Interview: The Rise and Rise of the Helsinki Burlesque Festival
The Helsinki Burlesque Festival, now in its seventh year, is one of the trendiest and increasingly high profile events on the burlesque calendar and attracts a steady stream of burlesque heavyweight headliners, including Dirty Martini, Angie Pontani, Tigger!, Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey, and burlesque legends Satan’s Angel and Isis Starr. This year, titans of tease Imogen Kelly, Perle Noire and Kitten De Ville will be jetting over to headline the festivities.
I have great admiration and respect for Helsinki Burlesque Festival producers Bettie Blackheart and Frank Doggenstein who, through years of dedication, care and considerable skill, have triumphantly stamped the Finnish flag onto the burlesque map and paved the way for eager Finnish audiences and new performers to enjoy and develop a national scene for years to come.
I love chatting to Bettie about her plans and the development of Finnish burlesque, and together we have worked on an interview that goes back to the very beginning and celebrates a highly successful venture with significant international weight and influence…
Bettie, can you describe your and Frank’s performance and production background prior to 2007? How aware of and involved in burlesque were you leading up to that time?
Visual arts and dance have always been a part of my life. I have a MA from The Academy of Fine Arts of Helsinki and have been teaching visual arts for two decades. Performance, painting, animation mixed with video performance are things I work with in my art. Production dates back to my artschool days where we had a fabulous, half-illegal, notorious basement clubspace where I played my first Djing gigs and organised parties. At that time I was a member of a girlband The Killer Butterflies; we never actually played any gigs but gave a few interviews, took loads of PR photos, recorded multiple demos and wrote songs.
I was always interested in the visuality of the music scene – punk rock, bad girls, cabaret, old time burlesque beauties, pin-up girls, B-movies, roleplay, circus, etc., and I have worked with those topics in my visual art troughout the years. Then, when the internet spread, Frank and I found the new burlesque movement via social media around 2003/04 and then soon after travelled to the US to see all the shows we could find. The was no burlesque scene in Finland at that time whatsoever. Frank has been heavily involved in the HardCore punk scene since the late seventies and shared my interest of different ways of expressing one self and alternative cultures. He has also worked within the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and part of his education and work has involved video and TV production.
What was the state of the Finnish burlesque scene in 2007 – was there in fact an established scene of any type or size at all? What was the Finnish public perception and awareness of burlesque at that time?
There were things bubbling under the surface; a few fellow performers had popped up, but there certainly was nothing you could call a burlesque scene. The majority of the audience did not know the meaning of the word when we started out.
What made you decide the time was right to produce a burlesque festival? Was the process and lead-up straightforward or were there considerable obstacles to overcome?
We started out by hosting Dr. Sketchy´s with Kiki Hawaiji, who now runs Turku Burlesque. In 2006 we knew we had to do something about the party/club scene in Finland. There weren´t parties where we wanted to go anymore. But even finding a space to host Dr. Sketchy´s was very very hard. No one understood what we were talking about and it took us many months to even get the first Dr. Sketchy´s going. It was the time when things started speeding up allover Europe. We visited the fabulous Hootchy Kootchy Club in Stockholm. Then we found out there was a performing group in Stockholm, The Amazing Knicker Kittens, and we wanted to help them to come to Helsinki for a show. Because it was so hard to find a collaborating partner, we decided we would organise a bigger event ourselves and hired a space. Then we found a Finnish girl working in London, Sugar Kane, and so it went on. We suddenly noticed that the event was getting bigger, and as we already had programme for three days we decided to call it a festival and go large with it from the beginning.
Can you describe the first Helsinki Burlesque Festival in terms of size, attendance and response?
We had three days programmed: warm-up club with Dr. Sketchy´s, workshops, and the main event. We sold out each event: approximately 100 people at the warm up and 350 at the main event. We were hiding in the ladies room with Kiki when the doors opened, and Frank and Randy of Finland were at the door ripping tickets and saw the lines outside. We had a team of five people then. We could not believe our eyes when we dared to come out from the ladies room and saw the place filling up with fantastic costumes and eager people. After the show people came up to us crying and thanking us. It was a magical night and a night that we will certainly never forget.
How easy was it to secure overseas performers in the first year or two – how did you attract them?
Since the first festival we decided that we would make it a high quality event. We would invite the performers and pay for travel, accommodation, per diem and performance fees. After working within the visual arts for so long, I had enough “free” work behind me, so we did not want to make it an event where the artist pays. Neither did we want to make it a pageant or a competition. On the contrary, something that will give the performer a chance to grow, see what others are doing, truly have the best possible experience we can offer a performer without the pressure of competitions of any kind.
I think the ‘jungle drum’ has worked to our advantage from the beginning. Being performers ourselves and living sooo far away from everyone else has kept us striving for even more quality each year. Basically, we manage the festival with ticket sales and a fantastic help from the cultural council of Helsinki City that has provided us with a fifth of the festival budget for the past five years. I am very happy that although we are independent we have managed to keep the festival running non-stop since the beginning. I think Helsinki is attractive to performers because, well, it is exotic here in Santaland and people already know that we really try our best to make everyone’s stay as comfortable as possible. And we have a crazy burlesque loving beautiful audience in Finland. We like it wild here.
What have you learned and observed from attending other burlesque festivals and large events overseas, and how have you applied that to the Helsinki Burlesque Festival?
We visited our first show in New York in 2004-2005. Some shows to remember, even if on smaller scale, are Starshine Burlesque, and also a visit to Tokyo many years back where we saw Murasaki Babydoll and met the adorable Cherry Typhoon. We always try to sum up what is working and what could be better. When we close the festival for the year we write a closure report within 24 hours to review what was good and what could be better and what did not work.
I want to be as good as I possibly can as a producer. Frank backs me up 100% even if producing/performing/being a visual artist is a chaotic way of life. I truly believe in burlesque. I see that it can still grow and provide people with entertainment in a field which no one else can fulfil. I think it can truly touch your heart and soul at its best. I am following the discussion of the future of burlesque, and in my opinion we should stop making it more narrow by constantly talking about the different genres – neo, classic, drag, boylesque, etc. I think an interesting piece can have all aspects in it. One performer can do all kinds of things. What we do in 2014 is all burlesque of 2014; I think the audience should be respected but not underestimated. I don’t think anyone wants to see shows where all acts are the same.
We try to visit other festivals abroad as much as we can to discover new acts. I do like the New York Burlesque Festival because it is so well run and we have really enjoyed seeing so many different types of acts there. The Legends Night at BHOF is something that is impossible to describe; it sums up so many things. Tease-O-Rama has been a special experience, both on and offstage. It was the first big event we ever went to and of course it is one of a kind.
Tease-O-Rama is also close to my heart because in 2008 I saw Satan’s Angel live there for the first time, and since then she has visited Helsinki not only once but twice and become such an important part of our life, to me as a mentor in the art of the firetassels and to both of us as a friend. Her power on stage made such a huge impression on me and the value of all the knowledge and history we can get from the legends is priceless. But we also have to remember to give back, not just take. We have a fantastic yet small history of cabaret in Finland and during the past few years we have had the joy of getting to know some of our own legends right here in Finland. We have invited them to shows and had small photo exhibitions and meet and greets with them. It gives me great pleasure to have a community here who have welcomed the ladies in such a great way.
One fun story about the meeting of international burlesque and Finnish cabaret dates back to the fifties when there was a dancer visiting Finland (unfotunately her name is not known); she was a tassel twirler and the local dancers here were mesmerised by her skill and tried it themselves too. Unfortunately they didn’t figure out how to attach the tassels so they could not include it in their show. They tried some very exotic and painful ways. Also, the vice laws were super strict for Finnish performers, but did not apply to the dancers coming from abroad.
You clearly put a lot of thought into themes and sets for each festival (Tinker Bell wrote an in-depth piece last year about the Helsinki Burlesque Festival set design). Can you describe some of the particularly successful and enjoyable themes and designs?
I think each year is a thing of its own. However, last year’s Helsinki Skyline was maybe my favourite so far; I have a thing for skylines. Having Tinker Bell to work with is a true pleasure; not only is she a superprofessional set designer but also a performer, and that is a great combination. She will not only make a beautiful set but think further about how it will work practically with costumes, lights, skin, etc.
It is a lovely tradition of participating in the practical process of the set making each year; we have our crafty nights with red wine and sewing, like when we made our notorious sequin rainbow for our fifth year. Also, the set of the Time Machine theme was fun because it was the first time we had a legend here (Satan’s Angel) and it was a good way to bring her on stage to step out of a Time Machine.
You focus on presenting high quality performers and upholding traditions, but I know you have been involved in newcomer events too. What burlesque education and instruction is available in Finland and what attitude and approach do Finnish newcomers tend to have?
Yes, we produced the first newcomers night in Finland in 2008. We felt that in order to make the scene truly blossom we had to provide an arena for people to perform and come together. People have travelled from all over Finland to perform and I think it has been important to see what others are doing too, to set things into perspective. It has now come to a turning point after six years. We will change the whole procedure and have a one year break from producing it.
We have, with Kiki Hawaiji, founded the Finnish Burlesque Institute, Burleskinstituutti, mainly to help the customers to select workshops and classes that are taught professionally. We offer a wide selection of education from lectures to sweaty dance classes. The customers/pupils/audience range from performers to regular people who want to explore some new sides. We do not have a set studio; the Institute is an ‘umbrella’ for approximately 10-15 performers who are giving workshops. Also, we have weekly classes which focus on the dance aspect, body control, expression, etc.
So far I have found that newcomers have been a wide selection of people with different ideas; some have found that performing is not what they want to do after all, and some have made it a career. Because our newcomers night has kind of become an institution, we want to change the concept a little bit. In the future will have open stage nights, hosted by the Institute, where you can try out new ideas or figure out if you want to perform in the first place and then ‘upgrade’ the Newcomers night from that. A big percentage of our most active performers have made their debut in Newcomers Night, including Loulou D’vil, Bent Van der Bleu, The Itty-Bitty Tease Cabaret, and Sir Willy Waterlily.
What developments and events have you observed and overseen in terms of male burlesque performers in Finland?
The male burlesque is clearly spreading; it has caused a lot of interest in the media here. However, the number of male performers in Finland is not growing with hyper speed. The same things apply to any performer, regardless of gender: after the first crush there really has to be a genuine interest and an urge to perform. I do hope to see more men on stage. Helsinki Burlesque produced one night dedicated to men only, and more will come, but not this year.
What and who can we look forward to at this year’s Helsinki Burlesque Festival?
Naturally, as I am the one who made the selections, I look forward to everything – the luxuries of being a producer! But one thing over others is Kitten De Ville’s Dixie Evans tribute. I think it is suitable for this year as Dixie passed just some months ago and we really, truly owe her so much. I think we can keep her legacy alive by playing our part in keeping burlesque vibrant, brave, interesting, and trying to find something new, and at the same time being aware of the roots and the community. I am also looking forward to the future, hoping to still be producing for years to come. We have already made bookings for 2015 and 2016, and I have a pretty good idea of how our 10th year will look.
The Helsinki Burlesque Festival 2014 runs from the 28th February to 1st March. There are still tickets available for the Friday Night show. Visit the link below for details and for more information about the Helsinki Burlesque Festival.