Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Life as art: The indiscreet charms of Sasha Van Bon Bon

It's show time

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. The Scandelles' Sasha Van Bon Bon storms the ramparts of middle-class complacency with her breasts bare and her brain on fire. Credit: GLENN MACKAY

“What can I say? It’s fucking mental,” says Sasha Van Bon Bon of The Scandelles’ upcoming Buddies show Who’s Your Dada, yet another installment of the brawny, brainy, hot-shit, no-holds-barred theatrical extravaganzas for which the burlesque troupe has become known. “I’m officially on the verge of a full-scale freak-out. There’s usually up to 20 people in our shows, so trying to coordinate group rehearsals is a nightmare. It’s hard asking people to bust their chops for very little money. On top of all that, do you know how hard it is to find a rectal camera? They’re like $20,000 and hospitals won’t rent them out. It’s completely thrown our finale off-kilter.”

Rectal camera or not, Who’s Your Dada (written and produced by Van Bon Bon and costar Kitty Neptune), follows the multimedia footsteps of past cabarets Les Demimondes, Under The Mink and Neon Nightz. The raucous revelry is complete with The Blue Box, a secluded set-up where attendees are invited to perform in their very own porn.

“For me, queers are people who persevere under criticism and duress, don’t toe the party line and aren’t afraid to hold unpopular beliefs and be outspoken on behalf of themselves and their friends. To be blunt, I consider the bourgeoisie to be dangerously self-centred. And as I look around the city, I see gay people being invited into this class more frequently — the condo billboards that visually include us, for example. Of course, when I look at the imagery they put forth, I don’t relate to it at all. These aren’t queers I know.

“Who’s Your Dada is The Scandelles telling queers that just because we’re finally getting mainstream representation as consumers doesn’t mean we should necessarily want it — the opportunity to buy the same things and live the same mundane inattentive existence. Surrealism seemed a perfect framework for this critique, since so much of this shit is so surreal.

“The Bohemian Embassy, an upcoming set of condos on Queen [at Gladstone], has been a major influence. The whole concept is as deliciously ridiculous as Mussolini riding a skateboard. It’s nothing new for corporate culture to use artistic culture to sell its bullshit, but come on — the Bohemian Embassy?

“I’ve always loved [Luis] Buñuel’s film The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. It shows the cultural irrelevance of this class of people. Walking aimlessly from social engagement to social engagement, shooting their critics and acting completely self-important and entitled. But then, I also love Whit Stillman’s critique of the surrealists in his film, Metropolitan. One character, Nick Smith, says, ‘The surrealists were just a lot of social climbers.’ So expect to see some climbing and bashing.

“In a general sense, we’re asking people how they communicate…. We’re asking, ‘Who’s your dada?’ meaning, what are your real roots? Are you part of the party or part of the problem?”

Speaking of parties, on Wed, Jun 21 The Scandelles morph into their more hands-on entity, The Partistes, for Ride The Seam, a party/fundraiser where the gang — girls, boys and bois — takes over the strip club Filmores to work the stage and floor alongside the house dancers.

“I love Filmores as a space and it was a convenient location for the hotel rooms upstairs — we’re encouraging people to rent them so we can party all night. I can’t wait to see my name on that gorgeous marquee. And I loved the idea of throwing a party in a place where there’ll automatically be cute naked girls.”

It’s one thing to stage burlesque and throw hot ‘n’ racy parties at bars and theatres. But it’s quite another to take up space at a strip club where working girls are actually working. How’s a one-night stand at Filmores not an exercise in appropriation and exploitation, too? “I’m really glad you asked this because I can be very critical of people who capitalize on sex-worker chic.

“We’re hoping the women working with us that Wednesday — a night that might be slower if we weren’t there — make some good coin. We want it to be an environment that’s profitable for them. But you can’t deny that any work is made more fun when there’s a festive environment and lots of cheerful people.

“I think many of The Scandelles would align themselves with sex workers, or at least feel marginalized in similar ways. We’re all aware that stripping isn’t glamorous — though it can be, if I recall; dancing for Gowan’s drummer was dreamy — that it’s labour. We’re artists, yes, but what we do sets us apart from mainstream culture. Filming yourself fucking will do that. None of us are going to be prime minister.

“Also, remember that this is a mutual exchange in a larger sense. When we mounted Les Demimondes, I posted at Maggie’s for sex workers to join the cast, and we always look for real strippers to star in Neon Nightz. We don’t just swoop in opportunistically. I have an interest in including sex workers in our space, too.

“My objective in my creative life is to work toward sensitivity and decriminalization [of sex work].

With tickets available at Come As You Are and the rest being sold personally, the Scandelles are doing their best to vet attendees. “I know what it is to be concerned about things turning into a straight-man-gawking sausage festival. I’ve had very positive experiences inviting straight men into our world and I want to continue doing this. But I’d like to do it at a pace that’s comfortable for us. We’ve every right to be concerned about opportunists. Every one of us has had a fucking video camera pointed at us during parades by some slobbering rubbernecking 905er. It’s annoying. Being invited into a world and being an active, respectful participant is not the same as swooping in and leaving with your loot bag. A lot of straight men find this behaviour reprehensible, too, which is why they want to hang out with us.”

Van Bon Bon’s busy Pride season includes hosting Buddies’ Wed, Jun 14 Queercab youth cabaret and hosting with The Scandelles the Tue, Jun 20 Pride Toronto Awards. She’s also preparing to cocurate a two-month cycle of Buddies’ 2007 season.

Active participation in the culture is vital. “This is going to sound mawkish, but for me it’s a way of connecting with people. I have a bit of [autistic psychologist] Temple Grandin in me. I have a really hard time touching people, though I want to desperately. I want to offer other queers emotional and social support through my art. I want to tell them to be brave and proud and that I’m with them and that they’ve had an impact on me, too. This is the way I reflect it back.

“I really want to create a space where queers can be and not feel they need the larger culture to be the arbitrators of approval.

“Also, I come from a long line of preachers. It was only a matter of time before I cobbled together my own little pulpit with my pals from Sodom and Gomorrah.”

So where does Pride, with its escalating commercialism, fit in? “I feel Pride in general is no longer about communicating with people. We’re corralled around like a bunch of cows in a slaughter pen. We can only drink a certain kind of beer (and one frankly, that I would drink urine over, given the opportunity). Admittedly, I love walking around in the sun with people all around. The cacophony calms me.”

Despite her misgivings, Van Bon Bon feels the landscape for active celebration, interrogation and resistance is vast. “I think the whole world can be a stage. I’ve seen beautiful performance and beautiful political gestures in the most unlikely places.

“My dream is to have a Scandelles work/show space. Of course, because we’re actually real artists, we can’t afford this. Perhaps the Bohemian Embassy will throw open its doors to us? Wouldn’t that ramp up the atmosphere in there — having real bohemians lolling around doing spontaneous dance and art?”