Introducing our Burlesque Correspondent, Beatrix von Bourbon, with the first in a series of guides and articles…
Although that niggling voice in the back of your mind tells you that you really ought to research in order to develop your new act or general performance style, it can often be hard to know what to research, and more importantly, why to research. It’s a dilemma that even the best of us stumble upon at some point in our career.
I’ve come to learn that research is a powerful tool, if used correctly, and one we all ought to embrace and learn to master…
Research disseminates throughout ones work, like a teabag dropped into hot water; the more research you do, the more effect it has. Although it’s embarrassing, I’ll admit that when I started out in burlesque I didn’t have much knowledge about the art-form. I knew little of its history and even less about contemporary performers.
Back then, when I was asked ‘what is burlesque?’, I’d give an inept, poorly-informed definition of burlesque as “…like, vintage-style striptease, with nipple tassels, you know, very 1940s/50s” (we all know how wishy-washy and inaccurate this is!) And my performances – well, some of them were just plain terrible – a mixture of Suicide Girls-style ‘burlesque’ circa 2004, a passion for rockabilly fashion and a decent grounding in feminist texts.
The first real burlesque research I ever did was purely accidental. Whilst working in a show alongside Ruby Blues in late 2006 I had the opportunity to watch her perform. She blew me away. Ruby enacted a story of an anarchistic bride and guided the audience throughout, each change in her soundtrack like the turning of a page. She used a collage of modern music which, for me, was quite liberating (I’d always thought one had to use retro/vintage sounds – how wrong I was!). Her charisma, pacing and command of the stage really struck me and has stayed with me ever since.
As I started watching more high-end contemporary burlesque performers I became drawn in to the possibilities of burlesque as an art-form, rather than a platform for self-expression. The more drawn-in I became, the more I wanted to learn. In a general approach, I made a conscious effort to see more live performances and learn more about the history of burlesque. I have also conducted more specific research when developing new acts.
Examples of my own research
Triggered by the Josephine Baker banana dance tribute acts that have flooded burlesque stages over the past 3-4 years, I took it upon myself to purchase and read her biography. Of all the wonderful trivia I learned from that book, the knowledge that Baker somewhat accidentally became an exotic dancer is the fact that stays with me. In her youth, she’d had a strong passion for dancing, and often combined this with clowning to create a hilarious and unusual stage presence. When she travelled from the USA to Paris to start a pre-arranged dancing job, it wasn’t until her arrival in Europe that she learned she would have to remove the clown from her style, and replace it with a fleshy eroticism. I can’t help but feel it may have been the clown buried inside Baker that gave her such command of the Parisian stage.
I found myself interested in learning about clowning while I was working alongside clowns in a Variety Show at the end of last year. Clowning is a skill that demands a nuanced and precise relationship with one’s audience. This bond is used to perfect and attune all aspects of a clown’s performance, from comic timing, through to eye contact and even breathing. The clown, doesn’t strive to control an audience, but rather to show them a world, an emotion or a happening, and to invite the audience to react to this.
As the world famous clown, Avner Eisenberg advises:
“Don’t ask or tell the audience how they feel or think. Have an emotional experience and invite the audience to join in your reaction.”
I drew my own line from Josephine Baker to contemporary clowning and modern burlesque, picking out similarities and cross-overs. It has helped me to develop a new relationship between what I do on stage and how I treat the audience. Now, every time I go on stage, I think about my breathing, and where I position my eyes. I live the moment I am enacting – I’m not telling a story on stage, instead I am inviting my audience to join me in this happening, this experience.
Research need not be specific to an act. For example, I’m currently building a new fairytale-themed act, but I’m not researching existing burlesques of the given fairytale. Instead, I’m reading about, watching and studying the performers (burlesque, clowns, circus, actors, animators etc.) who hold my attention. I’m learning about all the hidden ‘tricks’ they employ and I am establishing whether I could apply them to my own work. In this indirect way, I’m learning how and where to fit comedy into my routine, how to pace my act, how to ensure the audience don’t get bored part-way through…
Why is research invaluable?
Asides avoiding overlap with other performers (stage names, costumes, acts…) research helps one to develop one’s own personal style and technique.
One ought to remember that at it’s very bottom line, burlesque is a form of entertainment: whether performing publicly, or privately, burlesque ought to engage its audience. Through research, one can both learn about what has engaged audiences in the past and one can learn techniques and tips for how to engage a contemporary audience. It enables one to become informed about burlesque as an art form and, for me, this has strengthened my performance techniques and enlightened me as to the invisible politics that surround burlesque, past and present. Research also provides a mark of respect to past performers who pushed burlesque forward and made it possible for us to perform in the here and now.
How to Research
With the burlesque scene continuing to grow and develop, research has never been more easily accessible. There are few cities in the UK without at least a bi-monthly burlesque event taking place, and door prices are regularly under £10 – even watching a show is research. If this is not financially viable, let’s not forget the multitude of videos available for free at websites such as YouTube and Veoh. There are a variety of online communities and networking sites for burlesque performers (where one can ask questions to experienced professionals), plus blogs and magazines such as 21:CB. Even if you can’t afford to travel, nor buy books, there is no longer an excuse to avoid detailed learning about burlesque.
(Image of Beatrix ©2008 Cherry Bomb Rock Photography)