Seoul Burlesque: The Fight to Survive
It’s been almost 18 months since coronavirus reared its ugly head and brought the world to its knees – and Seoul’s burlesque scene along with it. While many places slowly reopen as vaccines roll out, live performances in South Korea are still restricted.
Pre-pandemic, Seoul was the kind of place that partied until dawn; it certainly wasn’t known for shutting down early. For Seoul-based burlesque troupes, the thriving ‘underground’ nightlife was an essential part of their existence. But since COVID-19 hit, performers have faced strict restrictions on social gatherings, and curfews as early as 9 pm.
“Pre-pandemic, I was performing multiples times a night at multiple venues, averaging about 15-20 performances a month,” says House of Tease founder, Flowerbomb.
“My last live show with House of Tease was at the start of March 2020. I was flying back from performing in NYC to perform at Drag Drink Play’s Drag Brunch. We didn’t know that it was going to be the last time we would perform together live in Seoul.”
For many, the reality of what would be the ‘new normal’ didn’t hit right away. White Lies, Korea’s longest-running burlesque troupe, still managed to perform in the beginning, but even that was short-lived.
“Because Korea was generally doing a good job about keeping [coronavirus] down, a few people were still performing,” says Nell Fox, the group’s founder. “Our venue in Seoul couldn’t host as often because of the restrictions, and paying performers became tricky with the lockdown.
“We did perform a few times outside of Seoul. As long as we kept the number of guests between certain parameters, it was allowed. But for White Lies, our last in-person live show was March 21, 2020, and our first cyber show in April.”
However, the restrictions did not completely stop Seoul’s performers from doing what they love. Virtual performances and Zoom meetings kept the creativity alive, although motivation was the biggest challenge when switching to virtual performance.
“The hardest thing to overcome is not feeling and fuelling my performances with the audience’s energy,” says Flowerbomb. “I miss feeding off them and giving them just as much as they give me. I can’t wait until I can touch them again. It must sound creepy, but I’m going through withdrawals. Let me shove faces between my tassels again, please!”
Going the Distance
Sadly, burlesque lacks the ability to draw crowds when separated from the audience by a screen. While some performers have been doing their best to stay booked virtually on a regular basis, for others, the switch proved too difficult. After their first few digital performances, White Lies, a community staple and creative outlet for many local performers, stopped entirely.
“We were doing cyber shows, but those became increasingly difficult when they capped it to four people,” Nell explains. “So we send emails to each other. We’ve done a couple of Zoom meetings and rehearsals, but for the most part, I’ve told them to make stuff! Make costumes, come up with concepts, and have stuff to throw at me once we start up again.”
For Flowerbomb, the switch to digital has actually had some impressive perks. “More ground is covered virtually! I try to do at least one virtual performance every few months. The world got smaller when everyone began using virtual stages as their primary platform to stay connected. Despite the pandemic, I’ve gained even more international attention than I ever did in person.”
Flowerbomb seized the extra time quarantine provided and opened the Seoul School of Burlesque in 2020. She managed to secure world-renowned burlesque performers including Michelle L’amour, Zelia Rose, Tosca, and Crocodile Lightning, to virtually instruct.
For performers like Azalea Jade, one of the school’s burlesque debutantes, the pandemic provided a rare opportunity to start performing. “I’ve had much more time to practice and hone my skills! And I’ve developed close relationships with my group during this time,” says Jade.
For Jade, getting involved was a total quarantine happy-accident. Deprived of other creative outlets, she randomly decided to take Flowerbomb’s online course and fell in love with it.
Flowerbomb’s motivation right now is her desire to see the new generation of “burly babes” become successful post-COVID.
“They’ve never performed, trained, or rehearsed in a world without coronavirus. So I’m trying to keep the fantasy alive by continuing to prepare as if we have a performance tomorrow. Strengthening those international connections with burlesque queens from all over the world as if we can all fly out to meet them in person today. Passing down acts I still adore to my burly babes as if they could perform them in full regalia in front of a live audience tonight.”
Wishing and Waiting
Through ups and downs, both groups’ main goal is to be ready to finally perform in front of a live audience again. However, there is still no telling when that day will come for performers here in Seoul.
“I think live shows in Seoul are so close to coming back. Here’s to hoping! The people are ready to be out again, and venues really need their business to survive,” says Flowerbomb. “I’m afraid that entertainers may be last on the list to bring back. But I swear I will never take being booked multiple times a week, or an evening, for granted ever again!”
As nice as it would be to be able to return to some form of normal in the near future, Nell Fox is not so optimistic. The most recent spike in virus outbreaks seems to suggest that Korea is nowhere near to being in the clear.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to have shows in person again until November at best. I wish it wasn’t the case, but I’m pretty sure the best we’ll be getting is November. Otherwise, December or January is more likely.”
Editor’s Note: At the time of publishing, South Korea has raised anti-coronavirus restrictions to the highest level in Seoul and some neighbouring regions for two weeks.
Written by Alethea Cho.