BVB: Doing Your Research (Part Two)
21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene…
[Read Doing Your Research (Part One) here… ]
There seems to be a lot of peacocking going on in burlesque at the moment. My Twitter feed (@vonbourbon) is over-flowing with photographs of costuming projects, new headdresses, statements about rhinestones and details of up-coming performances. And as much as I love seeing the outcomes of passionate investments, I’d also love to read about inspiration sources, research and the muses that fire burlesque flames…
When it comes to Twitter, Dita Von Teese (@ditavonteese) is an excellent example of a performer who shares her research, posting interesting book pages, web-links and snippets of information about past performers. She often shares her secrets when asked, posting details of her make-up, props, styling and even lighting. Michelle L’amour (@michelle_lamour) has also been generously sharing bite-size “tease tips” on a daily basis – reason alone to sign up for a Twitter account!
In my previous article, I wrote of my own research experiences, but shared little on exactly how to research, something I intend to remedy within this article.
First off, watching videos of other performers is a quick, fun and easy way to research, something that many people do without necessarily realising that it counts as research! A great little website for finding performance videos is burlesque specialists Stripcheez. They feature a ‘Cheez Star of the day’ on the front page, accompanied by an embedded video – this makes for a fabulous way to get a daily burlesque fix at one mouse click. Visit this site and you can spend hours clicking around recommended and related videos, learning about performers you’d not yet encountered and events you hadn’t dreamed possible.
Watching burlesque videos online will teach you many things that are simply not possible to learn from a burlesque movement class. These include:
– Who performs burlesque now (and who has performed burlesque then).
– What numbers are or have been performed on the circuit. Within this I include themes, soundtracks and narratives that form the basis of acts (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood). Learning about existing acts can help prevent you falling into the trap of pairing a well-known song with its corresponding theme only to perform your act and then find yourself accused of unoriginality or of copying a performer who has already paired the two together. An example of this would be performing a candy-themed act to ‘Lollipop’ by The Chordettes.
– What aesthetic approaches people are taking (and have taken) to burlesque, from gorelesque to tribute acts, large props to burlesque classics (balloon pops, fan dances etc).
– On a deeper level, a viewer can watch acts by well-known burlesque performers and decide for her/himself whether the act lives up to their expectations. If so, why so? If not, why not? Contemplating other people’s acts like this helps you to understand your own burlesque tastes and leanings. If you are a performer too, this reflexive approach to watching other people’s acts helps you to focus your own contributions. You may find you begin to mirror your critical observation of others by applying the same level of critique to your own work.
“…some performers may wish to keep their act concept secret until they perform the act for the first time. In this case, one has to weigh up the pros and cons of the impact of an act’s grand reveal against the speedy assistance one can get with making that act strong and powerful through publicly-assisted research.”
When it comes to researching specifics, my top tip is – don’t be afraid to ask.
Asking performers or scene-goers with more time on the circuit than yourself can save you a lot of research time. If you’re interested to learn whether someone is already performing an act that satires kid’s TV, you can either spend hours browsing video websites or you can spend minutes asking a handful of well-directed questions. Use your social networking accounts to befriend other performers or burlesque fans – a quick status update can spark responses instantly. If you want a more in-depth response from a wider pool of burlesque family members, use forums.
If there’s a specific historic element you’re researching, like striptease acts who have used live animals in their acts, it can be quite daunting to start sourcing books and sifting through pages of material. If you ask people who have done a little more research than you, or have different specialist areas within their research, then the start of your own research project may be assisted by a book recommendation, a performer’s name or a video link.
Contacting other performers is a great way to simultaneously kick-start research, network and make new friends. A little email can also demonstrate that you respect an established performer’s opinion and experience – this won’t go unnoticed and may score you some brownie points with those in the top echelon of burlesque figures. I’ve yet to come across an established burlesque performer who is not willing to assist newer performers.
This said, there are a couple of areas that are rather faux pas to request assistance with. Firstly, if you are based in a large city, don’t ask another, more established performer based in the same city to share his/her contacts list for promoters/bookers. The established performer has spent months, or sometimes years, nurturing their relationship with their bookers. To an established performer with a fragile sense of self-confidence, it may also feel like they’re adding to their own competition if they assist skilled performers with getting work. Established performers sometimes feel that new-performers are requesting to piggy-back on a lot of hard work when they ask for contacts. Other established performers feel that sharing contacts may jeopardise business relationships, either by damaging a sense of confidentiality between themselves and their bookers, or by damaging the booker’s reputation if the booker hires an act that she/he deems to be sub-standard because they trusted the apparent recommendation of the established performer. Secondly, don’t ask for supplier details of costume/props in order to get a replica of an existing costume/prop made. Unlike clothing lines, costume and prop makers tend to make one-off, bespoke pieces for burlesque performers. It’s ok thing to ask a performer for a costumier’s details because you like the costumier’s aesthetic and would like something in a similar style, but don’t treat costumes and props like off-the-peg clothes, they deserve more respect than that.
Don’t be afraid to reveal your ideas and the associated things that you need help to research. Your honesty and openness will immediately make people more willing to help you out. If you trust people with your idea, they’ll be more likely to care to assist. Sure, there’s always a fear that someone will copy, steal or imitate your idea, but I think that’s a waste of brain-power. If you’ve posted your idea publicly, with a date and time attached to it, an imitator’s got to be a complete imbecile if they’re going to then take your idea and claim they came up with it first. In some ways, by posting publicly you’re date-stamping your concept. Of course, some performers may wish to keep their act concept secret until they perform the act for the first time. In this case, one has to weigh up the pros and cons of the impact of an act’s grand reveal against the speedy assistance one can get with making that act strong and powerful through publicly-assisted research.
Areas to research? Well, of course, the obvious culprits are your act concept, your music, your costume and, if you’re bringing in other skill sets, the pairing of your skill set with burlesque. All these elements ought to be researched both in terms of their intrinsic content and their history (or lack of it) within the burlesque world. Say, for example, you plan to make an act based on Cleopatra. One should research both the historical figure of Cleopatra and the appearance of the character within burlesque to-date. It may also be useful to research other artistic depictions of Cleopatra such as paintings, films and plays, to see where other artists have taken the character.
It’s important and useful to know what acts have come before you and whether they’ve been successful. If you’re aiming for complete originality, then research around your act’s main elements. For example, if you want to make an original fan dance (see my previous article, How to Make a Fan Dance Your Own), learn about past/present performers, how they dance with their fans and what kind of soundtracks they use. This research will really help you to focus your act.
“Just because a particular performance element isn’t one of your key strengths, it doesn’t mean you ought to write it off. Face the challenge and embrace the challenge, not to over-come your weakness, but to get to know it better…”
I’m also a big fan of researching opposites to the key elements of your performance execution. I’ve heard people state that they can’t dance and therefore will stick to performing narrative, comedy-based acts. However, if such performers research dance by going to a few dance classes, they may find they can then identify the specific elements of dance that they struggle with. This would then help them to simultaneously identify the opposite areas where they have strength. A lack of rhythm, for example, means a performer doesn’t need to rely on music to carry her/his act. Such a performer will not need the audial rhythm to remain consistent throughout his/her act and therefore is free to use music to create audial jokes and/or use a medley of music. In learning about the areas of performance that are effected by rhythm, such as complicated footwork sequences and punchy dance-crescendos, a performer who struggles with rhythm will learn more about the mechanisms of rhythm. One can then find ways to apply rhythmic mechanisms without depending upon rhythmic skill, such as using narrative pacing (as opposed to paced movement) to add highs and lows to an act.
Just because a particular performance element isn’t one of your key strengths, it doesn’t mean you ought to write it off. Face the challenge and embrace the challenge, not to over-come your weakness, but to get to know it better. This is why job interviewers will ask you about your weak areas – they don’t merely want you to demonstrate self-awareness, but also how you can use a weakness to your advantage.
Another obvious trigger for research is the tribute act. In fact, to make a successful tribute act one has to conduct an incredibly thorough research project. Assuming one is going for a non-satirical tribute to a specific performer’s number; one mustn’t limit one’s research to the previous performer’s act concept and costuming. One must get to know the performer by learning about their life on and off stage – what factors contributed to this performer and her/his act becoming famous in the first place? Get to know the entire personality of the act, from the performer’s motivations through to the social and political surroundings of the act’s original popularity.
It’s easy to base a tribute act upon your own identification with a past performer or act, but your tribute will be much stronger if you go a step beyond this and build your act upon a foundational level of respect for the original artist.
Researching burlesque history assists your professionalism in general. A few examples? You get your first magazine interview. The interviewer asks ‘Which performers from burlesque’s Golden Era have inspired you?’ If you don’t know much about burlesque history, you risk either name-dropping a performer who did not take to the stage during the Golden Era or you risk looking like a phoney when you say ‘I don’t really know any of the performers outside of my local area’. Can you imagine a musician being asked to list their favourite acts of the last one hundred years and stating ‘I don’t really know anything about old music’?! If you don’t know much about burlesque history you risk looking selfish, foolish, pretentious and/or amateur.
Another example? One of my pet peeves is when performers imitate costuming, especially with regards to belly dance or Eastern inspired costumes. There is a reason why burlesque costumes frequently have a hint of bellydance about them, from isis wings to chiffon-draped shimmy belts. These costumes pack a punch if the performer is clever enough to use and pay tribute to the historic significance of the part belly dance/exotic dancing played within the history of burlesque (from Salome through to Little Egypt and beyond). If you’re on stage wearing an item just because you’ve seen someone else wear something similar and you think it looks pretty, you might be missing a trick. You might also be embarrassing yourself by failing to acknowledge an inherent purpose or cultural significance to a prop or a piece of costume.
There’s so much information out there that it’s impossible to ever reach a point where you’ve read, seen and heard everything there is to know about burlesque. By keeping engaged with your art, you keep your ideas moving, you keep your inspiration fresh and you keep your passion alive. By sharing your research you also help to inspire others to do the same, to keep learning, growing and becoming a better performer…
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21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.