By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Take it off! No, wait….
In the age of COVID, burlesque, a teasing vaudeville involving the playful progressive doffing of apparel, can remove just about everything — everything, that is, but the mask.
Masked showgirls: now, there’s a new look for burlesque, and a new definition of Clothing Optional. And Delia Barnett, aka LeTabby Lexington, is amused. In Fringe FOMO, the live House of Hush Burlesque show that comes to Metro Cinema headquarters at the Garneau Theatre (aka Fringe BYOV 20) Friday night, LeTabby and Violette Coquette will be wearing masks for their (socially distanced) duet number onstage.
Barnett describes it as “a double fan dance.” The inspiration comes from the Golden Age of Hollywood: the Pickford girls, “America’s sweetheart” Mary and her fun-loving sister Lotte. In a better world, you would have seen the number in a Fringe show from Send in the Girls, another burlesque troupe co-founded by Barnett (with Ellen Chorley), devoted to exploring burlesque as theatre.
“Violette is the stunner, the tall beautiful one. I’m the goofy clown one who follows her around,” says Barnett, whose personal perspective on burlesque is that it’s a heightened form of clowning.
Barnett has been in Fringe shows for the last dozen years, and produced them for the last nine. She says Fringe FOMO was designed as an antidote for Fringe deprivation syndrome. “When the Fringe was cancelled we were really sad,” she says. “Then we thought it might be nice to have some time off. And then (as the Fringe time approached), devastation set in again….” Ah, the Fringe cancellation cycle; I know it well.
In the interests of COVID safety she and Violette looked around for the biggest venue with the biggest stage they could book. And the Garneau fit the requirements to a G (string). “The performers won’t remotely be within six feet of each other,” Barnett points out. In a 520-seat house, only 100 tickets will be sold. “They’ve planned it out really well, with single seats space, and spots for groups of two or four who come together…. So, 100 in the audience and five onstage; there will only be 105 people max in that big room.” And except for moments when audience members are drinking, or eating popcorn, it will be a masked assembly.
Founded by LeTabby and Violette in 2017 as a way to package solo burlesque acts and get more rent-sustaining corporate gigs, House of Hush is nothing if not resilient. “Prior to shutdown we were having our most lucrative spring ever,” sighs Barnett. There were monthly burlesque shows in the retro cocktail lounge at the Crash Hotel, a downtown boutique hostelry on 103 St. across from the Rogers arena. In March, they switched to livestreaming the shows every two weeks, attracting performers from across Canada and the U.S. “It went super-duper well!” says Barnett, who has an appealing kind of buoyancy about her. “But when the weather got nice, business dropped off. So we thought it’d be fun to do a live show!”
Barnett, who moved West from St. Catherines Ont. in 2007 to go to the U of A theatre school, says she was “too shy, too uncomfortable” to even think of performing burlesque when she was invited to audition for a troupe in Hamilton. But she was an admirer of the early 20th century German performance artist pioneer Valeska Gert, whose “erotic grotesque” credo was an inspiration. Barnett’s burlesque debut in 2010 was at a Nextfest Smut Night. “It was more performance art than burlesque, I think…. I talked about my mom and my childhood,” she laughs.
It was at Nextfest that Barnett met Ellen Chorley, now the Nextfest director. Both history buffs, they learned burlesque together, coached by a childhood friend, in her living room. Send In The Girls was born in their first duet. And in 2011 Barnett produced the troupe’s first big hit, Tudor Queens, a clever burlesque uncorseting of the wives of Henry VIII (she played Katherine Howard, the teenage bride who paid heavily for her amorous free spirit).
“There is so much body-shaming; we’re not taught to love ourselves and our bodies,” Barnett says. Correcting those damages is one of her principal goals when she teaches burlesque. “Sometimes just moving your hips around brings up a lot of emotion!”
“Now the most comfortable I ever am onstage is in burlesque…. You pick your costume, you pick the music, you pick the choreography. You’re performing on your own terms,” she says. “You’re in charge.”
You’re even in charge of your own christening. Her burlesque alter-ego LeTabby Lexington is “a grown-up bolder version of my clown,” says Barnett, who has spent the last couple of seasons in the cast of the improv troupe Die-Nasty (most recently as a burlesque showgirl named Daisy Darling). Tabby was a nickname a university classmate (actor Mary Hulbert) gave her. “I reminded her of a tabby cat, and I thought it was funny to mix French and English.” Lexington is her favourite gargoyle from the Disney animated TV series Gargoyles.
Friday night’s Fringe Fomo features a variety of performance styles, as Barnett describes. Silk E Gunz, says Barnett, “does a fan dance to a rock song she loves.” Scarlett Fussion has “a hilarious mermaid act.” Luna LaPeal’s preferred style is jazzy; “her movement is so good.” For her solo, Violette Coquette does Cry Me A River, in “an amazing spectacle” that features 15 feet of fabric. In addition to her duet with Violette Coquette, LeTabby Lexington is the emcee.
“Burlesque is bold, brave, funny, playful. What you see is a heightened version of me!”
Theatre: House of Hush Burlesque
Starring: LeTabby Lexington, Silk E Gunz, Scarlette Fussion, Luna LaPeal, Violette Coquette
Where: Metro Cinema at the Garneau Theatre
When: Friday, 9 p.m.