Sasha Van Bon Bon is, simply put, a neo-burlesque treasure. She’s not only an expert in the art of striptease with twenty years of professional experience under her belt, her work is also funny, charming, political, imaginative and gutsy. As a queer feminist, she’s critical of our societal approach to sex work—and sex in general—and for the last ten years, she has been positively churning out burlesque, cabaret and theatre shows that address these issues. The best news of all? Despite the underlying political bent of her shows, she has a lot of fun in getting her message across—and, happily, she brings her audiences along for the ride. Sasha Van Bon Bon joined me by phone from her home in Toronto.
LA: You’ve been involved in neo-burlesque for 10 years now—where does your interest in burlesque come from?
SVBB: I wanted to see different body types represented and not be a curiosity. So, it began with a simple desire to see more divergent bodies sexually represented, along with [an interest in] exploring the history of a form of sexual entertainment—stripping—that I had been involved with in a more contemporary sense for a decade. As a stripper, I had always been more interested in the costuming and staging, and I loved table dancing for people. When I began [to do] neo-burlesque, we worked with a live band as well. We had all the historical elements of mid-century burlesque down pat and, for a brief time, conveying the authenticity of that period—along with thrilling very diverse groups of people with a bit of flab—was exhilarating. Then I wanted more.
LA: “More” being the work you’re doing now with The Scandelles in Toronto, which has gradually moved into theatre-based shows and touches on surrealist thought and elements of performance art…
SVBB: If you told me ten years ago, when I began doing burlesque, that I would be heading up a group that did multidisciplinary theatre shows, I wouldn’t have laughed in your face—weirder things have happened to me—but I would have been curious about the trajectory. To use a truism, it was a very organic process. “Organic” doesn’t necessarily have to be soft—obviously the Dadaists were outraged by the state of the world around them and made challenging work to express that, often in the context of cabaret.
[As for] performance art, I can now admit I adore feminist performance art—even the bad stuff. Various feminist movements have an impact on our work, even if we’re sending them up in a film like Give Piece of Ass a Chance. Having been a sex worker before it was acceptable to a very vocal faction of the women’s movement put me at odds with feminism initially, but so much of our work is very naturally female-positive. It doesn’t require the blessing of that movement to be so. Put it this way: I now have a loving tolerance for academic feminism in general, and I feel the same way about Surrealism. Just because some of the Surrealists hated women and some feminists hate sex workers, doesn’t mean I can’t show them the love. [The Scandelles] want to embrace and live out their more noble ideals and the best way for us to do that is to continue performing their message. And goddamn it, if we have to do it by taking our clothes off and being silly, we will. Whatever it takes.
LA: What inspired you to move into making theatre?
SVBB: I was really inspired by my current partner, Kitty Neptune, who is a gifted choreographer and comedian. To be blunt, she is a performer without boundaries and it seemed such a waste to have her up there tap dancing in pasties with a shit-eating grin on her face for all of eternity. I had done a little spoken word and, like every girl who came of age in the early ’90s, was writing about my experiences in the sex trade. That produced Neon Nightz, which is very monologue-driven and looks at the similarities between strip clubs and catholicism but also showcases the amazing, super sexy art of modern striptease and poledancing, which has recently been snatched away and sanitized by anti-sex trade fitness instructors. Things just snowballed from there, with all of my interests converging and finally having an appropriate venue. It must be said that we couldn’t have done any of this without the unwavering support of [Toronto’s] Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. The entire staff and crew there is from heaven.
LA: Can you tell me more about how your politics feed your work?
SVBB: Well, my interest in how the arts and media are allowed to profit off the sex trade [while] sex workers remain criminals inspired a cabaret called Les Demimondes. My interest in the early ’70s pro-woman, pro-equality [movement] produced a show called Free to Be the Scandelles. Under the Mink was all about female Hollywood icons and their impact on queers. Then there was Who’s Your Dada?, which explored how the tenets of the Surrealists apply to current queer culture—and, by extension, the larger culture since we are always on the forefront of everything.
LA: How are your burlesque shows different than your average striptease cabaret?
SVBB: A lot of people will look at burlesque and say, “Ugh, not another show with a bunch of girls in feather boas twirling their pasties. People have this very rigid and bored concept of neo-burlesque. We’ve been trying to explain to people, without dismissing how much fun those shows can be, that our shows are different because of the way we frame [them], the fact that we do theatre runs, the fact that there are monologues—there is a trajectory and a narrative and they’re multidisciplinary.
LA: And you occasionally go fully nude in your shows…
SVBB: Some people take issue with that in a way that bothers me. One of the words that people use around neo-burlesque is “classy”, that it’s classier than contemporary striptease. Meaning they don’t show their genitals or their breasts. The fact that people turn nudity into a class issue is just appalling to me.
LA: That touches on some of the tensions that you’ve experienced between sex work and feminism, as well.
SVBB: That began changing about ten years ago. I started doing sex work in my early to mid-twenties, and women that I wanted so badly to admire and align myself with were anti-sex work. That was incredibly painful as a young woman because you admire these women for their brains and for what they stand for, and yet, they are vehemently against your choices. Little did I know that, in San Francisco, there was this entire culture of sex-positive feminists brewing…I would have been so proud to align myself with them.
LA: Soon, you’ll be coming to Ottawa to present your “Dance Like Everyone’s Watching” workshop at Venus Envy on March 8th—can you tell me what people might expect if they attend?
SVBB: The workshop is going to be fun, bottom line. I will talk a little about the history of burlesque and how it’s always attracted outsiders but, really, I know a lot of people are there to learn how to take their clothes off with pizzazz. That is something I can do even when I have the better part of a bottle of tequila in me, so it seems unfair not to share that skill—especially since I have authentic experience with it. It has been one of my secret sex weapons since my 20s. I’ll focus on stripping for crowds and stripping for a partner and I will also advise people on how to get into burlesque and start and run a troupe. It is exhausting work and there is a lot of drama—big shock, working with homos—but I have a good sense of humour about myself and what my group has been through, so I hope to convey that.
The longer I do this, the more I realize that sexy is truly a state of mind and once you get that, you’re golden. Bitterly, obsessively focusing on the mainstream’s interpretation of sexy and how so many of us have been left out of that is bullshit. We waste so much time worrying about rejection and humiliation and I want to teach people to steamroll over those crippling emotions and get to the good stuff.
LA: While you’re in town, you’ll also be performing in Venus Envy’s 8th anniversary show, which is a fundraiser for the Venus Envy Bursary Fund.
SVBB: Not to sound like I’m kissing babies and shaking hands here, but all I can say about fundraising for your community is that it’s a huge privilege. For those of us with no funds to just hand over, it is a blessing to have some small skill and a decent pair of knockers to help out. I will be doing two fairly traditional burlesque numbers [that night, as part of the show].