The Burlesque revival of the past decade has found a dynamic home in the central belt of Scotland. Thanks to the pioneering work of The Ministry of Burlesque, Club Noir and the teaching skills of Gypsy Charms and Viva Misadventure, there are a plethora of idiosyncratic cabaret nights, hundreds of performers and even rival scenes within the same city.
While there is broadly a divide between the East Coast and West- Glasgow’s tradition of performance art and radical politics perhaps feeding a more aggressive style, it is clear that Scottish burlesque, both in terms of local performers and visiting entertainers, has developed a distinctive and unique identity.
The Edinburgh Scene
Much of the work in Edinburgh has been defined by two names: Blonde Ambition and Itsy’s Collective. They might share performers, they represent radically different trends in burlesque. Blonde Ambition co-promotes High Tease with The Ministry of Burlesque, a national organization dedicated to building a virtual and physical community of artists. Itsy’s Collective is the brain-child of Dee, who has also worked with Torture Garden to explore an edgier territory.
High Tease boasts that it presents burlesque “as it was, and how it should be”, with high production values and a professional glamour. Inviting some of the biggest British names up to Scotland, and becoming one of the 2009 Fringe’s top choices, High Tease has promoted glamour and finesse and introduced Scotland to Des O’Connor, the ukulele strumming cheeky chappy who shocks and charms in equal measure.
Itsy’s Kabaret made its connection with a more visceral burlesque through the appearance of Empress Shah, who combines burlesque iconography with blood-letting more familiar to fans of Live Art. Her headlining show in November saw her brutally deconstruct the sentimentality of romantic love. Dee’s programming has highlighted the diversity of Scotland’s burlesque acts, from Hettie Heartache’s enthusiastic recreations of classic routines through to the Berlin decadence of The Creative Martyrs’ cabaret songs.
The Glasgow School
Despite regular visits from High Tease, the Glasgow scene has its own style, in many ways closer to Itsy’s Collective. Club Noir is the largest night, taking on the rock venue The Academy for monthly themed nights: a close-knit community, it has exclusive performers and did a great deal to kick start the scene. Cat Aclysmic teamed up with Britain’s Got Talent contestant Daiquiri Dusk to create Rockaburley, The Classic Grand’s rockabilly and burlesque showcase.
Many of the Glasgow acts have a more challenging approach. While Edinburgh’s Viva Misadventure, one of the original teachers of burlesque at the Dance Base and Dance House schools, pulls on her showgirl experience to recreate can-cans and routines that combine saucy humour and musical theatre narratives, the Glasgow artists are variously cerebral or provocative.
There is Cherry Loco’s gender play, Vendetta Vain’s intellectual takes on traditional routines – including a take on Rammstein’s totalitarian kitsch and an excruciating foot-binding number. Daiquiri Dusk has subverted the traditional highland dance and the dreams of false Hollywood Glamour, while Buck Fast, even in his name which references a popular drink of street urchins, represents a bold masculinity.
At the same time, the Rhymes with Purple crew have made a stand for traditional variety. Their July cabaret festival took in New York style performance poetry, a set from London’s Dusty Limits and promised a burlesque that was about more than just striptease.
Community or Performance Art?
But burlesque is about more than just the performances: through classes, themed life drawing classes like Dr Sketchy’s (both on East and West Coasts) and the existence of a vibrant on-line community, the burlesque aesthetic is becoming a feature of hip style. Vintage clothing, the promise of glamour, the messages of self-empowerment are all included to bind together an entire section of the central belt’s arts community.
There are, of course, questions about the relationship of burlesque to the other performing arts. Recently, exhibitions of photography have featured burlesque themes and the recent production of The Beggar’s Opera by Vanishing Point added a scene that could well have come from one of High Tease’s ambitious productions.
Blonde Ambition has been promoting work like Fallen Angels and A Christmas Carol, driven by narrative and having a strong message beneath the hilarity. It appears that burlesque is no longer isolated or underground, but is starting to impact on other forms. Helen Cuinn, more usually associated with Live Art and drama, has taken her own experience of burlesque and allowed it to influence her recent one-woman exploration of identity.
Burlesque is thriving in Scotland, and the next year might see it develop as a serious contender for public attention: at the very least, some of the tensions inherent in the form, such as striptease being a feminist activity, will become more critical, hopefully leading to even more striking work. Like any grass roots movement, starting to enter the mainstream will help it involve and study its own assumptions.