A decade of decadence
Burlesque is having a moment, with sequins, tassels and feathers dazzling audiences from Dublin to Shanghai, though you’ll also find its stars performing on top of the Gherkin building
Immodesty Blaize. Photographs: Clive Arrowsmith
On a visit to London shooting for Tatler magazine, Irish fashion stylist Sara Colohan stumbled upon a new kind of entertainment. It was the summer of 2003 and the London burlesque scene had just begun, with one of the first events happening in a small private venue called The Cobden Club in Kensal Rise. The party was called The whoopee Club and Immodesty Blaize was debuting as a burlesque performer.
Within a few weeks of seeing that first show, Colahan created a burlesque show in Dublin called The Tassel Club and took a chance on flying in this yet unknown talent - Miss Immodesty Blaize for the event. No one in Dublin really knew what to make of it all, but 10years on, after many more shows all around Ireland, London and Paris - The Tassel Club, renamed Cirque du Cabaret has a devoted folowing. Along with running a series of shows in the West End’s Leicester Square Theatre this year, Cirque du Cabaret will host five major gala events as part of Southbank’s Festival 2013.
“When I first discovered burlesque entertainment on a night out in London in 2003, I immediately recognised its unique appeal and couldn’t wait to try out a show in Ireland,” says Colohan. “I loved the fact that the audience dressed up, as well as the performers, and I was totally taken by the decadent atmosphere of cocktails and glamorous costumes.
“Burlesque is a great outlet for people to enjoy a bit of sauce without being bombarded by anything gratuitous, sleazy or exclusive to any particular group. I was encouraged by the fact that our shows appealed to couples, singles, gay and straight, music fans and fashion followers, and that spurred me on to produce bigger events.
“I’ve always mixed burlesque performance with circus and comedy in my shows, so Cirque du Cabaret will be relevant as a brand as long as audiences want to see unique circus and sexy cabaret performers in glamorous locations. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.
“Unlike a lot of my performers and peers, I didn’t really approach burlesque from a purist vintage perspective. I saw it more as a merge of my interests in fashion, music and vintage-style entertainment and with my MA in production, years as a fashion stylist and DJ, I suppose it was a natural progression. I love unusual, diverse acts.
“There’s one aspect of my production I try to keep authentically vintage where ever possible; the venue. We’ve performed in Spiegeltents, at London’s Lincon’s Inn, the top of the Gherkin building, in Victorian bathhouses, at the Ritz Hotel in Paris and in several castles, along the way.”
Colohan talked to her two best-known burlesque stars, Immodesty Blaize and Banbury Cross, about how they feel burlesque has changed within the international cabaret scene.
“There was no natural audience and little support for us at first,” says Immodesty Blaize. “I performed burlesque purely as a creative outlet at first. The fact it was leftfield at the time was one of the things that appealed to me. I constantly had to sell the genre to people who had no idea what it was.”
“I always used to laugh when too-cool trendsetters would say, ‘Burlesque is so 90s’. I’d feel like saying, ‘Do you mean the 1890s?’ A genre that old has to evolve. It can’t survive being just a heritage study.
“The idea of vintage is not essential to burlesque. Hundreds of performers perform neo-burlesque, where there isn’t a frill or a victory roll to be seen. Of course performers may recreate the surface look and performance style, and even reflect the issues of a day gone by, but the industry will never work in the same way that it did 50 years ago.
“Burlesque’s content will change, its styling will change and its venues and mediums may change too. But an audience’s need for a light-hearted, sexy, fun, social comment and above all, entertainment, will always remain. Burlesque will live on.”
Banbury Cross started out with burlesque in 2009. “There was already a healthy scene in London thanks to performers such as Immodesty Blaize,” she says. “I had travelled to Dublin to perform my signature champagne number at one of her big shows.
“I’m often called ‘Neo Marilyn’. I’m hugely influenced by film stars. I favour the blondes; not just Marilyn Monroe but Diana Dors, Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield and Betty Grable. I also get lots of inspiration from old spaghetti westerns as well as from B movies. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but all my work is vintage inspired.”
“I have performed in Vienna, Shanghai and at parties in London. Last year I travelled to the US to take part in Miss Exotic World and Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, the New Orleans Burlesque Festival and I’m currently touring Australia.”