IT STARTED OFF saucy, and over the centuries has moved stealthily to downright sexy: Burlesque, an entertainment form with its origins deep in ancient history, is enjoying an international revival.
Burlesque, from the Spanish 'burlo', or 'joke', really means a send-up. In the heyday of British vaudeville and musical comedy, burlesque entertainers would overdress and exaggerate the fashions and habits of the ruling classes in song, dance and sketches, creating comical, risque parodies that took audiences and performers alike to the very edge of social acceptability.
Now there's a neo-burlesque movement; a revival which has brought the form back to local clubs, pubs, parties and events such as next week's (sold-out) Nimbin Blue Moon Cabaret and tonight's Burlesque Ball at the Tivoli in Brisbane. It featured prominently at the recent Woodford Folk festival, where The Parlour venue presented burlesque acts from all over Australia.
One young woman who chose a fragile time in her life to enter the world of burlesque is former Trinity Catholic College student and Lismore district resident Lani Gerrish, now a high-powered executive in the Federal Government public service in Canberra.
By night, Lani has been known to exchange her workaday wear for the stilettos, feathers and sequins, corsets and crinolines, pasties and g-strings of a burlesque performer. (No, not Cornish pasties, Grandma, these pasties are adornments you paste on to your nipples).
"My marriage had broken up and I was having a bit of an identity crisis," Lani tells me.
"I loved the high camp nature of burlesque and I was interested in exploring issues of gender identity - what it is to be a woman, a good woman, a bad woman. I saw getting into burlesque as a personal development opportunity.
"It was like: What's the scariest thing you can do? Get naked in front of people. Very liberating."
"Looking at burlesque in terms of feminist theory, I've been oscillating between seeing it as empowering for a woman to explore it as a performance form, or conversely as perpetuating outmoded and stereotypical views of the feminine. It's not just about prancing around in fishnets and boas, or doing a striptease; that could give it a bad name. For me, before anything it has to be about theatre and storytelling."
Lani is taking a break from performance now, while she writes a pantomime for grown-ups that she says will be a 'burlesque' in the true sense of the word. It will probably include elements of burlesque striptease, and she hopes to stage it later in the year.
"I love to create acts which tell a story and tap into archetypal femininities and social stereotypes, and in some way challenge, or at least explore them."
Lani starts her potted history of burlesque with: "Once upon a time, there were some cavepeople who realised there was something inherently funny about bums, dicks and boobs and that making jokes about these things was a great way of sending people and situations up.
"Fast forward to Ancient Greece, where Aristophanes continued the tradition of ribald humour with his comedy Lysistrata ... then to 17th Century Italy, where bands of travelling Commedia dell'Arte performers made popular a comic improvisational theatre form which sent up social standards and character stereotypes; then fast forward again to 19th Century America, where burlesque theatre, influenced by the music hall of Victorian England, found favour with audiences with its lampooning of high art genres. …