Asheville’s ‘Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival’ takes place this weekend. Its theme this year is empowerment, as organizers say dancing, juggling, and politics are all connected.
Festival rehearsals take place at a micro-farm along New Leicester Highway. Onca O’Leary – a belly dancer who performs as Madame Onca – says burlesque is a whole lot more than just female dancing and striptease. “The word burlesque means ‘satire.’ There’s this notion always in the burlesque and sideshow tradition of a certain amount of sendup of cultural norms and those in power.”
She says the festival does and will always seek to represent ‘old Asheville’. “What we all strive against is Asheville becoming a Portlandia theme park – where lots of people come to gawk at the freaks on parade. That’s not what old Asheville was. OId Asheville was freaks living their lives irrespective of the gaze.”
For 3 nights – Friday & Sunday at the Grey Eagle Music Hall and Saturday at the Orange Peel – festival goers can expect…anything. “My name is Stephon Walker and I perform as ‘Swami Yo Mahmi’." His specialty? “A lot of the classic sideshow stunts that people may be familiar with like hammering a spike in my nose, walking on broken glass or eating fire. But I do it all with a comedic bent.”
While his end goal is laughter, Walker takes his craft very seriously because he feels sideshow acts are historically misunderstood. “They’re not someone who needs to be pitied. They’re not being exploited. They’re doing this of their own volition. They may have a physical difference and their brain is just like anybody else’s and they’re fully capable of empowering themselves and being creative.”
Empowerment is the theme of the weekend, and for each performer that means something both different and similar. For Queen April, a dancer who does ‘theatrical stripping’ - “It’s terrifying to April. But it’s exhilarating for the queen" - empowerment means, “I can get on stage in front of an audience almost completely naked and not be objectified in the usual way. That people have come away from that not just saying ‘Oh there’s a woman almost completely naked on stage.’ They come away with what I’m trying to say. Which could be anything, a political statement or a sexual statement, or a funny statement.”
Maria Bella dances, clowns, and plays the trumpet. Thanks to last year’s election, empowerment is increasingly political for her. “Right now it’s very important for women to band together and really have a voice in the arts. Because that is why art is there. It’s a way to get your voice heard.”
Politics might be inescapable right now in just about all fields, and ABSFest won’t be any different. Madame Onca invited the ACLU to speak before Saturday’s show. “I really want to create an opportunity to connect our audiences – progressive audiences, questioning audiences – I wanted to connect those audiences with resources to keep this country consent-based and freedom-based.”
But talking politics doesn’t always have to be serious. Paolo Garbonzo is a juggler who has performed all over the world. “When you juggle fire in America it’s like ‘Oh that’s dangerous!’ When you juggle fire in Europe they say ‘Oh that’s pretty'.” His insight on why that is is a take on healthcare that’s probably not been said before. “I would like to blame that squarely on socialized medicine. Europeans don’t care if you get hurt because they’ll just take you to the hospital. In America it’s like ‘You could get your hand chopped off and what’s going to happen then. Well we don’t know because insurance.’ So…I squarely put the blame on that.”
In the end...always keep the audience entertained.