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This Saturday, Ottawa’s bum rap gets a slap (and a tickle)

By Pam Kapoor on October 11, 2012

Any lingering reputations of being a sleepy town will get spanked this weekend when Ottawa hosts the Capital City Cabaret – a “menagerie of misfits” showcasing performance art from burlesque, boylesque and gorlesque (edgy horror-influenced routines), to sideshow, acrobatics, comedy, Poi, and yes, the classic strip tease.

Her name is Veronica, but you can call her Miss Helvetica Bold – a name inspired by her “other” life as a freelance copywriter. She’s the visionary force behind this Saturday’s Capital City Cabaret. Despite being pulled in a million directions this week with show preparations, she let me steal a few minutes to chat about what the show is about, whether Ottawa is ready for such sass, and the cheekiness of it all going down in a church.

About six years ago, Helvetica broke local artistic ground by forming the burlesque troupe Rockalily with a friend: “We sucked, but nobody in Ottawa knew any better.” She’s been performing and producing burlesque shows ever since. Helvetica comes by the entertainment bug pretty honestly – the self-proclaimed “little drama whore” has been on and off stage since childhood thanks to a mom in the theatre world.

While the art form isn’t exactly new to the nation’s capital, Ottawa’s burlesque scene remains a few years behind cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. But thanks to local troupes like Rockalily, The Sin Sisters, Capital Tease, and Sexual Overtones – as well as efforts of flesh mobs (that’s right, flesh not flash) – showcase events like the one happening this weekend are drawing growing crowds.

Capital City Cabaret is poised to be the largest event of its kind in Ottawa’s history. Helvetica expects attendance to top 400 and believes there may be enough appetite for a full-on burlesque festival down the road: “Montreal has had one for four years, Toronto six, Vancouver closer to 10 – why not Ottawa?”

Burlesque typically draws a younger crowd from the arts and queer communities. But Helvetica constantly hears from others who are open to checking it out. “We have lost out on a slightly older demographic that has expressed interest but hasn’t come out to shows because we mostly do bars with standing room only,” she says. Saturday’s event is in a wheelchair-accessible venue with seating, so it’s the perfect opportunity for the burlesque-curious set who wants comfort with their cabaret. There’ll be a cash bar plus dancing in the pews after the showcase with tunes by Electric Mondays’ DJ Lowpass.

Guest performers coming into town to join the glamorous line-up include such renowned acts as Sucre À la Crème from Montreal, Hamilton’s Mz Kitty DeMure, and Red Herring from Toronto.

Fire breather Rhapsody Blue is on the bill – a local “neo-burlesque” performer whose classic aesthetic (corsets, thigh-highs, tassels, feathers) is heavily influenced by modern pop culture. She’s excited about the diversity and calibre of the Capital City Cabaret line-up and says, “As a performer, I’m very excited to see them grace such a large stage in Ottawa – when you get them a nice big stage with great acoustics, it’s really something to see.”

So what is burlesque, anyway?

Think of it as vaudeville’s naughty cousin. Burlesque is a light-hearted style of performance art that mingles elements of everything from dance to comedy to strip tease. Though burlesque’s modern incarnation is a creative and broad performance category, it still gets confused with a much less sophisticated, diverse, or artistic form of entertainment.

“Classic burlesque in its original incarnation evolved into the modern strip club – or devolved, if you want to say that – so people still associate stripping with modern burlesque,” says Helvetica.

While burlesque can be political (i.e. pushing the boundaries of what one does publicly with the body and what’s considered artistic), it is not exclusively so. The local scene champions the idea that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colours, that sexy can be or mean many different things, and that social norms are for challenging.

Aspiring to further challenge mainstream notions of gender, beauty, and femininity, Capital City Cabaret is also a non-judgmental, safe, open space. Helvetica is proud of the conscious effort going into diversity. “Burlesque has been dominated by white women in particular. In this show, you’ll see a lot more men both in burlesque and vaudeville performance roles, as well as people of colour who are underrepresented in the burlesque community,” she says.

When I asked Helvetica whether the venue choice of a formerly-consecrated Catholic landmark was deliberate, “Abso-fucking-lutely!” was her response. “I love visuals. The backdrop is full of ornate architecture, carvings, and religious iconography – the exact opposite of the glitter and fire sort of art we’ll be presenting on that stage!”

Capital City Cabaret happens on Saturday, 13 October at 9pm at the St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts (310 St. Patrick Street). 19+

Tickets: $25/$30 online or at the door (also available at Auntie Loo’s Treats, The Record Shaap, Vertigo Records, Tuesday’s the Romance Store, and Wicked Wanda’s).