More Tit, Less Tassel: Burlesque According to Candyass Cabaret

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This Friday, climb to the second floor of Café Cléopatre and forget everything you knew about burlesque. No corseted queens. No fishnet Betties. Welcome to Montréal’s burlesque underground: the unapologetically raw Candyass Cabaret. More tit and less tassel. More jock strap than g-string. It’s entertainment gold that ivory woman in a martini glass just can’t deliver.

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“You’re not going to see me in the ‘BBG,’” explains Velma Candyass, “the ball gown, boa, and gloves.” Producer of the monthly cabaret, Velma is an iconic Montréal performer and burlesque vanguard. “Glamor means ‘to trick, create an illusion.’ It creates a mask,” she says. Her show isn’t afraid to be real. “We’re about expression over appearance.”

Held at Montréal’s historic Café Cléopatre, the venue’s grittiness adds another layer to the underground appeal. “On stage, the audience surrounds three sides, you’re almost nose-to-crotch with the performers,” Velma says. “It’s visceral, meatier, tastier…closer to the tradition of burlesque.” There’s a doorman in a mullet and tuxedo. The front hall is postered with topless women with bellybutton jewels. The disco ball kitsch is sweetened with brass moldings and patchy mini-golf carpeting. But once the carnival blubs start blinking, it all feels right. “Showbiz is in the bricks” Velma says. When a development project threatened Cléo’s demolition in 2009, “we got behind the owner, went to the hearings, made the reports, and countered the developer,” Velma says. Originally constructed in 1895 as a costume shop, Cléo has over 100 years of salacious show-bar history. “We came out with gorilla grass roots and saved it.” Velma looks around at the dressing room, “This place has affected me profoundly. It’s really home to me. When I walked on the stage for the first time I said ‘I’m here.’”

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While the cabaret may have a stylistic niche, its genre is by no means narrow. Candyass aims to be dirtier, riskier, wittier than its pin-up counterparts. And most importantly, “more intellectual,” Velma says. It’s an atmosphere where all sexual appetites are welcome, conventional beauty is challenged, and deviancy is celebrated. Last month we watched the six-foot Billy L’Amour can-can in a sparkling leotard, and Nat King Pole waggle a foot-long dildo pulled from her tuxedo pants. Neo-burlesque in true form: Able to teach, challenge, disobey – all to the tune of your favorite Gloria Estefan reprise. Each act was a confrontation of sexual norms that constrain us, and sexual appetites that could liberate us. Last month’s Candyass Prom welcomed performances by Tania the Mexican mime, the ventriloquist duo Corey & Millie, and Nat King Pole singing “I Got Wood” (to the tune of “I Feel Good”). “Glamor isn’t challenging,” Velma motions to the prom dress she wore for her Carrie burlesque number. “Tonight I was wearing a five dollar dress from Value Village. To express sensuality it doesn’t matter how many rhinestones you’re wearing. You’ve just got to make it convincing.”

In an especially edifying moment a couple of years ago, Velma saw the audience’s conscious expand en direct. Candyass hosted special guests Big Moves, a fat activist group from Boston. “We’re not used to these bodies; we never see these forms in the media,” says Velma. “It took the audience a moment to adjust. They were a bit quiet. You could tell they were thinking about it.” But the women performed with such charisma and confidence, the crowd couldn’t resist for long.“You could tell they were thinking, ‘This is okay. We can look.’ And then, ‘Yeah…I kind of like that!’”

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Damiana Dolce, a key player in the Montréal burlesque scene since its revival, regularly performs with Candyass, grateful for the show’s creative freedom. “I’ve explored lots of different styles since Candyass. For me, jazz routines are safe, but this show forces me to push my limits.” Candyass is not only a go-to venue for the city’s burlesque icons. The cabaret functions as a testing ground for new acts, with Velma acting as the titty taste-maker. “I like to encourage local performers, to coach them, allow them to develop their own style,” she says. “I want them to find their home here too.”

Photo Credit: Melanie Boisvert

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Read our exclusive with Damiana Dolce

Don’t miss the next Candyass Cabaret

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