Back with a Bang

21st October 2011

Kathy Miller explores the history of a vintage art form, currently experiencing a vibrant revival, and previews one of its autumn shows.

“It's not the sausage, it's the sizzle!” says Polly Rae – and it’s not barbecue food that she’s talking about, but the glitzy, glamorous and long-neglected art of burlesque…

Polly is the founder and lead artiste of Miss Polly Rae and her Hurly Burly Girlys, an all-singing, all-dancing troupe who blew audiences away with their seductive cabaret act at London’s Leicester Square and Garrick Theatres earlier this year. The show, both popular and critically acclaimed, was described by IndieLondon as ‘magically fusing the traditions of burlesque and bawdy cabaret with modern day fashion, music and popular culture’. That’s quite a combination.

Burlesque, once a highlight of saucy Victorian variety shows on both sides of the Atlantic and later a central feature of satirical revues in Nazi Berlin (remember Liza Minnelli in the 1972 Bob Fosse film Cabaret?), is enjoying a dramatic resurgence, with clubs and festivals popping up everywhere, from Amsterdam to Vancouver, from Brisbane to New Orleans.

Lancashire-born Polly, 30, was working as a make-up artist when she saw an advert for a course at the London Academy of Burlesque (the first school of its kind in Europe; ethos: ‘to help all women to feel fabulous about themselves, regardless of age, shape or dancing ability’) – and signed up at once. The daughter of a man who made models for Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson and the stepdaughter of a member of Beatles tribute band The Beat Brothers, Polly knew the minute she put on her seamed stockings that she had found her métier.

Within months of completing the course, Polly formed her own troupe and soon she and her Hurly Burly Girlys were performing at the Soho Revue bar (formerly the notorious Raymond's Revue bar) and making regular appearances on the Paul O'Grady and Alan Titchmarsh shows. They were continuing a long-standing tradition.

The word ‘burlesque’ comes from the Italian 'burla', meaning joke, ridicule or parody. A feature of seventeenth century Italian comedy, burlesque was originally famed for its stock characters of wily servants and nice-but-dim masters, but by Victorian times, it had morphed into 'extravaganza' and was enjoying immense popularity among London theatre goers. It wasn’t a million miles from pantomime, although aimed at a more educated audience. Typically, burlesque would send up a well known classical play or 'straight' character; serious text would be deliberately misquoted, actors would appear in ridiculous costumes and the dialogue would be peppered with bawdy puns and risqué humour.

An English troupe known as 'Lydia Thompson and The British Blondes' made waves in 1860s New York, with a show that brought together elements of minstrel shows, magicians, chorus numbers, ribald sketches, acrobats and boxing matches – now thought of as Variety. Not surprisingly, it was the girls and their 'tease' that really drew the crowds, all keen for a glimpse of boned corsets, frilly knickers and elaborate head dresses. The different components, and the overall effect, were familiar enough to the London theatre audience by then, but Americans were astonished – and appreciative. The tour that was intended to run for six months continued for six amazing years, despite questions being asked about the ‘virtue’ of her performers.

Back home, eye-watering splits and titillating double-entendre became an official part of the burlesque repertoire. Things have moved on a little, now. “The Hurly Burly Show is more 'tease' than 'reveal' and very much about the parody, fun and theatricality,” says Polly. “It is sexy... but it's also funny.”

As popular as it was, burlesque was dealt a serious blow by the introduction of Prohibition in the USA in 1920, and by the 1940s, many acts were out of business. The genre pretty much hung up its feathers and fans for the latter part of the twentieth century, but, thanks to the current nostalgia for vintage clothing and glamour, recent years have helped bring about a revival on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a thriving scene also in Australia, and ‘neo-burlesque’ is becoming very popular in countries as disparate as Finland and Japan.

Tips on 'the tease' – from advice on hair and make-up to help with castings, promotion and where to find the best black tulle petticoats – can now be found on the Ministry of Burlesque website. This year's London Burlesque Festival in April attracted more than three thousand people to venues as diverse as the warship HMS President and the West End nightclub Madame JoJo's, and when Burlesque, a film starring the singers Cher and Christina Aguilera, premièred in London last year, Miss Polly Rae and her Girlys were among the celebrity guests. Burlesque is very definitely back.

“Burlesque celebrates women's bodies, whatever their size,' says Cici Darling, of Frivolitease. “My act combines performance, mini narratives and comedic elements…”

…but is it sexist?

Questions may no longer be asked about a burlesque girl’s ‘virtue’, as they were 150 years ago – but eyebrows do still get raised, and there can be accusations of exploitation. Feminists among the audience may be tutting, but Chloe Emmott of The F-Word, an online magazine dedicated to contemporary UK feminism, argues that burlesque can help “cultivate a love of your own body”.
From a male point of view, it’s sexy, but, Polly Rae says, “it’s non-threatening from a female perspective as well”. In fact, many burlesque performances have a majority of women in the audience. As Polly puts it, it’s something “that’s designed to make people feel good and make them laugh…”

the best of contemporary burlesque

You can see the best of contemporary burlesque at the Big Top Extravaganza, which will be taking place in a magnificent turreted marquee in Coram’s Fields, Bloomsbury on Wednesday 23 November.

The Extravaganza is being hosted in one of the top London event spaces, in aid of Brain Tumour UK. All proceeds will go towards research into childhood brain tumours, which kill more children each year than leukaemia.

Tickets cost £150 each (or £1500 for a table of 10) and include a drinks reception, three-course dinner with wine, dancing and a stunning show. The programme includes aerial and circus acts, Polly Rae and The Hurly Burly Girlys, Frivolitease and Piff The Magic Dragon, aka award-winning comic magician John Van der Put and his levitating chihuahua, voted one of the 'top three picks at the Edinburgh Fringe' by the BBC.
See www.bigtopextravaganza.co.uk for tickets, email fundraising@braintumouruk.org.uk or call 0845 4500 386 (option 2)

Brain Tumour UK is the leading, caring charity committed to fighting brain tumours by providing support, funding research and raising awareness. It is a national charity with its head office in Latimer, between Chorleywood and Chesham.

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