Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Her Own Skin

Part of the thrill of burlesque lies in the way its performers turn being-looked-at on its
head.  Stripping becomes an act of empowerment.      

                                                                         -- indieWIRE

 To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful!

                                                                      -- Agnes DeMille


When she was nine, Olivia saw the movie “Gypsy” with her parents. “That was the first time I realized that you could get paid for taking your clothes off,” she says matter-of-factly. “And I thought that was weird.”

But a little over a year ago, a Olivia, a newly-arrived freshman at Marymount College in New York City, happened across an ad for a last-minute burlesque replacement. “This was after I’d seen a few burlesque shows,” she explains, “and I’d been looking to get involved in burlesque. I had a dance background; and it seemed like such a good way to get back into performing and get dressed…and get undressed.”

What made her choice all the more interesting was that back in high school, Olivia had been a practicing Muslim, hijab (head covering) and all. In fact, she still considers herself one. “But there’s a lot of turbulence happening in the Muslim community in New York since 9-11,” she says. And in the wake of Arab Spring have come a lot of “new ideas. It’s kinda like a Populist movement in the Middle East [with] the rise of young people….I’ve been kinda trying to step back a bit and be less involved than I was because there is a lot of turbulence.”

Burlesque gave her the chance not just to step back but to step into another world. Not into Narnia, of course (although somewhere someone is probably choreographing a really interesting version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), but into one with its own element of playfulness and fun. The history of burlesque intrigued her, too. She ended up becoming a resident performer, working in the city, Long Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. She choreographed several routines of her own. The first one was done to a Weird Al Yankovic song (“I like Weird Al a lot.”); the second was what she calls her “Marijuana Burlesque” and “got a lot of laughs." And the third had a World of Warcraft theme and involved “a lot of hip-hop. That was the most tiring one – I busted a lot of moves during it – but that was my favorite one.”

Olivia even produced a show at the Stonewall Inn. It was, she says, very much like a variety show with performers “com[ing] in with routines of their own. And they basically run through their routines. I don’t choreograph. I just host and make sure the music’s played on time and everybody gets paid. It’s very rare that the producer sees the acts in advance.” It was an exciting night for her; it was also an “incredibly stressful” one, and she has no intention of producing another show.

Actually, she’s on hiatus from burlesque altogether because “it’s a very time-consuming thing to be involved in. And the money I got paid wasn’t equivalent to the energy I was investing.” Her focus is more on pin-up modeling right now, something that she was initially doing just to promote her burlesque act.

We talk about how she sees what has been called “the gentle art of striptease” – although burlesque does not necessarily equal stripping. There’s nothing off-the-cuff about her responses: clearly, Olivia has given the subject considerable thought. “A good way of defining burlesque is that it’s not so much about sex or stripping as it is about entertainment. I mean, nine times out of ten, you’re taking off your clothes, but it’s not in a way that’s meant to be arousing to men but entertaining to both sexes.” In fact, the neo-burlesque movement has really been “a way to backtrack a bit. It’s almost mocking what smut has become because it’s one of the few things that hasn’t been infiltrated by the male gaze.” Part of this revival of interest has to do simply with our love of retro, she thinks: “once something goes into antiquity, it becomes fashionable.” Burlesque has also been given some additional oomph by highly visible performers, such as Dita von Teese, “the Queen of Burlesque” and ex-wife of musician Marilyn Manson.

But to Olivia, a lot of burlesque’s appeal lies in the fact that it’s “one of the few art forms that women can be glamorous and take their clothes off in, but they’re not being objects for male arousal.” It’s empowering. “I think I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my own skin by doing burlesque. Definitely, my consciousness level has been raised.” She was used to performing, she adds: the difference was in “trying to perform with the awareness that I was removing my clothes in a way that looked choreographed and dancerly and not just taking off my shirt.” And what a difference. Dancerly is definitely the word.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Father to Daughter

The morning sun is glinting down on my father’s still wavy gray hair as we stand there in the field among the blue spruces.  It’s my first time planting a tree:  he shows me how to push down on the edge of the shovel with my foot as I dig, how to mold and flatten the earth around my sapling afterwards.  There isn’t much conversation, just a kind of quiet companionship, strong and warm as the sun on our faces….

          I spent a lot of time with my father growing up.  I was born when he was almost 46.  He had told my mother that he was too old for another child; but he was delighted when I appeared, complete with the thick dark hair and the wide cheekbones we’d both inherited from his Romanian mother. When one of his cousins exclaimed over the “beautiful little girl” in the snapshot he’d brought her, Dad simply smiled and said, “Well, since we were going to have one, we had to have the most beautiful one there was.”

          He was always my best press.  “Look at that one,” he remarked to my mother once when we were all out on a family shopping expedition.  My brothers had left some comic books and movie monster magazines in disarray, and I was being what they called a “Neat Nose” (probably a first cousin to a Brown Nose) and straightening up the mess.  “Already she knows how to take care of things.”  Years later, when I started freelancing, he’d call me up from work first thing in the morning to let me know whenever one of my book reviews had made the local paper.

          My first job was with him, fetching and toting his tools after school or on weekends, when he did his on-the-side storm-door and -window repairs. Fifty cents a window, two dollars a door, and I got to stay in the car until he needed me when the weather was cold.  The words “absentee father” were not anywhere in his vocabulary:  he and my mother had buried three of their six children by the time I was 14, and he took nothing – or no one – for granted. He didn’t gush:  he was an understated-gestures kind of guy and showed his love in down-to-earth ways, coming to me in the middle of the night whenever I had bad dreams or bringing me strawberries or some foreign currency he’d gotten from a buddy at work (I was fascinated by things from faraway places).     

          He was a man of great heart.  Which was ironic because, medically speaking, his was a weak one, badly scarred from the attacks he’d had when I’d been a child.  But he didn’t -- wouldn’t -- let that stop him.  He was the hardest-working man I ever met.  “I’m better when I’m working,” he’d insist.  Or, “You don’t quit when you’re half-way finished.”  Or, “It doesn’t matter if you fail ten times -- you keep on trying.”

          He knew people, too -- understood their quirks, their fears, and the best way of dealing with both.  “Well,” he told me once, when he was talking about a tricky situation, “I kinda had to go half-ways.”

          Did we ever fight?  Naturally.  But somewhere in mid-argument, I’d inevitably realize that we were standing with our heads tilted at precisely the same angle, using precisely the same gestures.  Mom walked in once in while we were in mid-argument and started cracking up.  She turned to my father and said, “She’s stubborn, just like you.”

          Dad and I looked at each other.  The words just sprang out of my mouth.  Athena leaping from Zeus’ head in full armor.  “I had to get it from somewhere,” I blurted.

          “That’s right,” Dad said approvingly, and the argument fish-flopped on the floor and died.

          There was only one time when we were seriously out of harmony with each other.  Dad had just retired and was restless; I had transferred to a local college and was wondering if I’d made another mistake.  We were at home with each other a lot and began sniping at each other in our frustration.

            But, in that curious ebb and flow of relationships, things somehow righted themselves.  By fall, Dad had gotten himself a part-time job, and I had settled into the new college.  Shortly afterwards, his sister came for a visit.  She pulled out her camera -- Dad and I looked at each other -- and, suddenly, we moved together and put our arms around each other, the temporary coldness between us forgotten.

          Dad died a year-and-a-half later of a cerebral hemorrhage. A few years later, I wrote a short piece, “Watching,” that eventually found its way into a literary journal called Writing For Our Lives.  Written in the present tense, it’s a fictional account of the last time I visited him in the hospital, a few days before a fever took over and burnt his tired body out, setting his spirit free.  Like my heroine, I made the conscious decision not to come back and see him again:  he no longer knew who we were, and I knew he wouldn’t want to be remembered that way….

          What I remember instead is the man who taught me how to plant trees and a score of other things.  And I remember -- it’s the oddest memory, just a flicker in time or one of those strange snapshots your mind takes sometimes -- how one day, when I was in college, the portrait studio where I was working closed early.  Needing a ride, I walked over to the local Stop & Shop.  Dad was there by the courtesy counter, getting his coffee or talking to someone he knew, just as he did every day at about that time.  See, I almost always knew where to find him; and on the rare occasions when I didn’t, he found me.  That is how it is with people you love.

          “Death ends a life, not a relationship,” a dying Morrie Schwartz tells his friend and protégée in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie.   I learned the truth of those words for myself when I lost Dad.  But I didn’t really lose him.   His body might have gone to earth, but I’d hear his voice -- low, deep, and rough around the edges, with its slight New England accent -- coming out of nowhere, plain-speaking but kind, just when I needed it most.  Only once, after my husband Tim’s sudden death did that voice grow faint, so lost in this new harder-to-handle grief was I.

           I couldn’t find Dad then, but he found me.  One morning, shortly after I started running, he was there, real as the road beneath my sneakered feet and the birdsong all around me.   And, as I ran, I began a series of conversations with him -- about Tim, about relationships, about my writing, and, of course, about the grandchild whom he'd never seen but who bore his name. His voice came back to me then, strong and sure and comforting as it had been in life.  We haven’t stopped talking since.  After all, that is how it is with people you love.

Dad during World War II and again in the late 1960s.  The spark never died.