Vintage vamps return

Vintage vamps return, by Amanda Horswill - 16th February 2007
(Credit: The Courier-Mail)

Photo Credit: News Limited

Top hats, corsets, tattoos and nipple pasties do not a normal Friday night make, but that's precisely the point for the new wave of party people attracted to burlesque.

More risque than a musical and sporting a streak of circus, the Moulin Rouge-style of show made famous in the underground nightclubs of Europe of the mid-19th century has made a comeback on a club scene tired of drunken dance-floor gyrations to canned music.

Brisbane's Fortitude Valley has the Bar Burlesque and Queensland's strong showcase of acts such as Imogen Kelly, Lola the Vamp and production company Strutt N Fret are in hot demand across the country.

Burlesque is not about women stripping nor vulgarity, says Sugartime tour promoter Ben Gilmour, known as burlesque DJ Mr Maitai by night and an ambulance officer by day. His company is bringing burlesque variety show The Absinthe Club to the Valley's The Columbian Bar next weekend as part of a capital-city string of shows playing to booked-out venues.

"Burlesque is vintage entertainment that often includes something sexy, but requires humour and a narrative to give it the intelligence that a discerning crowd requires from entertainment," Gilmour says. "In the 19th century, all sorts of peculiar performers and the avant garde couldn't get jobs in big shows in bigger theatres. So they performed in underground bars and illegal dens and clubs that used to feature outrageous jazz and swing bands.

"The drinking crowd of the day gradually demanded something a bit more risque than performers could get away with in the big theatres. So the striptease became an element of burlesque. It wasn't always just about the girls."

Burlesque was big in ultra-conservative America and England of the 1860s and was often a comedy act sending up the politics of the day. The working class would flock to theatres to see what was basically the infant version of a slapstick comedy show, from which some say stand-up comedy has evolved.

It was banned in the US in the early 1900s, as it became more about nudity and cheap thrills than theatre, but its appeal never really died and it has resurfaced over the years in many forms, including in the film Moulin Rouge.

Gilmour says there has been an underground burlesque movement active in Australia for some time, but the artform was now receiving more mainstream attention.

"I guess it's taken about 10 years for this more mainstream revival of burlesque and vintage entertainment to happen," he says. "There have been a few performers who have been doing more classy and accessible burlesque during that time, but unfortunately there have been many – how should I put it – that have done neo-burlesque which leans too much towards the extreme. It involved a lot of nudity and was a bit more lewd. Too lewd for mainstream.

"We have tried to refine it to bring this form of entertainment to a larger audience. They want to see the intelligence first, and even though the act is sexy, they want to see performances that are smart – not merely sexy. If punters want that they know where to go.

"Generally you will not even see any nipples for example, no naked breasts. The most you will see is nipple pasties and tassels. You will see more nudity hanging out at a public beach than coming to a Sugartime show. Grotesque stripping is not what burlesque is about."

But it is about dressing up and having fun. Gilmour says the crowd that goes to his shows are a mix of normal club types, Goths, fetish fanatics – people of all ages and socio-economic status. Some don elaborate costumes and make-up. Others wear jeans.

"When people dress up for a party, they become that character and enter that world. They look around and see that everyone else is in that same world . . . and the opportunity for escapism is created," he says.

Event promoter Jac Bowie says her Burlesque Ball was such a hit in Sydney last year that she's bringing it to Brisbane in October or November.

Burlesque is popular because of music acts like The Pussycat Dolls, she says, but also because party people are looking for something different.

"People are screaming out for something different, some sort of live entertainment that is still accessible. So when people go to burlesque, they are having a live experience as opposed to just listening to a DJ in a club. Burlesque incorporates so many different aspects of entertainment – dance, comedy, circus – so one minute you are laughing, and then appreciating beauty, and then having a bop.

"And a lot of people just go to meet the fascinating people who go to burlesque."

The Absinthe Club, Saturday, February 24 from 9pm, The Columbian Bar, 14-20 Constance St, Fortitude Valley, tickets $40.


Jac Bowie

The Burlesque Ball