by Mia Glanz
VANCOUVER – Like many good things in life, the reigning burlesque night in Vancouver, Kitty Nights, began as an implant from New York City. It was 2007 and Burgundy Brixx and the Purrfessor had had enough of George Bush, so they made the decision to seek refuge north of the border.
“Seems quaint now,” the Purrfessor laughs. In New York, Burgundy had been a long time performer, loving the “mishmash” of the burlesque scene: elegant, dedicated clubs, as well as dive bars where you never knew who you would see. It was “a really wild, crazy place,” she says.
Suddenly: a rustle of chiffon, a gasp, a scream.
“Oh my god, dirty martinis here!”
For Burgundy, the beauty of New York burlesque was the spontaneous nature of booking and performing. “Some of the top names in burlesque would be in this little hole in the wall and you paid five dollars to get in.”
This was the attitude Kitty Nights brought to the Canadian scene. At the time, burlesque in Vancouver was members only. You belonged to a troupe and performed with the troupe. Burgundy transplanted the name of the night that she ran in New York as well as its ethos when she founded Kitty Nights in Vancouver.
“You don’t have to be in a troupe. If you do burlesque let us know, we’ll see if we can put you on our stage.”
According to Burgundy, burlesque has always been an anti-establishment art form. The tradition began in the 1800s in Britain. “They were female-run, femal- cast productions that were satires of operas and of Shakespeare and of classical high-brow theatre,” says Burgundy. Male parts were played by women. At the time women weren’t on stage, and they weren’t revealing a lick of skin in society. It was all about poking fun at the upper classes, an act of political activism to say “this is me and my body and it’s hilarious.”
But of course, in the 1800s, showing the body meant maybe an ankle was revealed under the hem of the toga of the woman playing the part of a Roman. What defined burlesque then was the comedy, the irreverent tone, and the gender of the performer rather than nakedness. It wasn’t until Gypsy Rose Lee in the 1930s that strip tease became part of burlesque. Legend has it that after Lee, the Godmother of Burlesque, had finished singing a bawdy song on stage, thinking the curtains were up, she began to take off the cuff and collar from her costume. These accoutrements were white and between acts were removed to keep clean. This particular night, the curtains did not go down, and the audience thought Gypsy was taking her clothes off, and began hooting and hollering wildly.
“Her boss said, ‘Whatever you did, do that every night.’ So she started making it into a tease,” adds Burgundy.
“[It’s about] trying to get a rise out of your audience,” quips Burgundy. “Gypsy Rose Lee would talk about current events while she was taking her clothes off. Everyone knows that you’re going to be naked by the end of the show – it’s the story you tell, how you get from here to there.”
According to Burgundy, the 1970s were “when the patriarchy completely took over, and they didn’t want any of the stories. They just wanted the nakedness… that’s when burlesque died.”
Which brings us to New York City in the 1990s, when the club kids and the comedians got together to revive this forgotten art. Soon after, Kitty Nights was born and made its way to Canada. It has been a weekly fixture of Vancouver nightlife for 10 years, winning numerous accolades, including four golden plates, and even helping Burgundy and the Purrfessor win the fight for Canadian residency. This November, the infamous event will have its “Last Meow” at the Rio Theatre to mark its tenth anniversary, as well as the exit of Burgundy Brixx and the Purrfessor from the burlesque stage.
The details of the performance will be a surprise. In true New York style, the “top secret super celebrity international guests” won’t be revealed beforehand, making it a huge thrill for the audience when they emerge from backstage on the big night. Maybe Burgundy Brixx will pull out one or two of her signature numbers: “The Brickhouse,” because she sure loves funk, or “Cinnamon Buns” with the assless dress.
“The subtle art of fuckery” – exactly what Kitty Nights is all about.