Of Flesh and Feathers: A Study of Artistic Labor and the Politics of the Sensuous in New York Neo-Burlesque

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This dissertation presents an ethnographic study of the neo-burlesque scene in New York City, a group of nightlife artists who perform theatrical striptease. Based on fieldwork conducted from 2015 to 2018, this study uses the lens of labor to explore issues of art making, aesthetics and materiality. Specifically, it focuses on the artistic labor of performers on and off the stage; how the concept of labor is evoked in performance; and the work of material objects on stage.

Looking at labor in relationship to neo-burlesque hopes to advance discussions on costume and materiality, the artist’s relationship to concepts of work, and artistic process. In doing so, this project also seeks to broaden the scope of previous scholarship on burlesque and erotic performance that more often than not has read such performance as either oppressive or empowering.

I begin by providing a contemporary history of the neo-burlesque scene in New York, a scene that emerged in the 1990s at late night parties and strip clubs, among performance artists and strippers. I then analyze the heated, emotional choreography in contemporary burlesque acts and consider its relationship to Post-Fordist work modes. In my discussion of neo-burlesque performance I also analyze the active role of costume, arguing that burlesque costumes are actants that cue performers choreographic choices. Finally, I offer an embodied approach to understanding the artistic practices of neo-burlesque in the classes offered through The New York School of Burlesque, illuminating the DIY ethos that undergirds the community.