UPDATE March 13: The Burnaby NOW has confirmed with Vancouver International Burlesque Festival organizers that it is, in fact, subject to the COVID-19 health directives regarding gatherings of 250 or more people. Vancouver Civic Theatre is cancelling all such events, which means festival showcases are cancelled.
"This is really unfortunate for our organization, but the safety of our community and the public take precedence over this event," said Sparkle Plenty, president of the festival board of directors, in an email.
Be you, whoever you are.
It’s a simple enough message – but, for Jacqueline Breakwell, it’s a message that needs to be delivered more loudly than ever, and she’s happy to step into the spotlight to do it.
The Burnaby resident will be onstage for the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival, which returns to the Vancouver Playhouse on April 3 and 4. She’ll perform a new solo act in the festival’s Friday night Glamorama Gala and then host the Saturday night Showpony Soiree.
Breakwell is excited to be returning for the 14th annual festival, which has a focus on diversity.
A festival press release notes casting follows set diversity guidelines to demonstrate that sexuality transcends age, race, size and gender identity. This year, 45% of performers in each showcase have self-identified as performers of colour, performers of size, performers over 40 years of age, performers with disabilities or performers belonging to the LGBTQ2S+ community.
“I think the more that naked, powerful bodies can get out there in any form that they choose, and having different types of people – whether it be their sexuality, their physicality, their age or anything like that – the more they can be represented out there in public, that’s what I find important and inspiring,” Breakwell said.
The diversity of performers goes hand-in-hand with a diversity of performance styles, Breakwell said; yes, there is classic “burlesque,” as most of us envision it, but there’s also much genre-bending and experimental performance.
“It has a lot of different things to offer, and I find that Vancouver is more on the experimental side of things. We like people’s weird stuff,” she said with a laugh.
Some of that “weird stuff” is Breakwell’s own. Two years ago, she did a “bloodbath” number in which her character was a vampire. This year, she’s paying homage to the character of Black Phillip from the horror film The Witch.
“I’m always spooky and dark,” she said. “If I can incorporate blood, that makes me happy. I still like to have a lot of fun and be very theatrical. I do like to create an entire experience for the audience, and it is on the kind of macabre side of things.”
Breakwell found her way into burlesque via musical theatre, which she studied at Capilano University.
She still loves musical theatre – especially singing, which she incorporates into her burlesque routines - but finds the world of burlesque gives her more freedom as a performer.
“I think, with musical theatre, it’s great that you get to escape into a character, but those characters are already created for you, and there’s only so much you can do to make that character your own,” she said. “The words are written for you, the songs are written for you. … With burlesque, I find that you get to create everything about your character.”
She’s been exploring the world of burlesque for 10 or 11 years now, since her university days.
“I’ve always liked the vintage women. I was a big fan of Betty Page and Marilyn Monroe growing up,” she said, noting there’s an empowerment that comes along with the art form.
“I, as Jacqueline, have a lot of hang-ups about what I’m allowed to do or not allowed to do as a woman, and what I am allowed to do or not allowed to do to express my sexuality,” she said.
“It just seemed appealing because it seemed like anything that Jacqueline might be a little caught up on, I can escape to Miss Kiss. … I just know I can fully express myself and all my weird ideas, and that’s also what I see about my fellow performers.”
Breakwell notes that burlesque seems to be in an era of resurgence in Vancouver right now.
“The trend that’s happening right now is definitely blurring the lines of what gender is and what burlesque itself has to be,” she said.
That spectrum of sexuality and gender expression – including comedy, drag and sensual striptease – will be in the spotlight at Saturday’s Showpony Soiree.
For both its main shows, the festival will present a mix of local and international performers, with headliners including Lola Frost of Vancouver, The Lady Josephine of Montreal and The Foxy Lexxi of Quebec City.
Another highlight will be an appearance by Canadian burlesque legend Judith Stein, known as “Mama Beaver” or “The Grand Beaver of Burlesque,” who began her career in the 1970s as a topless go-go dancer and performed around the world for 17 years.
Stein’s appearance is part of the festival’s commitment to the Legends of Burlesque – those “badasses” who paved the way for today’s performers in decades when burlesque was much less socially acceptable, Breakwell notes.
“I just think it’s really great for people to see where the history has come from,” she said.
Breakwell notes the festival gets many return audience members, with a loyal following that comes out every year to enjoy the diversity of performances. She’s also hoping some newcomers to the world of burlesque will make their way to the theatre for this year’s festival.
“You can just come, and you can watch. It doesn’t mean you have to be up there now being a fabulous naked person. You can enjoy it, and you can be empowered by it,” she said. “People have a certain idea of what burlesque is – and it is that, but it’s also a lot more.”
The festival also includes a members-only industry appreciation night on April 1 and a public TIT Talk, featuring an intimate conversation about burlesque, on April 2.
Individual tickets range from $35 to $125 and can be found (along with showtimes and full festival information) at www.vibf.ca/2020-festival.