Radical burlesque dancer confronts timely themes

Una Aya Osato performed her radical burlesque show ‘exHOTic other’ in Goodrich last Thursday. Tim Nagle-McNaughton/Photo Editor.
Una Aya Osato performed her radical burlesque show ‘exHOTic other’ in Goodrich last Thursday. Tim Nagle-McNaughton/Photo Editor.

Una Aya Osato’s performance in Goodrich Hall last Thursday afternoon of “exHOTic other,” her radical burlesque show, began with her, in typical burlesque fashion, stripping down to just two condoms covering her nipples and some pink underwear. However, as she later said during one of the monologues interspersed between and during burlesque scenes, “Taking off my clothes isn’t the scary part.” Osato, who is a queer Japanese Jewish-American woman born and raised in the East Village in Manhattan (and proud of it), presented her views on polarizing issues like gentrification, nationalism, Zionism, incarceration and resistance, as well as body image, heartbreak and more, all while changing from one bejeweled outfit into another. Her unique and thought-provoking show was sponsored by the Feminist Collective and the Queer Student Union.

When I first entered Goodrich, there were a few objects on the stage: A box labeled “Utrecht Art Supplies,” a suitcase, a large blue shopping bag, tape and a folded American flag. The box was later revealed to have “ExHOTic’s baggage” written on the back side, the shopping bag to say “Shop Israel” and the suitcase to be full of props that were pulled out over the course of the performance. Osato’s use of the objects was masterful; an “I [Heart] NY” banner turned into “I [Heart] NYU” during a piece about gentrification, and as Osato talked about her cousin who converted to Hasidic Judaism, she buttoned up a corset. The corset piece was just one of many parts of the act where she seamlessly changed from one garment into another; over the course of the show, she wore a silky bright pink robe, sparkly American flags on her nipples, a purple prom dress, a bejeweled orange prison jumpsuit and many other outfits. One of her most memorable outfits was a black unitard, which she explained was similar to the one she had worn all through middle school.

Her mastery of the craft of burlesque allowed Osato the ability to communicate about deep, important issues. She intertwined all of her overall commentary about social issues in America. She has been involved with protests for various causes since high school, and in her work she strives to illuminate the human element of resistance. In the show she mentioned how for her 17th birthday all she wanted was a bullhorn. The story continued with a description of her arrest for the use of that bullhorn at a protest on her birthday, and how she started having panic attacks after her experience being arrested. She acted out having a panic attack on stage, and by giving her anxiety this stage time, reminded the audience that on every side of every issue, we are just human. She similarly linked her experience as a Jew protesting Israel to meeting her first real love, again letting her vulnerability take center stage in the middle of an explanation of how she had to confront and reject everything that she had been told about the Jewish right to Israel.

Osato also brings a fiery sense of humor to serious issues, satirizing typically eroticized behavior and laughing at herself. She approaches the experience of being female, in a city, in spaces of resistance and in romantic relationships in a way that is deeply relatable and very funny. She uses her art as a space to reply to all of the ways she is oppressed on a daily basis. As she warns all of the people who cross her, even if she doesn’t say it aloud, “I’m gonna get you back in burlesque.”

Osato declared that “burlesque has been a way for me to breathe,” and that release of many different types of rage, frustration and anxiety was clear throughout the piece. Osato, who runs a burlesque troupe called brASS Burlesque (Brown Radical-Ass Burlesque) with her sister, has bent the craft of burlesque into a productive medium to educate and release.

“Sexy,” for Osato, “is awkward. It’s political.”

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