Burlesque battle


Two similar(ish) films, the low-budget On Tourand Tinseltown titan Burlesque, go tassle to tassle today. The former has goose bumps and tattoos and all, its star Mimi tells TARA BRADY

IT IS NOT uncommon for two rival Hollywood studios to develop two identical projects; in the early 1990s, Patrick Bergin and Kevin Costner were competing Robin Hoods; in recent years family audiences plumped for Madagascar’srunaway zoo animals over those in Disney’s The Wild.

It is more unusual, however, to find a small, independent movie playing chicken with its Tinseltown equivalent. Back in 1996, the government of Argentina took a stand when it released its own film biography of Eva Peron to coincide with the opening of Alan Parker’s Evita. Their unorthodox move generated headlines, publicity and, indeed, more revenue than one might have anticipated for a small, foreign-language title.

Few have repeated the trick since. Counter-programming, once the sneaky salvation of the low-budget sector, is now hugely oversubscribed, while its effects are diminished in a marketplace where the number of weekly film releases keeps on growing.

In the increasingly frantic world of film distribution, can David still slay Goliath? We may well find out this coming weekend as two very different but similarly themed movies go head-to-head at the box office. In the indie corner we find On Tour, a freewheeling, Cassavetes-inspired comedy from Mathieu Amalric featuring fabulous nouveau burlesque performers in all their tattooed, goose-pimpled glory. That film faces still competition from Burlesque, a glitzy Hollywood demi-musical featuring Christina Aguilera and Cher and nary a goose pimple kind.

“I haven’t watched Burlesqueyet,” says On Tour’sstar and global burlesque sensation, Miranda “Mimi” Colclasure. “I’ve heard there’s no actual burlesque element. It’s just a cabaret show that uses the name.”

Though On Tour’sdirector remains best-known in this part of the world for his starring roles in The Diving Bell and the Butterflyand Quantum of Solace, this is Amalric’s fourth film at the reins. He received the best-director award and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes for his troubles, making this one high-fallutin’ peepshow. His stars, including Colclasure and her avant-garde cohorts from the Cabaret New Burlesque troupe, were equally well-received by the fairy-tale seaside resort.

“Cannes was unbelievable,” recalls Colclasure. “Suddenly all these A-list celebrities were coming up to congratulate us. Tim Burton, who was head of the jury, was just amazing to us. It was so glamorous and surreal. And we do glamorous and surreal for a living.” A pleasing vérité romp about a rambunctious troupe of American striptease artists lost in the French provinces, this Franco-American effort feels a little more, well, authentic than the Cher vehicle.

“That’s because we didn’t even know we were going to be in the film,” laughs Colclasure. “Mathieu came to see our troupe when we were touring in Nantes in 2007. He came out with another writer and a producer and stayed for three days. We weren’t even too sure who he was. He’s huge in France but we’re not necessarily hip to French trends. He was very interested in learning about burlesque and started hanging around, turning up at festivals, stuff like that. We thought we were there to teach whatever French actresses he cast in the movie. Then we find out we’re in the movie playing versions of ourselves. It was only a couple of months before we started shooting. He kept us completely in the dark. We never even saw a script. I’d get a page of dialogue and 10 minutes to learn it.”

These are interesting times for Colclasure. Inspired by girlie photography of the 1940s and 1950s, the dancer first sought to revive the lost arts of glove-peeling and exquisite posture back in early 1990s.

“I was always into antiques and vintage clothing,” says the former ballerina. “So I got into burlesque through collecting old photography and magazines from the ’30s and ’40s. I started toying with the traditional striptease dance. I rented old movies and videos of classic burlesque dancers. I studied the costumes and the choreography. I wanted to modernise it, but also to move it away from the pole dancing and stripping we think of today. And once I started I couldn’t stop.”

In the intervening years, burlesque has exploded into a thriving subculture. The global glamour revival has sparked plenty of related activities on these shores, where interested parties may avail of burlesque balls and themed nights or pop over to the Irish Burlesque School to train with West End star Lisa Darling. Her evening classes promise to transform the most galumphing housewives into fair approximations of Gypsy Rose Lee.

“I’ve actually danced in Ireland a few times,” says Colclasure. “The first time there was no real burlesque thing happening there. There was nothing in France either, and very little in America. It was only in the late ’90s when I started going to the Miss Exotic World pageant that I started meeting girls my age who were doing the same sort of thing I was. This is pre-social networking, remember, so we had no idea there were others out there. And from that burlesque just seemed to go crazy. There are festivals and classes everywhere. It’s exciting, because there’s an entire new generation of dancers coming up behind us older performers. It keeps everything fresh.”

As burlesque has blossomed, its repertoire has grown to incorporate thrilling new angular shapes. Look past the Botox and the most striking difference between this week’s competing burlesque projects is their respective use of the form. The Cher and Aguilera vehicle, though fun to look at, flirts with the dress-up box but never really busts any serious girlie-show moves.

On Tour, meanwhile, showcases the new politically conscious punk-burlesque on the block, a mash-up of bawdy songs and Obama masks. In this insolent spirit, Dirty Martini, one of Mimi’s best-known colleagues, dresses in a star-striped banner and spits out chewed-up dollar bills at the camera.

“At home we’re all solo acts,” explains the dancer. “So as a touring troupe we’re all headliners in our own right. Dirty does the performance art. Roky, who, being a guy, is already bringing something different to the group, is the world pogo striptease champion. Kitten is our chanteuse. It’s simple entertainment, but it’s very cool.”

On TourBurlesque