A Dirty Weekend at the Ruby Revue…

I’m not one to blow smoke.
In fact I’m the opposite. My friends laugh at me and say I’m the ‘Patsy’ of burlesque – meaning Patsy, the jaded, cynical chain smoker from Absolutely Fabulous. In a way it is comically true. I like to critique burlesque the same way I would critique any other show – theatre, opera, a lap dance or a junkie scabbing for change. They all get the same treatment – a cool mark out of ten.

“Who do you think you are?!”  Come on! Give me a break – in twenty-two years of performing I’ve seen tens of thousands of strip shows. No – I’m not exaggerating.

Five nights a week, anywhere between ten and thirty girls in the line up, weekend shows, burlesque festivals, arts festivals, fringe festivals – I’ve seen more tits than… well, than… fuck I think I’ve possibly seen the most tits in the world!  One day I’m scared I’ll have seen too much and my eye balls will just melt mid tassel twirl, like that bi-focal, Nazi bad guy in Raiders of The Lost Ark.  Then I’ll be carted off to a sanitarium where I’ll rock in the corner in a pile of my own feculence, repeatedly dribbling the word, ‘tits, tits, tits’ over and over again. Until then, cynicism is my therapy.

Dirty Martini  (©Dominic Kieler)
Dirty Martini (©Dominic Kieler)

I usually review the promoter as much as I review the acts, so it is with absolute delight that I write this appraisal. I’m stumped, as I actually can’t fault the night. I had such a wonderful time and I lay that at the feet of the producer, Jac Bowie, the gorgeous cast and of course the headliner – Dirty Martini. Sydney hath supped from her cups which ‘runneth over’ and I can say I’m as drunk as a monk with a skunk in his trunks doing dunks for junk.

It is no wonder this woman is the world’s favourite burlesque performer. She is the em’body’ment of the revival. The variety of punters seconded my conclusion. We had girls from grotesque to queer to classic to parody based burlesque. The Sydney queens of all of these styles had turned up to catch a glimpse of what they hype was all about. And they were not disappointed. I am a Dirty fan, it’s true. I didn’t verbally gush when I clapped my eyes on her, but by God, I can reassure you that whoever invented the double lined gusset of my knickers had moments like these in mind.

I’ll start at the end of the night because that was the best moment.
The room emptied but for about fifteen glamour cats who were sedate at first, politely hanging back and being respectful as Dirty chilled out with a drink after the show. Then they started closing in on Dirty. The next thing we had girls climbing over chairs, smashing glasses, knocking over tables clambering over each other in high heels and tight skirts to be near their idol. It was unreal!  I nearly started to fob them off – my protective urges coming through – but no! As Christ said – let the little children come closer. And thus I let them goof all over each other to paw, clamor and bask in the glow that is Dirty Martini. I also love the spectacle of overexcited glamorous women.  The only comparison I can draw is the Boxing Day sales at the department stores. People have been trampled to death by such stampedes!

The amazing thing was that Dirty made time for every single one of them. For that alone she is MY F*CKING HERO!

Imogen Kelly  (©Dominic Kieler)
Imogen Kelly (©Dominic Kieler)

There were girls from classic, neo, to grotesque, bad girls, good girls, newbies, show crones, sideshow and contemporary strip in the audience just to have a gawp at Dirty and there is her power. Everyone can relate to Dirty.  She is all of it.  You know that part of you we call self-doubt, the inner critic or the self-hater. When Dirty shines, she gives us permission to calmly confront our inner demons and calmly, inwardly say –  JUST F*CK OFF AND LET ME BE FABULOUS!

Dirty’s visit to Australia and her impromptu performance had a lead in of one week. Dirty had been doing shows in Noumea and decided to pop into Sydney for a three day holiday.  Jac Bowie convinced her to perform and voila – a crazed dash for tickets, face book filled up with frenzied glamour gals either boasting tickets or crying poor. Women flew in from all over the state to get a glimpse. The room was bursting at the seams and the demand was so massive that Jac put on another show. I’ve never seen anything like it – not even when Dita comes to town.  The start of the night was the opposite. Perhaps it was the weather, but Sydney was very chilled. The Ruby Revue at the Arthouse Hotel is Sydney’s, if not Australia’s most renowned upper cut burlesque event. It is promoter, Jac Bowie’s baby and she has been nurturing it for years. It houses all of the best burlesque in town.

Tonight we have a double show – that’s seven hours of dressing and undressing ahead of us. Tits and more tits – big tits, little tits, fake tits and real tits. I down my first whisky and double check. Yep my eyeballs are still in my head.

The cast of the first show was Lola The Vamp, Lauren La Rouge, Miss Burlesque Australia NSW 2010 winner Briana Bluebell, and a rare diamond of new talent belly dancer Kael – and I, Australia’s Queen of Burlesque, Imogen Kelly. The second show had 2011 Miss Burlesque Australia NSW winner Danica Lee and lovely newcomer Alyssa Kitt.  It was simply an amazing line up and that is all I can say about it. Everyone stood out in their own way. There was everything from American styled classic, to narrative driven Sydney styled acts like Lauren’s.

Briana Bluebell  (©Dominic Kieler)
Briana Bluebell (©Dominic Kieler)

The stand out acts for me were Danica Lee’s classic to ACDC’s, Back in Black and Kael’s belly dancing. Danica’s act I’ve only been able to see on YouTube, as I was back stage at the time she was on, but she strode out in simple black chiffon, full-skirted gown with black ostrich around the neck. What can I say – the simple acts always work best and this one bought the house down.  She did a classic strip to what was once a yobbo, red necked, misogynist anthem. It was a brilliant juxtaposition of theme and style.

Kael – I could go on forever about. Firstly Kael is beautiful – end of story. She is just one of those mesmerizing women that you just fall into. She works the audience with subtlety that is a skill unto itself. The second thing about Kael is her skill level is through the roof! This isn’t like any other belly dance I have seen. She can articulate and twitch every inch of her frame in time to the music. Words cannot describe her really so I’ll just say she is incredible and hope that will suffice. She is about to embark on a tour of Europe and I wish her all the best so long as she comes back to us. She was the highlight of the Aussie line up for me.

Lauren La Rouge did two comedy pieces, the first where she played a secretary entangled in a phone cord, the second, she did a smaller scale version of her Aussie beer act which involved a cold sausage and a beer can- once again I was back stage but from the roar of applause I’d say she hit her mark. I love La Rouge most when she has a mic in her hand. This very understated and hilarious performer is having her first one woman show in this year’s Sydney Fringe Festival. All the best to her.

Briana Bluebell’s acts were a Mexican inspired day of the dead styled dance, and the second was a snow-white classic fan act.  She never disappoints and has a strong stage presence. She is one of the shining lights of the latest wave of burlesque performers in Sydney. She’s clever, dance skilled and has a strong aesthetic.

Kael  (©Dominic Kieler)
Kael (©Dominic Kieler)

Lola The Vamp did her Shanghai parasol act that is a well-worked classic that is the epitome of the Victorian style that she is famous for. Lola’s take on burlesque has set her aside from the dawn of the revival in Oz. Her second act was a grind house/ fan dance to modern music, which was a very definite point of difference in this line up.

Gorgeous novice Alyssa Kitt did an homage to Catherine D’lish.  I love that there was such new blood in this line up and my hats off to Jac for giving a newbie a spot in such a prestigious show. It was also brave of Alyssa to attempt to pay tribute to such a famous act. I would love to see Kitt put more of a unique stamp on her stage moments but hey – Catherine blows us all away! D’lish herself will hopefully be able to show us the original act when she comes here for The Burlesque Ball in October! (Triple gusset moment!)

The audience had been enthusiastic but somehow edgy and hard to please.  I did four acts over the course of the night, a black classic, a voodoo jungle number, a Persian pussycat and finally my flamingo fan dance.

You could feel the audience was holding back as each successive act went onstage. When Dirty Martini finally came out they let out a roar that had been pent up for hours of waiting. This surprised none of the performers who were gathered around every tiny split in the curtain or crack in the backstage wall to watch their goddess blow the audience to smithereens.

Our expectations were high and the lady did not disappoint. Dirty did two acts. Her balloon pop and her Jennie Lee tribute. Laughing backstage she said, ‘all my routines are a Jennie Lee Tribute’.  The balloon pop was faultless – a cluster of brightly coloured latex bubbles kept that famous face hidden until a lit cigarette did it’s first round of damage. Balloons fell one by one under the flare of that well aimed cancer stick revealing more and more of the divine Miss D. Loved it!  The Jennie Lee Tribute was also fabulous, well oiled routine. Dirty had her amazing bod synched and flattered in a gold fishtail dress and once again delivered a great routine. When Americans smile I just fall in – what is that? Is it something that is imprinted in their collective memory – I’m calling it the post-Marilyn denture flash.  I gotta learn me how to give a smile like that.

Dirty Martini  (©Dominic Kieler)
Dirty Martini (©Dominic Kieler)

My admiration for Dirty is that she is strictly a live performer. Her notoriety simply comes down to years of treading the boards. She doesn’t have books, sponsors or add campaigns to get her name out – just a fan base built up through performing. Until you’ve seen her perform live it’s actually hard to grasp what the hype is about. People just love the idea of her. But it is amazing to meet someone who is absolutely 100% worthy of their hype and who exceeds your expectations in the flesh.

Dirty had her own change room but I managed to squeeze through the narrow ‘forbidden’ corridor to sit down and have a chat. We sat on the floor as she glued diamantes to her costume and had a laid back chat about Noumean politics.  The mark of a genuine person is when you can just drop all pretenses, hang out on the floor with a tube of glue and some bling and shoot the breeze.

The lady herself summed up her visit with the following passage:

“It was kind of an unplanned adventure. I had Plan A fall through with another producer long before I came and Sydney was supposed to be a vacation for me and the Baron of Weird; But in that wonderful Mercury retrograde style, before I knew it, Jac had it all set up and I’m really glad too.  There’s no better way to see a city and it’s people then to perform there. I was super happy to see how the scene is coming along and the flavor, which is easier to sense in a smaller show. I will definitely be back. It’s just a matter of time and figuring. Next time I’m sure I’ll do more appearances in other cities and teach. In the meantime, you’re all going to get Catherine D’lish, ya lucky bastards!  Often imitated never equalled!”

Thanks for coming Dirty. We look to the distant horizon like those love struck dames in old westerns. Waiting… Waiting… for your return. Thanks Jac Bowie for getting this night together. Thanks to the audience for making me happy…

Imogen Kelly x

Reviewed by Imogen Kelly

Australia’s ‘First Lady of striptease’ – Imogen Kelly is an international showgirl of twenty years experience and has ‘dazzled on every level of showgirl stardom’. From the Moulin Rouge kick lines, peep shows in Tokyo, Japanese topless weddings, gypsy circus tours in Europe, Mardi Gras extravaganzas, the Sydney Opera House, as a veteran of La Clique, to award winning burlesque theatre shows, including a five star show at the Edinburgh Festival. She is also a professional trapeze artist/ aerialist and film maker.

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