Intimacy and Activism:
An Interview with Jon Manning
The early months of 2017 have been dominated by political concerns over bodies. The Women’s March on Washington in January, as well as President Trump’s proposed travel ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries and his withdrawal of protective measures for transgender students in public schools have put immigration reform, racial equality, women’s rights, and other issues centering on the regulation of bodies in the news every day. This dangerous context is what makes director Jon Manning’s new documentary, Burlesque: Heart of Glitter Tribe, essential viewing. Not only does it educate us about the often misunderstood art form of burlesque, it also gives us an alternative blueprint for using art as a type of activism.
The film, produced by XLrator Media, follows several performers who share personal stories about the role burlesque performance plays in their lives. Angelique DeVil, Zora Von Pavonine, Babs Jamboree, Stage Door Johnnies, Sandria Dore’, Isaiah Esquire, Violet Ohmigod, Russell Bruner, and Ivizia Dakini each give nuanced perspectives that elevate our understanding of burlesque from sexual objectification to artistic empowerment. And that’s just the beginning. I got the chance to discuss Burlesque: Heart of Glitter Tribe with Mr. Manning before it hits theaters March 3rd and VOD platforms/iTunes on March 7th. We chatted about giving burlesque a unique identity, the role comedy plays in generating intimacy, and how burlesque shows help build community.
CMR: Hey Jon! How are you?
JM: I’m good, man. How are you?
CMR: Excellent. Thanks for taking some time out of your busy day to talk with me.
JM: Oh gladly, man. Did you get a chance to see the film?
CMR: I did. I did. I have some questions for you. Since we only have about fifteen minutes, do you mind if we jump right in?
JM: Absolutely. Jump in.
CMR: Okay. Cool. While watching Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe, I kept seeing it as a film that was in conversation with [the 1990] documentary Paris is Burning.
CMR: Was Paris influential in the making of your film?
JM: Yes, I’m aware of the connection. I do like that film — it’s a great doc — but this is a complement to Paris. I didn’t try to emulate any part of that film. But I think the world Paris deals with and what it exposes is much of the same thing these people in Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe are talking about.
CMR: If we do take Paris as the beginning of this conversation, what do we learn by the time of your film  in terms of race, class, and gender politics?
JM: Well, I learned that there are creative ways to push back against [oppressive forces] and stand up for what you believe. And maybe that’s as much about an Oregon aesthetic — I was talking to somebody a few minutes ago about how the nudity laws here in Portland, which has the most strict laws of anywhere in the country — kind of allows the space for something like the new wave of burlesque to really take hold. Burlesque, you know, is often very political, especially in a society that takes more and more freedoms from people like women’s rights or LGBT rights. So it’s political for some of these people just to get on stage. Sometimes it’s in the face of caricature or ridicule or mockery of what is not acceptable behavior in the norms of society, and it’s their way of pushing back against the status quo. Did that answer your question?
Hectic moments for Babs Jamboree backstage before a performance
JM: What did I learn? Let me see. I learned that this [burlesque] subcultural environment — since I didn’t know anything about this subculture — is almost nothing like a strip club. If you don’t know anything about the subculture, you think, “Strip club…Burlesque…it’s all just a different way for people to take their clothes off and for somebody to pay them $10.” But not exactly [laughs]. While I could see why you’d think that — you might see an almost bare breast at the end — almost no one goes to a burlesque show for [the nudity]. If that’s what you wanted, you’d find yourself at the wrong place. Go to a strip club. This is why in an interesting way, many of these shows — not all of them — many of these shows are not filled with guys. There are actually at least as many if not more women in the audience. And that has to do with taking your body back, being empowered by making fun of your body or making fun of sex or making fun of, you know, something political that you’re also playing with in a fun way. Some people call it a “pastie punchline” at the end. So I think that there’s a lot of learning there, if you open yourself up to it. You might learn why these people are [performing burlesque] and what it means. But it doesn’t deliver the same thing as a strip club.
CMR: I agree.
JM: The at-odds conundrum that I saw at the beginning of making this film is that [the difference] is unexpected. And I think that’s wonderful.
CMR: You really hit on the fascinating project of your film: trying to give burlesque it’s own unique identity in the face of these other performance styles like stripping or traditional dance. One moment that really stood out to me was when Sandria — San-dreeya, I believe that’s how you pronounce her name?
JM: Sandria, yup.
CMR: Sandria says that the biggest difference between stripping and burlesque is the audience’s expectation.
JM: That’s right. I think that is very true. I’ve come to know many strippers and heard them talk in the last several years about how nobody is a stripper to take back the power of their body. If you’re a woman, that’s what you’re selling. You’re not selling sex, per say, but you’re selling the intimacy of sex without it being sex.
JM and CMR: [laugh]
JM: Burlesque doesn’t do that. It may give you some sexiness and some tease, but that’s not the purpose of the performance. That’s not why people do this for no money. You throw pop music to it — people are doing it to Pharrell and to Jay-Z and to all these different things — and it makes it very interesting. I thought that was perfect for a film. I fell in love with all these performers. I hope that comes through.
CMR: Absolutely. It is a very loving film. There is intimacy on so many levels, not only with the performers and their art form, but also the loving way that their stories are presented. It is really attractive to me. I think a lot of audiences will respond to that, as well.
JM: Thanks, man. I appreciate that compliment. I take it very seriously.
CMR: Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe also challenges intimacy in the sense that all the performers at one level or another discuss comedy and how it brings people closer. We don’t usually think of intimacy and comedy as intertwined. Here, though, is a really great example of how they work together.
JM: Right. You could say that if you like that at all as an audience member, there’s virtually no other way to get that. You’re not gonna get it at a strip club. You’re not gonna get it from porn. You’re not gonna get it from watching more R-rated films. But if you want to have an evening of people having fun with their family members — like maybe their mom or their dad, which happens many times — it’s a safe place. Everybody is encouraged to show a direct loop of feedback and these people are sharing something with you. You may have paid $10 at the door, but the performers aren’t doing it for money. They all have straight jobs just like you do. One is bank teller, then there’s someone that works at a hospital. They do this because of a chosen family and in that little world they can be a star. Only burlesque does that. [laughs] If that’s interesting to you as an audience member or a performer, only burlesque does that.
CMR: That’s really enveloping. It’s a very collaborative act in the sense that, you know, the audience becomes part of the experience.
JM: That’s exactly right.
At this point the press agent informed us that we only had time for one more question.
CMR: Okay. Great. So the last question I have is about your background. Prior to Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe, your credits include the documentary Lord, Save us From Your Followers (2008), the how-to series Cooking A to Zest (2010), all these disparate projects. How do you choose the topic matter you want to work on?
JM: That’s a good question. You know, professionally I’ve been a commercial guy my whole career. I’ve done national commercials all over the country, made films for Nike and AT&T, and things like that. And the last ten years, or so, I started making feature films as a producer. You know, just helping people with organizing films and raising money and things like that. I wanted to use my directing skills that I’d worked on for a few decades, and I was looking for what my next project could be. When I found the burlesque world about seven years ago, there were not a ton of documentaries about it. There have been a few more since then, but I thought this was a topic I could really sink my teeth into and bring all my filmmaking ability to. And, you know, you’re a filmmaker for so long that you wind up with friends that are filmmakers, and everybody wanted to help me. I thought that it was really something that, if I did it right, it would bring sexiness and music and a depth of why people perform burlesque. I also thought that all the characters would come alive. Hopefully I’ve done that.
CMR: I really think you did. I’m excited for people to see the documentary. Thank you for making it.
JM: Thank you. I appreciate that very much.
CMR: Have a great day. Thanks again for talking.
JM: Thanks. You too!
My sincerest thanks to Jon. I give Glitter Tribe 5 out of 5 hairpieces because it provides a loving message that you can learn from, even if you have no interest in burlesque.I hope you check it out. You can find more information about the film and its cast here: http://glittertribethemovie.com/.