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Briefs: Burlesque with Balls

January 10, 2011

Last night I had the great delight of attending Briefs : the “all male, all vaudeville, all trash” performance of circus tricks, boylesque and strutting, currently running at the Opera House Studio. It was rightly the winner  of the Best Circus – 2010 Melbourne Fringe Festival, has played Brisbane and Woodford Folk festivals in 2009 and to sell-out audiences at the Adelaide Fringe and Judith Wright Centre.  Briefs is the collective of MC Fez Faanana, ‘Boylesque Boywonder’ Mark Winmill, Natano Faanana, Davy Sampford, Mali de Groey, Rudi Mineur and lady of the house, Tess Beck.

Briefs takes an awareness of the forms and tropes of ‘traditional’ burlesque and circus and skilfully plays within them.

These boys display great variation in their skills and characters — handsome, weedy, graceful, awkward, ostentatious, butch and through this diversity work with incredible rapport and balance as a troupe. The show is riveting from start to end. With a fantastic soundtrack of Major Lazer, Roisin Murphy, the Motels and more, amazing death-defying skills and fluorescent beaded g-strings, we were whistling and  laughing till the lights went down.

There is all sorts of burlesque out there right now and in my opinion, Briefs represents what is great about this form of performance. As a lover of burlesque and circus, (having attended the former the entirety of my adult life on a regular basis) I am aware of watching all the old tricks, the going through of the motions, my rising boredom and desire to go to the bar as another insecure cliche is trotted out or another perfect, yet sterile trick is ticked off the box. There seems to be an electricity when a performer cuts through that fog, that routine and desperate desire to be approved of and electrifies the audience by performing straight past their expectations, making real contact with their attention.

I really believe that audiences are sophisticated enough to feel this nuance — that not only are these boys nailing every trick that they perilously undertake, they are also doing it with a knowing wink. So if  Mark’s butt is squeezed into a taut bind in the aerial ropes, he flaunts it knowingly. When Davy takes his sweet time as his spinning plates wobble dangerously, his deadpan smirk is in ‘total control.’ When Fez deconstructs his ‘disaster drag’ into a very human skin, we are holding our breath for him. When the cast effortlessly twirl their feather fans in canons to rival seasoned showgirls, they do so in a way that pays tribute with comic variation. They milk each gag to absurd relief, making light of the body, their skills and of various masculinities.  They permit you to notice the things that you are not supposed to take notice of.

Here we see a showgirl take on the Chippendale waiters, the underpants model, the bogan, the gymnast on steroids, the drunken deadbeat and the suburban toreador, each well-developed character presented with a real affection. And the very act of taking a traditionally feminine form (the burlesque show) and transplanting it with male performers immediately begins its semiotic deconstruction.

Most contemporary burlesque performed by women seems to explore an amplified femininity: a femininity as drag, a femininity of heightened drama. Out in the world, femininity is consistently the topic of debate while masculinities seem to have the privilege of passing under the radar in everyday life, rarely turning up for scrutiny.  I believe this parody of masculinity in performance has the power to unhinge the norm, dismantle the hegemony and remove the shades that we cast over normative gender expression. It highlights that which normally passes as the undifferentiated masses.

It casts a glittering follow-spot on the talent and charisma of those who are not beige.

“Briefs” — the all-male revue is running for only a few more days at the Sydney Opera House Studio and if you can get yourself tickets, I would thoroughly recommend it.

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