Agent provocateur: ABSFest showcases burlesque and sideshow arts with social relevance

Watch and learn: “People think burlesque is just a parade of people emulating the beauty standards of the past,” says Onça O’Leary. “The point is using every tool — costuming, athleticism, comedy — to explore social issues.” Photo courtesy of ABSFest

ABSFest showcases burlesque and sideshow arts with social relevance

This year’s Americana Burlesque and Sideshow Festival will include, among other spectacles, “the world’s foremost authority on sideshow,” James Taylor. Not “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” James Taylor — the other one, whose personal collection of sideshow memorabilia includes a taxidermied unicorn from the roaming circuses of yesteryear.

ABSFest is set for Friday through Sunday, May 23-25 — aka Memorial Day weekend, when families across the country fire up the grill and head for the beach. The eighth annual ABSFest, instead, will tease, juggle and flip through four venues around Asheville. The event has been going on since 2006 when, inspired by festivals taking place in major cities worldwide, Lauren “Madame Onça” O’Leary, professional belly dancer, started thinking: Why not start one here in Asheville? The festival has grown to welcome presenters and performers from around the world, and has wowed thousands.

Listening to O’Leary talk about her creation, it becomes clear that ABSFest is not just an excuse to gawk at pretty ladies and unconventional entertainers. She sees her forbears as the giants of vaudeville — those who dedicated themselves to holding a mirror to society, drawing out the inner workings of our common curiosities, squashing our fears and bringing possibility into the light. Like the performers her festival presents, O’Leary is conscious of the deep roots of burlesque and sideshow arts, and wants to honor those traditions. Indeed, ABSFest came about when O’Leary started realizing the folks with whom she was frequently sharing the stage were drawing from this rich and often enchanting lineage.

“In belly dance, we have deeply specific folkloric roots that we’re supposed to [pull from]. Artists make a choice from there to honor or break the tradition, but what makes belly dance [what it is] is its awareness of those foundations,” O’Leary says. “I was seeing all these artists who are clearly creating a different kind of art and coming from a different folk idiom. I was so excited to see … what they had in the burlesque genre was unlimited access to creativity.”

Burlesque means satire or parody, so nothing is too sacred to be lampooned, the festival organizer explains. There are no social issues that can’t be explored. “For me as an activist, it’s a really natural fit,” says O’Leary. “I found I was working more and more alongside these people and, as someone who has a lot of experience as a belly dancer and festival producer, I wanted to give this community of powerful artists, particularly feminists, a voice.”

So, she built a festival that presents numerous performances, from girly shows to juggling acts, from live music to aerial dancers and so on. In addition to Taylor, who is receiving the Phil Slomski Artist Recognition Award this year, the roster includes Texas burlesque queen Coco Lectric, ukuleleist Mab Just Mab, local juggling sideshow favorites Forty Fingers & A Missing Tooth, the Bombs Away Cabaret troupe and New Orleans-based brass band the Soggy Po’ Boys, among many others. The whole schedule has been planned with the intention of embracing not only the burlesque tradition but the entirety of vaudeville.

O’Leary is quick to recognize that what works for other locales doesn’t necessary fit in Asheville. Some big-city festivals center on a competition, “but I’ve always thought of this as more of a cooperative village approach to entertainment, where everyone’s bringing their very best to create something exciting together, rather than [pitting] artist against artist,” she says.

There’s also this misconception to address: “People think burlesque is just a parade of people emulating the beauty standards of the past,” says O’Leary. “But, to me that’s not the point. As an artist, pushing the envelope is not the point. The point is using every tool — costuming, athleticism, comedy — to explore social issues.”

There are signs that our culture needs such a wakeup call: “Any kind of violence is OK in the public sphere but breast-feeding is a crime and a perversion? That’s insane,” says O’Leary. “We need to air these things out until people [start to think], ‘Oh, maybe bodies aren’t inherently evil.’”

The ABSFest schedule ensures that folks attending aren’t simply entertained. There are also plenty of workshops and lectures to teach audiences about the history of the form, the purpose of the performances and how they can use the craft themselves. Offerings this year include an in-depth education on working a boa, playing ukulele, peeling off clothing, enhancing a belly dance routine and a 90-minute aerial dance class called “Strong Is Sexy.” O’Leary wants people to understand that it can be fun to watch, but joining the show can be even more thrilling. And empowering.

Americana Burlesque and Sideshow Festival,

Saturday Spectacular at The Orange Peel, 7 p.m., $25 general/$45 VIP. Additional events at The Grey Eagle, The Odditorium and The LAB

Friday-Sunday, May 23-25. See website for complete schedule and ticket options


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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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