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When it’s OK to watch

Fiona Solon is staring right at you.The negligee-clad singer in black nylons is swooning from one edge of the stage to the next.

Fiona Solon is staring right at you.

The negligee-clad singer in black nylons is swooning from one edge of the stage to the next.

She’s coming your way and you know she has eyes for you.

Only you.

A jab of heat hits you as anxiety mixes with arousal and an audience gawks on.

Then, when she gets close enough to look you straight in the eye just once, she gracefully turns the other way microphone in hand.

What a tease.

Solon is one tease amongst many in Varietease, a burlesque show opening tonight at the Guild Hall.

Provoking the audience is all part of the show.

“Originally, in French, burlesque means an outrageous or exaggerated form of art,” said Solon, also the show’s producer.

And provoking can mean a striptease, a bawdy joke or something in between.

“A big part of going on a stage and taking off your clothes is not taking yourself seriously,” said Solon.

There is an inherent playfulness in stripping, she said.

“As a performer it’s no problem; I find it’s harder for me to be a producer,” she said.

“It’s harder for me to be serious and tell my cast members to get lunch than it is for me to get up in front of 60 people in pasties and panties.”

It’s liberating to play the persona of the seductress, she said.

Brian Fidler, the show’s producer, agrees there is some kind of self-empowerment in a striptease.

“The power is with the women in this thing,” he said.

When under-dressed women began hitting the stage in burlesque shows, it was a challenge to the status quo. Women dancing and parodying their own sexuality was daring thing to do.

“Burlesque continues to turn social norms head over heels,” said Solon, “I think it still does that.”

Even if changing norms means changing taboos.

“It’s not as big of a risk as it was back then,” she said.

But burlesque could act as a double-edged sword against the crass sexual depictions of women today, she said.

Burlesque reinvents itself consistently, she said.

“It’s a crazy movement,” said Fidler. “I guess the neo-burlesque movement started in the 1990s.”

Solon considers it the third wave of burlesque, after its birth in the Victorian Era and its resurgence in the early 20th century.

Today, there’s a burlesque festival in London and high-end class acts around the world.

When Fidler put out the casting call, most of the auditions were done by dancers. When Fidler told them it was a strip show, there was little hesitation.

“We definitely have more women, but it’s not that the casting call was just for women,” said Fidler.

“The women want to put it out there,” he said.

Solon agrees.

“Half of our dancers have never been on stage before, but everyone was into it,” she said.

There’s also the chance to manipulate sex roles.

“In this thing, the women are mostly in charge,” said Fidler.

The show’s master of ceremonies, Morgan Whibley’s patronizing “Cyrus,” gets a lesson when his sexist quips get out of hand.

“Cyrus is not the boss. When he goes a little too far with the gags, he just gets manhandled,” said Fidler.

The show’s lone male stand-up act, Tristin Hopper, also gets a lashing from a woman stand-up act when he fails to satisfy her needs.

The shows alternates from comedy to singing to dancing, and it’s all tied together neatly with Whibley’s quick off-colour wit.

From belly-dancing to nipple tassels, it’s about getting as close to the edge as possible.

“I don’t think it’s crass,” said Fidler.

“I think (Varietease) suggests nudity,” he said.

“You want the audience to be on the edge of their seats. It’s like they’re watching television or the internet if we went completely nude.”

One male performer in Varietease strips down to a single appendage.

“We know he has a sock on his bits,” said Fidler. “It’s kind of boring to just have his dick hanging out.”

How far is too far in burlesque?

“We don’t do anything purely for shock value,” he said.

Findley hesitates and confesses he may have once crossed the line.

Fidler performs a perverse yet visually entrancing puppet show out of a suitcase.

When he first performed his show in May, the crowd didn’t know what to think.

“The audience made a noise I have never heard before,” said Fidler.

He calls burlesque a diversion from his original training and he’s still exploring its possibilities.

“It’s a new direction for me,” he said.

Fidler felt constrained at times as the director of the Longest Night storytelling festival.

“Now I can do anything I want,” he said.

“I like mixing the playful clown with darker stuff.”

With it’s no-holds-barred attitude, burlesque challenges the artists as much as the audience.

“Burlesque has a different meaning for everyone that’s interpreting it,” said Solon. “Some people think it’s strippers, some people think it’s vaudeville.”

Burlesque pushes everything to the edge by being playful.

And who doesn’t like to tease?

“I’m doing this to have fun,” said Solon. “And for the audience to have fun watching.”

And be teased.

Contact James Munson at