Burlesque Follies explores art form's history at K-Days

· The Pulse

A new show based on burlesque's history will premiere at K-Days inside the exhibition's newly installed Cristal Palace Spiegeltent.

"I think a lot of people think burlesque is a recent fad, and it's not," said Delia Barnett, who performs burlesque as LeTabby Lexington. "It's been around for over 100 years, and it's had its ebbs and flows, and it's had, technically, three or four big boom periods."

Barnett is a co-founder of House of Hush, the troupe performing a new show called Burlesque Follies inside the Cristal Palace Spiegeltent at K-Days. The show runs most nights from July 21 to 30.

"(The show) was created specifically for this opportunity. I'm a huge nerd and I love history," she told Taproot. "Burlesque shows didn't used to be like what you see at a burlesque show now. Burlesque shows now, you mostly see wonderful performers who do tease dancing, skit bits, and whatnot. But there was a period of time where the burlesque shows were more like vaudeville variety shows."

Burlesque Follies will celebrate that history by taking a multidisciplinary approach to its programming. Without giving away too much, audiences can expect poetry, dancing, singing, clown, and comedy — alongside the teasing element burlesque is known for.

"The term burlesque actually comes from an Italian word which means to satirize or make strange. And so I am satirizing burlesque, in that act of what a sexy burlesque dancer is, as done by a clown," Barnett said.

Her connection to burlesque's history is also a familial one. Her grandmother performed burlesque at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto back in the 1950s.

"I didn't actually find out that she did this until after she died, when I saw some photos," Barnett said. "One is her in a lederhosen-y, sort of Deutsch girl look. The other one is her in a beautiful gown, and then I have pictures of her posing in her bikini in the snow at her house — I recreated that photo a couple of years ago."

Spiegeltents are mobile performance venues that became popular at European fairs in the early 1900s. They have historically hosted many types of events, including burlesque. The name is Flemish for "mirror tents," due to the 360-degree mirrors that surround the performance space. The one at K-Days was built in 1947 and is one of three in use in North America, according to West Coast Spiegeltents proprietor Peter Goossens.

Six burlesque performers pose in costume in front of the opening to a tent and carnival signs.

(From left) Violette Coquette, LeTabby Lexington, Beau Creep, Charlee Queen, Jezebel Sinclair, and Vivian Vanguard of the House of Hush, which is presenting Burlesque Follies inside the Cristal Palace Spiegeltent at K-Days. (Aaron Pedersen and Office of Sarah)

"I believe German cabaret and French cabaret, the original burlesque, those are the types of shows that truly make this tent come alive," he told Taproot. "That was the entertainment of the time that (the Cristal Palace Spiegeltent) was built."

Burlesque Follies isn't your only chance to see Barnett in the spiegeltent during K-Days. She will perform alongside House of Hush co-founder Violette Coquette during The Great, Great Spiegel Spectacular, a daily variety show that includes performances by Firefly Theatre & Circus, spiegel house band Le Fuzz, and more.

"We have a duo fan dance that we created a while ago that just felt perfect for this. It's about these two sisters who existed in Hollywood during the silent film era, Mary and Lottie Pickford," Barnett said. "Mary Pickford was known as this professional, classy, fancy performer. Her sister Lottie never managed to really break into Hollywood, or really make a splash, but she was considered the fun one, and in the 1910s, 1920s, she was having nudie parties and whatnot."

The inside of a bigtop-style tent, with stained glass and mirrors around the edges and a circular stage in the centre

In the Cristal Palace Spiegeltent, built with mahogany and mirrors, the audience sits around the edges with the performers in the middle. (K-Days)

Fawnda Mithrush, the program manager of arts for Explore Edmonton, came up with the idea to rent the spiegeltent and is responsible for programming it. Shows range from ticketed performances like Grindstone Theatre's Eleven O'Clock Number (At Six) to free programming like Masters of Myth from the Thousand Faces Festival.

"I just knew a lot of people that I thought would be really intrigued by the idea of the spiegeltent, that it's such an intimate performance venue, and to be able to see things like burlesque, drag, circus, up close like that," Mithrush told Taproot. "We thought that would not only get the K-Days audience really excited, but also the general audience that sees theatre normally and is more 'patrons of the arts' more excited about coming to K-Days as well."

Looking ahead, Barnett will perform in two shows this August as part of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. One is the one-woman show The Grand Beaver, a tribute to Canadian burlesque icon Judith Stein. The other is a remount of Shakespeare's Sirens: A Burlesque.

Some events in the Cristal Palace Spiegeltent are free to attend with K-Days admission, while ticketed shows come with general admission to K-Days. The full schedule of spiegeltent events is available now.