronto) was adorably 80s in her Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car number. Lady Hoops (Montréal) and Ruby Moon (Guleph) mesmerized with their special talents and The Mansfield Brothers had us cracking up with their dance moves that don’t quite match their appearance.
But there were two stand out moments of the night, both accredited to local performers. The first of which came at the closing of the top half of the show when St. Stella, Cerise Noir and Bianca Boom Boom took the stage in a an exquisite “tribute to the folklore sirens.” Their interpretation of a haunting tune from the film O Brother Where Art Thou? climaxed with Bianca Boom Boom showing off her flawless vocal ability. The second piece that deserves heaping praise was presented by James and The Giant Pasty, who gave an absolutely iconic performance as a tree dealing with growing older, a theme we can all relate to, perfectly set to Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide. It was one of those truly special experiences in live art that we will be talking about for weeks. This trip around the world was a whirlwind to be sure, and we were still flying high long after the end of the show.
The Dangerous Liaison, Friday July 25th (10:30pm)
The second event on Friday, dubbed “the late show,” promised to be even more scandalous, even more sexy, and even more subversive. And TBF14 certainly delivered. As soon as the host, Dr. Lucky of New York City – a self-proclaimed Ph-Double-D and female drag queen – took the stage we knew it was going to be a thoroughly entertaining evening. We were already somewhat familiar with her over-the-top stage persona when she appeared at Hotel Tryst on Thursday as a dirty mind-reader. There’s something about hearing MCs swear onstage that makes everyone feel a lot more comfortable with what they’re about to experience.
Deanna Danger (Richmond, VA) was the first performer of the night and her set involved the use of one red-gloved hand that seemed to have a mind of its own. Her movements were well thought-out and had us captivated from start to finish as she had us convinced it was working autonomously from the rest of her body. As with the other shows, the routines tonight were incredibly diverse but always sexy. Love Letters Cabaret (Toronto) stepped it up for this event with a group number featuring gorgeous women and men that left us a little sweaty. In the best way. The most beautiful set of the night belonged to Lucy Sky Diamond who joined the festival all the way from Tasmania. Her homage to the moon goddess was so sparkly and wonderful you could have put her in a jar and lit up a room.
We were also treated to a great message about self-image when Ava Noir, Miss dd Starr and Johnny B Goode (all of Toronto) teamed up for a piece that was a stirring social commentary about plastic surgery and the pressure women feel to stay young and beautiful forever.
What really stood out for us this evening were the acts that showcased the neo-Burlesque style, which is a modern departure from the classic tease. Nina La Voix (NYC) brought us a hip-hop routine that showed off her amazing musicality and demonstrated that you can strip to just about anything. Suki Tsunami (Toronto) made the grandest entrance, stomping down the bar in an animal skin poncho in her tribute to the two-spirited people of the First Nations, which culminated in an amazing aerial hoop demonstration.
Sauci Calla Horra (Toronto), one of the founders and Executive Producer of the festival, provided some comic relief and exposure of another sub-category of burlesque called Nerdlesque with her Star Trek themed number. If we had to pick a favourite performance of this show, that title would belong to MsChaos Divine (Hamilton) aptly dubbed the “Glamour from the Hammer.” Her take on the classic tale of Frankenstein was perfection. Everything from the staging, her elaborate body makeup, the scary/sexy masked butcher on stage with her, choice of music (Radioactive by Imagine Dragons) and movements came together in a very clear storyline that left us captivated until the very last moment. We felt she embodied the title of this show in her set, it was a Dangerous Liaison indeed.
The Glam-A-Ganza, Saturday July 26th (10:30pm)
The fifth and final show of the 2014 Toronto Burlesque Festival was like the shiny bow that tied everything together. While the majority of the performances leaned more towards the classic tease style of burlesque, there was still a few sets featuring more modern takes on the art form. As with the previous shows, there was certainly something to enjoy no matter where your preference lies.
The MC for the evening once again was Armitage Shanks, the Carny Preacher from Seattle, who opened the show with a song which he boasted having written especially for that night. While his gravelly voice was an absolute delight to bask in, both while speaking and singing, it appeared as though he hadn’t had enough time to rehearse the song, returning to the podium several times to look at his sheet music, which we felt took away from the performance. When he felt comfortable with certain lines and belted them out with confidence though, we were blown away.
Who can say they write and perform original songs for the events they host? It’s no surprise he is a much-sought after international performer. The under the sea theme of the first group to grace the stage was perfectly executed with the help of some beautiful fans draped with turquoise coloured scarves. When Glamour Puss (Toronto) moved the fans in sync, we were sure we were looking at a stunning tropical waterfall.
The ladies in the audience went absolutely wild – amplified by the fact that there were a few bachelorette parties present – when male performer Percy Katt (Toronto) stole everyone’s hearts in a super studly matador routine. The Spanish influence continued when Miss dd Starr (Toronto) delighted and wowed with a tango/flamenco number in which she danced with a giant rose that yielded a few special surprises. While we’re talking about (but not spoiling any) surprises, festival founder and Executive Producer Sauci Calla Horra (Toronto) may have gotten the biggest cheers of the night when she performed her tribute to Marie Antoinette and her full, elegant period costume had a hilarious shocker of its own.
We were reminded of Deanna Danger’s red-gloved hand from the night before when headliner Kitten de Ville (LA) used her hand to portray a snake in her piece dedicated to Eve, the original bad girl, and to women everywhere. Her costume was exquisite and her reverse strip was an excellent commentary on the oppression of women and their bodies that we are still faced with to this day. The song choice, Bad Girls by M.I.A. was perfect but we felt this particular remix ran a little long. We took it as an opportunity to be hypnotized by her scarf dancing for a few extra minutes. One of the only neo-burlesque pieces of this show was brought to us by EvE of Destruction (Toronto), who managed to be creepy and beautiful at the same time with her plastic face mask and thigh-high leather point shoes with heels reminiscent of Lady Gaga. Her feats while wearing said shoes were nothing short of amazing and she had us wrapped up in her world even as she left the stage in an interesting way.
Whether intentional or not, we were reminded of Lady Gaga a second time this evening when headliner Inga Ingenue (Seattle) took the stage in a classic tease, although this performer made it anything but the usual. She is so expressive in her face and her body throughout her sets that even her signature big, bouffant, blonde bob seems to have a persona of its own when she moves. We couldn’t help but spot similarities between her and the pop star if only for both of their abilities to command a packed room (and packed it was) as soon as the music begins.
Big hair seemed to be a trend as festival founder, Executive Director of Programming and Creative Director Coco Framboise (Toronto) presented a last minute change up from the set she had intended to perform this evening. All love and light, this airy peace saw her floating about in a warm, dreamy cloud. As she exited the stage, it was apparent that this was an emotional piece for her and her gratitude flowed to the audience as easily as the crowd cheered their appreciation. Our final honourable mention of the night goes to Lady Josephine (Montreal) who gave us an excellent androgynous character who was particularly well-versed at sword play. We were especially impressed with the way she used it to remove her corset. Tricks like that only come with planning, practice and precision and it’s clear that this performer is a professional.
Sunday the festival hosted a sold-out Pin-Up Pool Party at the Hyatt Regency benefiting Rethink Breast Cancer. We can only imagine the photo ops that ensued. So if you’d rather be mingling with stunning bikini-clad women than watching them onstage, then make sure you keep an eye out for this event next year and get your tickets early. And while you’re at it, pick up tickets for all of the shows as well. If this year was any indication that Toronto’s burlesque scene is brimming with talent and creativity, then next year should be even bigger, bolder, brasher and bendier.
We can’t wait.