December 13, 2013
The London Burlesque Festival(L.B.F.) is going back to basics. Having started life as a ‘long weekend’ in 2007, it rebranded itself The London Burlesque Week in 2009 to accommodate its expanding line up… and life span(six days). Last year, in honor of the Olympics, it adapted the London Burlesque Games as a moniker running as a competitive event for the first time. Now lasting ten days, and with it’s original name restored, it’s continuing on its mission to prove there is more to burlesque then boobs and boas.
“There are 13 different shows, each one with a different theme to explore, so we attract a wide range of artists and audiences,” says founder Chaz Royal aka Mark Henderson. “It goes beyond fans and feathers. You have the Shanghai Surprise which celebrate exotic, strange and unusual stuff. You have the Sexy Circus Side Show which looks at carnival and circus. There are also nights to celebrate Classic Burlesque, Hollywood and Boylesk.”
Over 500 people apply to take part each year, a fifth of whom are selected with most events sold out before the event even begins. “We expose the most talented performers on the international stage and reflect an art form that is growing rather than stagnating.”
The fact that all three Irish artists performing at the festival are performing on the Twisted Cabaret night reflects how the scene has developed here. “It has evolved, in a way, because of our isolation, ” says Lilly DeValle. “You know the way you look at Australian animals and they are all so odd, poisonous and peculiar? Well it’s the same with Irish burlesque performers. We have a bizarre diversity.”
She believes it’s because you can’t live off of burlesque in Ireland. “In the UK acts are depending on it as their full time job so they are forced to crack out greatest hits. In Ireland we’re doing it for sheer love. There is zero cash to be earned. So we can afford to take risks.”
Her act is comprised of ‘creepy narrative stuff, where nudity is a vehicle to convey emotion and vulnerability.’ Sometimes, but very rarely, men can be a touch lecherous. “I was once almost pulled off the stage by a rowdy crowd. I had to slap the ringleader across the face mid-act. But the negative reactions are generally just coldness from women who adopt an ‘I could do that if I wanted to” attitude.’ Usually people are lovely”
With English shows money is poured into their productions so they look fantastic. The Irish scene is more rough and ready, a lot more playful and a lot more forgiving of the cobbled pieces. “I say that my pieces are stage worthy, which means the audience looking up won’t see the dropped stitches and frayed ends.”
An expensive hobby, Lilly can drop up to €250 on a single outfit. “I would never break even with an act. But I love the costuming element. I save a lot of money making my own.” She says it took years to get the hang of, ‘years to find out where to buy neon blue leather on a Friday afternoon. But once you know all the places in Dublin it gets a hell of a lot easier.”
A self-thought sewer, she also helps other burlesque artists out with their outfits, one of whom, Lucy Rhinehart, is also performing in Londoon. “The Irish scene is pretty close knit, “Lucy says, “we play to each others strengths. Lilly will help me with my costumes and I will mix music for her act and we’ll discuss it all over a couple of bottles of wine.”
Rhinehart’s act is a mixed bag. “I go from being grotesque, predatory and animalistic to being sad, Gothic and melancholic.” She’s influenced by the movies of David Lynch and the make up artistry of drag queens and sometimes adapts her burlesque performances into fully fleshed shows. “My newest act is a lament on ghost estates, a modern Gothic realist piece of theatre/cabaret. It tells the story of an every woman trapped alone in one, which is haunted by her past and present. Another act I run a lot is my tribute to The Elephant Man. It’s a mix of dance and theatrics retelling the story of Joseph Merrick using fetish costume and imagery.”
She spent €500 on props and costumes for that act, scrimping and saving so she could afford a custom made latex elephant gas mask with latex ears. ”Sometimes, when you are sat there, eating beans from the tin you wonder why you do it,” she laughs.
She got into Burlesque by chance. Her friend was a member of the Pony Girls, the neo-cabaret trail blazers and they needed someone to work the door at one of their shows. She moved from this to helping out back stage and got really excited by what she was seeing. “So I joined them and did loads of group stuff before I had the courage to go out on my own.”
“I am a feminist and I thought it was a radical thing to do, to present real womens body so other girls can sit in the audience and go ‘it’s OK to be like that and to think that you are awesome.’ So may women have confidence issues. So to be a performer getting up there saying ‘I look like this and it’s not perfect- by any means, but I love my body and I am going to prance around on stage,’ I think it’s important. It is a celebration of every shape and size of woman… and man”.
Ireland’s standing in the Twisted Cabaret world can be seen by the fact ,that on the one time the night was run as a competition, it was won by Big Chief Random Chaos. He’s returning this year to show everyone why he won the crown.
“I started of in Dublin’s early nightclubs,” he tells me. “I did a lot of walk about and instillation stuff, stuff to go along with what was going on on the night. Then I moved on to the stage doing strange dances to get the crowd going.”
He’d make popcorn, cover himself in chocolate and candle wax, stuff that was visually strange yet stimulating. “I was desperately trying to make money out of it and I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. So I stopped and became a web designer.”
When he was financially secure he was lured back to performing. He became the first ever straight male contestant in the Alternative Miss Ireland, which brought him to the attention of the Burlesque & Cabaret Social Club where, for the first time, he was the sole focus of the audience’s attention, rather then just acting as a visual stimulant. “Now I am beginning to present the good visual stuff I did many years ago in a stage setting and ironically I’m making a bit of money from it. My profile is bigger in Europe than it is in Ireland so, while I couldn’t make a living on what I do, I get to take lots of little holidays all over the place.”
London Burlesque Festival 2013, May 10-19th