When I talked to the incredibly talented burlesque performer, Zora Von Pavonine, I admitted that my knowledge of burlesque was limited to Gypsy Rose Lee and the Broadway musical Gypsy which profiles a radically different experience than the world of burlesque as it exists today. Jon Manning’s riveting new documentary, Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe, explores the growing popularity of this new world that has a lot more to do with feminist ideals than it does with the cigar-chomping patriarchal worldview from burlesque’s colorful past. The film invites audiences to experience this beautiful art form up close and personal —seeing its evolution from old world burlesque to “neo-burlesque,” combining classic striptease with modern dance, comedy, and a very progressive aesthetic. The film profiles several fascinating and impressive burlesque performers including Angelique Devil, Babs Jamboree, and Isaiah Esquire. I so enjoyed talking to Zora Von Pavonine about her passion for this world.
Danny Miller: I was so fascinated by your amazing work in this film that even though I know nothing about burlesque or fashion, I could have watched two hours of you sewing sequins onto your incredible costumes.
Zora Von Pavonine: (Laughs.) Thank you! That’s a big compliment!
Your attention to detail is so impressive — did you come from the world of fashion?
No, not at all. I have an art background — primarily in watercolors but I’ve also done sculpture. The fashion stuff came to me naturally. The engine behind my passion for creating costumes is that it is such a delightful brain tease for me. I’m always thinking, “Okay, how do I create the biggest, most extravagant outfit that I can get off of my body with one hand while not looking?” The puzzle-making aspect of that is such a delicious part of the process.
I can see what you’re saying — those costumes are a kind of engineering marvel based on what has to happen with them while you’re performing. It’s not costumes in a movie where an actor can be sewn into something for a take.
Right. The details are really important in burlesque because sometimes your audience members are just a few feet away from you, there’s no faking it! It’s interesting — if you look at theater or ballet costumes, for example, and you get inside of them, you’ll see all of this stitching and pencil marks everywhere. But for my costumes, the inside is going to show so I’m just as concerned with lining, fabric selection, color, all of that. It’s not like I’m only concerned with what it looks like when I first wak out — it’s just as important to me what you’re going to see when I take something off and throw it to the front of the stage!
I admit that before seeing this film, my understanding of burlesque was limited to Gypsy! What a different world it is today.
You are the audience we want. We’re hoping to attract people to this film who have this old idea of burlesque and will leave the film thinking, “Oh my God! This is so different than I thought!”
Would you say that there’s been a big resurgence of interest in burlesque in recent years?
It’s always been around but I think like any niche industry there are absolutely periods of sustained interest and periods where that interest might be on the wane. In recent years I’ve definitely noticed a resurgence of interest among women that has helped to create this new education piece.
There are tons of new classes being offered by dance studios and colleges. A lot more people are getting exposed to it. Which is great for us experienced performers because we want to think that the younger people who are coming up behind us will have that quality and caliber of performance skills.
Although I assume that some of the people in those classes have no intention of performing in public but do it almost as a form of self-empowerment?
Yes, absolutely! I’ve taught burlesque for many years, and it is such a soul-touching moment when you’re sitting face to face with a woman who has undergone devastating surgery and is being told by some people that she’s not really a woman anymore and that a huge part of her value is gone. We work to get rid of all that conditioning that women have been told about who they are and what they are. We get so many women who don’t feel in touch with their bodies, who don’t feel sexy anymore, or who are in relationships that have flatlined. I always love the moment in my classes when I see that flicker of confidence coming back, that is a huge part of why I do what I do. I really appreciate the body diversity that you find in burlesque. It’s not about being a size zero or having perky boobs, and it’s so great that every woman in the audience can feel that she is represented on stage in ways that are totally absent in mainstream media.
That’s so cool. Despite the progressive nature of today’s burlesque world, do you still have to sometimes deal with the kind of cigar-chomping patriarchal idiots that people in Gypsy Rose Lee’s day had to deal with?
Oh, yeah, like any industry, we definitely come into contact with sexism and misogyny. But I will say that when it comes up, we’re pretty fucking vicious about it — people don’t get away with that stuff anymore! I remember a few years ago there was a very prominent burlesque show for a while, and the producer of that show essentially told someone who didn’t have a very specific body type that she was not their “aesthetic” and that she couldn’t perform for them. Well, she didn’t keep that to herself, she got on Facebook, she got on our message boards, she became a force of social justice: “Just so you know, everybody, this producer is not interested in body diversity, this producer is putting only one-mono-focused homogenous look on stage. If that’s what you’re into, fine, but I advise you to think twice before booking with him.” We just don’t put up with that stuff without comment. One of the main burlesque performers withdrew her support from him and the show eventually got shut down. We don’t go for body-shaming anymore, those days are over.
Wow. My mind is flashing to the thousands of women from the past who had absolutely no power in that world. That’s so great that you all have taken that power back!