Note: This article was originally written for and published on www.planetivy.com
This last week has been quite a journey, friends. After twenty-four years of existence on this pale blue dot, I’ve finally lost my burlesque virginity. A seedy, hilarious and captivating concoction like no other, I dived headfirst into the Burlesque Games which took place in London last week.
“Stripping for posh people” is what it is often labelled by critics. Being a broke-ass pleb, I was going into the show a little sceptical. And the results? Tassels, glitter and giant rubber dildos – let me tell you, folks, Burlesque ain’t for the faint of heart.
It all kicked off with the press meet and greet last Tuesday, where I was hoping to get pissed off free booze and chat up scantily-clad ladies. I met Chaz Royal, one of the event organisers, by the door of Gore Hotel in West London. He’s a down to earth guy who doesn’t seem like he’d be the architect of one of the biggest Burlesque festivals in the world.
He told me there are 65 performers at the Games this year, with 6 shows and up to 2,000 viewers. The games started as a spin-off from the World Burlesque Festival, inspired by the 2012 games last year. Not exactly the Olympic legacy Cameron had in mind, I suspect. Chaz lives in Edinburgh after migrating from Canada, and has been around the world working with bands and burlesque groups. “London is the place to be,” he says, “people can be hostile…but not as much in London.”
I headed through the entrance and straight to the bar, but I quickly found I’d need a small fortune to get drunk here. I stuck with water and ice for the rest of the week. After realising I was actually going to have to do some work, I started talking to the folks loitering around the small room, which had a distinct 1920s feel to it. There was a grand fireplace, retro décor and fine oil paintings scattered along the walls. No wonder the drinks were so expensive.
The show was hosted by the flamboyantly gay Reuben R Kaye, who describes himself as a “rampant dipsomaniac”. When I first met him he was wearing a long, feathered hat and had a face caked in makeup. His eccentric look had a personality to match. Wonderfully enthusiastic and exceedingly intelligent, the man had a presence that was hard to ignore. The jokes came thick and fast throughout the show. He had a dark, self-deprecating sense of humour that was so typically British (even though he’s Australian). My favourite joke from the show: “I’m like a Sainsbury’s self-checkout: approval needed, approval needed – please put your items in the bagging area.”
The first performing pair I met was Willy and Collette, a couple who’d travelled from Brussels for the games. They tell me they’re here to “meet international people and other performers”. The two are dressed in matching tuxedos, keeping in line with the early 20th century throwback. Collette has a dream-like glaze in her eyes and sports a gleaming top hat, while Willy has a suave pencil moustache and bowtie. I jokingly ask him if he’s fundraising for Movember, and he looks back at me with bewilderment. I guess it must not be a thing in Brussels.
I later saw the pair perform at the Variety act, which took place at the intimate Madame JoJo’s in a nefarious corner of Soho. The lights dim, and then turn a sombre blue as Willy’s booming voice begins the tale. His playing of the accordion was masterful, and together they crafted a captivating few minutes of song and dance. I was surprised by the performance, not by how professional it was, but by the fact that that there was no stripping. The pair went on to win the variety act and perform at the finals in Bush Hall on Saturday.
Another interesting character at the games was Equador the Wizard, a charismatic Londoner. At the press party he was sporting a long tail and a handlebar moustache with a pointed chin puff. He wowed me with some close-up magic and told me about his training as a ‘bubbleologist’ with bubble legend “Sam Sam Bubble Man.” This wizard is a rare breed, kinda like Gandalf the Grey, but instead of one ring to the rule them all, he’s got one tassel to bind them.
“Boylesque”, as he calls it, was a pretty big hit with the crowd, who roared in applause when he flung off his overalls and gyrated his hips to heavy metal. As the audience for Burlesque is mainly female, it’s not really a surprise that a half-naked man would draw such an eager ovation. Equador tells me he used to be a ballet dancer, like a lot of performers in the show. But he was hit by a train in Bournemouth a few years back which left him with a broken pelvis. The accident turned the zany wizard into a bit of a philosopher. He told me to “always do what you find exciting. That’s why I do so many things.”
By far the highlight of the week, though, was the weirdest of the five days: the wonderfully strange world of twisted burlesque. This shit was fucking weird, guys, I kid you not. At one point performer Lottie Kixx from Edinburgh walked off the stage sporting a strap on dildo which she rode like a horse. She grabbed Dennis the photographer and rammed the rubber phallus into his face, leaving a glittery jizz stain on his cheeks. It was actually quite a beautiful sight to behold, despite Dennis being none too pleased by the ordeal.
In another performance, Alan Debevoise, from Lake Como, Italy, stripped to the theme tune from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. He walked into the crowd and proceeded to display his waxed butt cheeks in front of my young innocent eyes. Some things cannot be unseen.
What I found most enticing about Burlesque however, was the sheer inventiveness of it, the unbridled creativity that goes into some of the acts. Performers like Natsumi Scarlett from Amsterdam, and Bruised Violet, from Sheffield, impressed me with their dedication and hard work. They designed their own costumes and props, along with orchestrating the choreography and music. There were some bad bitches in this show, with the talent to back it up.
So my final thoughts on Burlesque as a newcomer to the scene – it’s definitely entertaining, a good night out and a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yes, burlesque is stripping, heck, it inspired modern stripping, but it’s a form of entertainment that goes so much further. It’s about working with characters and creating an engaging variety act. The best shows for me were the strange ones, I just couldn’t turn away. The more bog standard routines I found a little boring and repetitive. While there’s nakedness involved, from my week long crash course it’s more like a naked-themed pantomime than your run of the mill strip show, with whooping, hollering, cheering, singing, and plenty of laughs to go round.
*Pictures courtesy of Chaz Royal