Brynne Levy: Burlesque and the Circus
By Ashley Yu
Smothered in feathers, leather, and lace, the dancers on stage soar over the throbbing, dancing crowd, with nothing but ribbons and hula-hoops. Drag queens wade through the sea of sweat and booze on stilts, unfazed by the booming bass system that shakes the nightclub. Nestled in Brooklyn, House of Yes is a wild paradise, that celebrates joie de vivre and unbounded creativity, freed from the restraints of societal judgment. Musée Magazine spoke to self-taught photographer Brynne Levy, who has immersed herself in capturing nightlife venues, circus companies, and performance artists in New York.
As a professional pole performer and circus artist herself, Levy’s images are not the erotic pin-up portrayals that Araki is known for. Instead, she takes a more objective and appreciative lens that focuses on the physical mastery required for burlesque performance, as well as the enthralling confidence that the performers exude on stage. “I am particularly concerned with power dynamics,” explains Levy. “I actively work to reject the fetishization of female fragility and its association with beauty in art. For me, it’s very cathartic to create characters that embody a juxtaposition of innocence and vulnerability with sensuality and predacity.”
The photographer began performing and teaching in pole and aerial arts in college, eventually moving to New York to pursue a career in the circus. “I bought a camera to promote the dance classes that I was teaching, but I had no knowledge about the technical side,” she laughs, “I taught myself through trial and error and photoshoots with my friends.” It is evident that her insider perspective of burlesque/erotic performance has heavily influenced her art, stating “it is important to me to create work that has meaning, tells a story, and evokes an emotion, no matter what my medium is.”
However, the nightclub world that strip-dancers and burlesque performers thrive in was infringed upon, ironically, by the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) that passed April 11, 2018. Nominally an amazing idea to obtain justice for sex trafficking victims, Levy sees SESTA and FOSTA as simply legalized avenues of censorship. “My work has been flagged when it has not been a violation of community standards,” decries the photographer, “my friends’ accounts have been blocked as well. This is especially concerning for women, sex workers, and queer people who now don’t have other safe spaces to express themselves and promote their work.”
From the insane curves of a pole dancer’s naked body, to the grace of an aerial dancer hanging in mid-air with only the help of her bent leg, we begin to look beyond the veneer of sex and learn to appreciate the pure physical strength behind these erotic performers. However, the dynamic between the performers’ hypersexualization and empowering autonomy is a fine line to straddle. In response to this double-edged sword, Levy states that “the objectification/agency dichotomy is really about power and consent and it’s not always easy to tell how much agency someone has without seeing the full picture. When trying to determine who has power in the audience/performer relationship, it is about why the performance is being done.”
Opened in 2015, The House of Yes is an enclave of refuge for those who are often marginalized in the eyes of many. It is a safe space for those who want to let their hair down and express themselves as wildly and passionately as they desire. Through photographs can we celebrate and admire the performers who inject life into the nightclub that welcomes all with glittery feather boas and open arms.