Friday 22 April 2016

LEAGUE OF EXOTIQUE DANCERS - HOT DOCS 2016 Review By Greg Klymkiw - a history of the art of Burlesque through the seen-it-all eyes of Burlesque Hall of Fame inductees

Legendary Burlesque Queen and Russ Meyer Star
KITTEN NATIVIDAD, her cutey cartoony still emblazoned
on the equally legendary gentlemen's club, The Body Shop.
League of Exotique Dancers (2016)
Dir. Rama Rau
Prd. Ed Barreveld
Starring: Kitten Natividad, Camille 2000, Delilah Jones, Gina Bon Bon, Holiday O'Hara, Judith Stein, Lovey Goldmine, Marinka, Toni Elling

Review By Greg Klymkiw
I've always loved burlesque. As a healthy, young lad growing up in Winnipeg, I was surrounded by the finest in this magnificent form of entertainment thanks to a crusty old booking agent by the name of Gladys Balsillie who managed a stable of formidable talent on constant view in only the finest gentlemen's clubs of my old winter city. Known famously as "Gladdie's Girls", these ladies were no mere strippers, but featured performers who put on super-cool shows with props, costumes, jokes, storytelling and even narrative arcs to their dances. The greatest of these ladies was the incomparable June Tracy, a ribald, full-figured octogenarian beauty who spun deliciously dirty tales through her craggy, chain-smoke-charred voice pipes. Not only could she twirl one tassel-adorned breast at a time, she oft-performed her famed bubble bath act in a claw-footed tub and then, always ended every show with a series of vigorous bows and the best exit-line ever: "Thank you, thank you, thank you," she'd belt out and then, after a perfectly-timed pause, "…Thank you, relatives!"
- my review of Beth B's EXPOSED
Last year I prefaced the 2015 edition of Hot Docs with a review of Exposed, Beth B's insightful documentary on contemporary burlesque, which, at the time, was making its DVD debut on Zeitgeist Films home entertainment. One year later, I'm faced with the world premier and opening night picture of Hot Docs 2016, which is none other than ace Storyline Entertainment documentary producer Ed Barreveld's League of Exotique Dancers, directed by Rama Rau.

Rau trains cinematographer Iris Ng's expert lens upon a group of exotic burlesque dancers who are not only still with us, but are on the precipice of their induction into the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which will include more than the mere ceremony, but full-on burlesque shows by a number of these great ladies.

The interviews not only provide a rich history of burlesque, but reveal a cornucopia of insights into the themes of female power, grace and showmanship during a time when women in North America were viewed by most men as Madonnas or Whores, Housewives or Harlots, Molly Maids or Madams (and maybe even a healthy/unhealthy mixture of the aforementioned couplings). Though the film provides any number of positive perspectives on the art of burlesque, it also sheds light on those who view it as sex-trade work, pure and simple, some of their lives replete with abuse, addiction and sadness.

One thing they seem to all agree on, though, is that burlesque was a far cry from straight-up stripping and certainly light-years ahead of how disgusting many of the contemporary clubs have become since the implementation of lap dancing, private dancing and the addition of dark V.I.P. rooms which are little more than whorehouses.

Burlesque is bump-and-grind, to be sure, but with the implementation of costumes, makeup and even stories for the various dances, it's hardly a stretch to declare it erotic performance art of the highest order. Some of the thematic elements of the dances might be imbued with satiric and/or political intent, whilst others are simply there to entertain, but what one cannot deny is the fact that fun, and often humour, are the order of the day.

Seeing these grand ladies in their august years, seated like royalty on their respective perches, dolled-up and dressed to the nines, prancing and parading us through neighbourhoods of their past, is a thing of sheer beauty. To see them perform now, is even more tantalizing (attention all GMILF aficionados), especially in juxtaposition to cutter Rob Ruzic's expertly edited montages of archival footage from the golden age of burlesque.

Each of the women make for magnificently entertaining and insightful interview subjects, but if I'm allowed, I'm picking a handful of favourites. Gotta love the Canadian content (this is a Canadian film, after all) with Judith Stein, her famed monicker none other than the saucy "Great Canadian Beaver", the beautiful and erudite Toni Elling recounting the experience from the women-of-colour perspective and Marinka matter-of-factly discussing her sales of used G-strings to those fetishists wishing to take the scent of a woman back home with them.

Kitten Natividad shares her love story
with master filmmaker, the late Russ Meyer.
The inclusion of the gorgeous, supremely intelligent and truly legendary Kitten Natividad made the whole movie sing for me. Director Rau importantly focuses on Natividad's professional and personal relationship with the great Master filmmaker Russ (Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Up!) Meyer. We get to visit the front yard of his modest suburban dwelling (from which one can see the famed HOLLYWOOD sign) and hear Natividad's reminiscences of what sounds like a truly and deeply profound love story. The film also gives a healthy nod to Meyer's place as a film artist, including some terrific clips from his work and the genuinely amazing footage of Russ cutting on a Movieola in his garage.

I couldn't help but shed a tear as Natividad recounted Meyer's final years afflicted with Alzheimer's and how she selflessly took on the role as his primary caregiver.

What Rau's film finally proves is that sex might sell, but the business and art of selling sex can be infused with great love, joy, intellect, imagination, self-discovery and humanity. This, is a good thing. Judgement is easy. Acceptance is what distinguishes us in the eyes of whatever Creator looks down upon us.


League of Exotique Dancers is a Kinosmith release. Its world premiere is the opening night of Hot Docs 2016.