Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Why Burlesque?

Burlesque is Glamour. The word conjures up images of extravagantly attired showgirls and beautiful women disrobing in Martini glasses; fabulous singers with voices that soar to the rafters; wonderful comedians reducing the audience to tears of laughter; incredible circus acts dazzling open-mouthed spectators. And that is the appeal.

However: Why Burlesque? Why this particular form of entertainment? Probably somewhat ironically, I personally don't understand this need for men and women to shed their clothes at any local pub or club that decides to titillate their regulars with a supposedly risque show.
If burlesque is about your desire to perform and the wish to be on-stage, join an Amateur Dramatics association and display your talents there (Amateur does not mean 'bad' it merely means you are not being paid) Is it because in an Amateur company you would be subject to the whims of the director and not able to direct yourself? A company is just that, and if you go wrong, you will stand out for the wrong reasons and lower the standard of the rest of the group – when you are on your own on-stage, it is just you, and unless you seriously get something wrong, you are the only one who is going to know. Is it because you have to pay 'subs' to join an amateur company? You will end up spending thousands more on costumes for burlesque performance as you constantly try and up your game. Or is it because you simply can't commit to a regular rehearsal night and a week of performances? Burlesque is much less rigid, but, because of this, massively unpredictable. 
Or is it because Burlesque is 'easy'? All you need is a pretty dress, some pants from Primark with sequins stuck on them, and some big band music, then you just strut around the stage don't you?

Is it because it is 'empowering'? Reclaiming your femininity and sensuality in a creative fashion? These terms have been thrown around a lot, hand in hand with Burlesque: I understand that having the undivided attention of a room of strangers, all of whom seem to be whipped into a frenzy by the merest hint of flesh, is supremely attractive, especially if you are feeling unappreciated in other areas of your life. However, surely the expectation of the audience in this instance is terrifying – they are waiting for you to remove your clothing until you are nearly naked. How is being semi-nude in a room full of strangers empowering? Isn't this scenario one of the classic 'nightmares', along with being in an exam and realising you've not revised? If you are feeling undervalued and unappreciated, maybe there are issues you need to work out yourself, and not on stage in front of a group of strangers who have all paid to be entertained, not made uncomfortable!

I often feel that audiences whoop and cheer for a performer, simply because it is the accepted response in a Burlesque show – indeed a compère may well incite the audiences to whoop and shout as a reaction to a glove being removed, to the point that the audiences may feel uncomfortable themselves if they do not provide the required soundtrack

One thing I hear from women while I'm sipping champagne after a show (there are some wonderful moments, honest!) is 'You must be so confident.' Or a variation on this theme. Well, no, not really. Anyone who's shared a backstage environment with me before a show will know that I'm either semi-paralysed with nerves or suffering with an acute case of verbal diarrhoea. I get nervous because I'm a performer and I want to turn in the best damn performance of my life each time I step on each stage.
Burlesque doesn't instil its devotees with sudden sex-appeal and body-confidence. Sometimes it can be quite the opposite: when you know every inch of your body is going to be scrutinised by hundreds of eyes, you can become incredibly paranoid. Yes, it can be lovely to feel appreciated by a wonderful audience but please see my previous point!

So many seem to be drawn to Burlesque, often coming from little or no performance background – why? Aside from the inexperience, which may be obvious to an audience, are they aware of the etiquette of a backstage environment? How to finish an act? Stage directions and positioning? How to talk to stage, sound and lighting crew (if you are lucky enough to perform in a venue that has a tech team!) without coming across as a diva? How to conduct or manage themselves or the sheer hard work involved. I'm making sweeping generalisations here: there are definitely newer performers out there who are talented or unique or simply very polite and willing to work hard.

I have been working in Burlesque and Cabaret for almost six years, and I love it. I'm not going to deny that I have moments when I want to pull my hair out and scream, but it's like family: you may have moments where it's horrible and you want out, but overall the love brings you back. But I still wonder why? Why this revealing (literally), difficult, often lonely (if you are working on your own, you may not have others to support or direct you), financially unrewarding art form? If you suggested that this woman may want to become a stripper or a pole-dancer in her local gentleman’s club, she would be offended, but the addition of a pair of pasties and a rhinestoned g-string makes dancing on the floor of a local pub okay?

Did you know, “a glamour” was a spell that witches would cast on themselves to appear young and beautiful in order to ensnare handsome men. It was a method of changing their own appearance to fool people into thinking they were something they were not. This is obviously folklore and fairy-stories, but the use of the word itself is interesting: when describing someone as 'glamorous' we literally mean they have altered their looks beyond recognition.
But people buy into this: They see performers who have perfected their glamorous image and believe that it is as easy as donning a beautiful costume and setting their hair and make-up just so, and that they too can be jet-setting, international Burlesque performers, sleeping in late, wearing silks and velvets, then being chauffeured to exclusive venues for expensively produced shows in front of adoring crowds.
They do not see the years of training and hard-work, the nights spent stitching hems or glueing crystals to corsets, the missed birthday parties or family gatherings due to not being able to cancel a show, the ridiculously early starts for flights or trains to shows, and dragging giant suitcases through tube stations, up broken escalators or through knee deep snow. They also don't see the many bad gigs, the getting changed in toilets (yes it's happened to us all!), the running across town for two or three shows per night or the dilemma of choosing whether to eat tomorrow or buy another packet of Swarovski...
Again, these are sweeping generalisations but they are drawn from my own experience and I know that I'm not unique in these
So yes – in this respect, Burlesque is completely and utterly Glamour. I recently changed in a bar storage room, perching on an empty beer keg while I applied glitter to my lips using a pocket mirror to check my reflection underneath a bare lightbulb. On-stage I was covered in thousands of sparkling crystals, dancing with six-foot ostrich plumes in impossibly high heels. Glamour.

There was a thread recently on Facebook regarding 'newbies' quoting preposterous sums for shows, and I wonder why this is? There are obviously a lot of things coming into play, but many of the performers who started around the time I did, and before and for a long time after, were aware that the standard route was unpaid/expenses shows, until you reached a point where you felt able to charge a fee. Glorian Gray offers fee-workshops, which are very helpful, as I know many often query what to quote. I still do.
It seems to be a new thing; that relative newcomers are unwilling to work for stage time/publicity/experience/expenses. This is a topic of conversation for another blog but I believe it has to do with a few main points:
The rise of Facebook: more established performers rant about being asked to work for the aforementioned offerings, leading to newer performers feeling that it is also below them.
The recession: we have less to spend and people may be turning to Burlesque believing it will subsidise another income. (hint - it won't. It will suck up your life, your money and your mind.) leading them to be less than enthusiastic about accepting non-paying jobs.
But it looks bad. No one cares that you have performed in a show with 'X' dancer - this says nothing about you, just that you had the good fortune to be on the same bill as a highly regarded performer. Nor does it matter, really, in Cabaret, that you might have a degree or a qualification (I have a professional musical theatre degree), you still have to put in the slog and hard work. 

It definitely won't happen overnight. It probably won't happen in a year. It *might* happen in two or three years if you're lucky and talented. But it will only work if you work at it.

Everyone needs to start somewhere. I realise this. There are newcomer nights and events for newbies all over the country which are dedicated to nurturing the best of the new talent. I hate to make yet another generalisation but usually, the best of the newcomers are those who have already had experience of performing in another genre.
So maybe this is the key: try other things first – dance classes, clowning workshops, singing lessons, etc. Hone your talent base first, then, if you're sure you want to, bring something new and creative to the burlesque stage. But please, don't believe for one moment that it's easy, that it's simple, that you will suddenly gain massive amounts of confidence or sex-appeal, that you will become rich and famous overnight, or that we're all as bitchy as this blog makes me sound!

1 comment:

  1. I've just downloaded iStripper, so I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.