Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Ottawa Burlesque Festival gets randy

Now in its second year, performers push the envelope on gender and performance

Holly Von Sinn wants to make clowns sexy. Credit: Submitted

And you thought Stephen Harper was a tit. Well, the second annual Ottawa Burlesque Festival will give him a run for his money. It has other naughty bits too — all genders are represented at this four-day spectacular, where dancing, singing, theatricality and outrageous costumes come together in surprising and tantalizing ways. A diverse array of performers are coming from near and far to arouse, delight and confuse in venues across the city. To give a sense of what’s in store, here are a few of this year’s performers.  

Holly Von Sinn

Everybody hates a clown. Except this one. The Edmonton-based Holly Von Sinn (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) is part of a growing subset of burlesque performers that Sinn describes as “weird, stripping clowns.”

Simply called “The Wine Act,” Sinn’s number is a strange, silly attempt to open a bottle of wine. “I wanted to figure out a dance that used the most ridiculous forms of movement to get from point A to point B — but still be sexy,” they say. “I’m a clown trying to open a bottle of wine, but it’s sort of about being frustrated in your goals.”

Of course, Sinn won’t be dressed like a clown from a kid’s birthday party; the costume evolves over the course of the act. It includes (in no particular order) a custom-made corset, a “very ethereal” white robe, lots of chiffon and makeup reminiscent of, as Sinn says, “those porcelain dolls from the ’80s and early ’90s.”

While it’s certain that Sinn will wind up wearing very little, they refuse to reveal whether they’ll succeed in opening the bottle of wine, saying “a clown’s gotta have some secrets — leave it to the audience to see.”

Ryan G Hinds

The lights go down. A spotlight illuminates a man standing in the middle of the stage. He’s wearing a cape. He clears his throat elaborately. He mops his already sweaty face with a wrinkled handkerchief. He takes a hundred zillion bows before singing a single note — who does he think he is?

He’s Toronto-based cabaret performer Ryan G Hinds, doing what he calls “a burlesque” of opera. That is, he sings live — it’s actually “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, with its many difficult-to-achieve B-flats — but he plays up the ridiculous elements of opera and characteristics of opera singers.

“I play on the pomposity, the self-importance, the over-the-top dramatic nature that opera at its best — and worst — is all about,” he says. “I think people are afraid to find opera funny, but an overweight man dabbing his forehead because he’s so hot singing these high notes — that’s hilarious.”

Hinds equates today’s burlesque with yesterday’s vaudeville, where everything from dancing to juggling to singing was crammed together in one show — but what his performance lacks in exposed nipple, he will make up for in beautiful cape.

Saffron St James

Local girl makes good. In 2014, the same year she began performing, Saffron St James won the Ottawa Burlesque Festival’s Burlesque Idol, a competition for newcomers. Since then, she’s toured the burlesque circuit, performed regularly with the troupe Browncoats Burlesque and added a burlesque element to her jazz band’s performances. The insatiable up-and-comer will give two very different performances at this year’s festival.

Along with the other ladies of Browncoats Burlesque, St James will put the spring in Springfield, re-enacting a classic scene from The Simpsons, where the women from the burlesque house La Maison Derrière try to save their establishment from demolition by singing the song “We Put the Spring in Springfield.” “There may or may not be Duff Beer pasties involved,” St James says.

Later in the festival, St James will deliver an extremely enticing performance of the classic tune “Whatever Lola Wants,” singing along with her band, St James Infirmary. “I do burlesque while singing the song,” she says. “I’m really excited, because it’s important for me to push the definition of what burlesque can be — both in terms of diversity in the performers themselves and in the types of things they do.”