October 26, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Charlotte Maley
A few weeks ago, during my Block 2 abroad course, I was walking through the streets of Paris as I came upon a long line outside a small theater. The crowd was young and rowdy, something I didn’t usually see in Paris, the “City of Light.”
I peeked at the large sign out front to understand what so many people were waiting for, and I saw large, neon yellow letters that read, “The Empire Strips Back: A Star Wars Burlesque Parody.” I immediately spent the remainder of my travel budget on a ticket to attend the show a few days later.
The word burlesque is broadly defined as “a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects.”
However, the primary connotation that burlesque has today is one of a sexual nature. For example, a burlesque performer playing a housewife might be expected to remove her clothes in a sensual manor while cleaning a kitchen.
It is an art that combines the classic Greco-Roman version of burlesque, which holds a primary role as being satirical, with the 17th century American variety, which emphasizes the sexual nature of stripping. Modern burlesque often implies a combination of erotic and humorous performance, and I’ll tell you from experience that it’s an incredible artform.
When I arrived at the theater for the show on my last night in Paris, I was escorted to the fourth floor. My seat was one of the cheapest, and the velvet covered benches that I sat on gave me a bird’s eye view of the stage.
This didn’t rattle me in the slightest because I knew the moment the lights dimmed and the Star Wars main title came on that I was in for the performance of a lifetime.
The opening number portrayed a woman, dressed as Luke Skywalker, riding a large animatronic Tauntaun. She rode the machine for only a few moments before getting off and slowly taking off her costume.
The dancing was incredible, obviously, but what really took the cake was when she imitated the scene from the beginning of the fifth Star Wars movie, “The Empire Strikes Back,” wherein the characters climb into the Tauntaun’s stomach for warmth.
When the dancer went to get inside the animatronic Tauntaun, instead of climbing in, she took the fake guts out and began covering herself with them. There was something so provocative and comical about this gesture because, while it was portraying something so grotesque, there was something empowering about it.
Instead of getting inside and hiding from the audience as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo did in the original film, she kept herself out in the open, covering only the body parts which are perhaps too taboo to show to a room of people. It was almost as though she was letting the audience know that the exposure happens on her terms, and that the audience didn’t get to see her in unlimited quantities. It told us that she was in control, and that those viewing should enjoy the few moments in which she revealed herself to us while they lasted.
Following the first performance, the curtain closed and a man wearing a storm trooper costume emerged to center stage. He began speaking into a microphone, and although he only spoke French and I didn’t understand a word, it became very clear that he was performing something like stand-up comedy. The French audience was rolling with laughter, and I realized that this show was not meant to be a striptease disguised as a comedy, nor a sitcom that uses sex as a joking matter.
However, burlesque in this context was a true marriage between eroticism and humor, where each was honored and not used for the employment of the other. “The Empire Strips Back” was unlike anything I’ve ever seen because, for the first time, I really understood what it meant to make these genres respectable in conjunction with each other.
The rest of the show operated in a similar manner. A dancer or two would come out, give an incredible performance that drew upon a few iconic scenes from each Star Wars film, and then the same comedian would come out and do a set between acts. My absolute favorite performance was given by a C3PO impersonator, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
I didn’t leave before buying myself some merch; a red t-shirt portraying Princess Leia in the outfit given to her by Jabba the Hutt. As I left the theater, I finally understood why so many people showed up with their children, or why such conservative looking older people came to see a striptease show.
Burlesque in Paris is an art form that, despite its reputation in the United States, is a beautiful celebration of two regularly bastardized categories, erotica and comedy. “The Empire Strips Back,” in my opinion, was a French masterpiece, and I can’t help but want it to make its way to Colorado College.