As we roll up for another summer of burlesque in London, it is interesting to survey the landscape in the capital and speak to the pioneers of the contemporary revival. Burlesque still features prominently at the annual London Wonderground festival, but has the scene succumbed to the pressure of capricious tourists and corporate cash?
While the supper clubs, ballrooms and lounges largely parade a sanitised, repetitive lineup of crystals, feathers, and identical, half-hearted fan dances, there are distinctive productions which defiantly buck the trend.
Vivacity Bliss' Cabaret Roulette challenges burlesque and cabaret artists to create entirely new works to fit a chosen theme - which can be anything from Lust, Books, or Bill Murray — and the resulting showcase never fails to be moving, challenging and uplifting. Gin House Burlesque, the creation of Jolie Papillon, Betsy Rose and Missy Fatale, thrills guests with an immersive speakeasy experience at The King's Head — a venue filled with exotic taxidermy and intriguing, opulent splendour. Box-breaking solo efforts from the chameleonic Lolo Brow, Ana Morphic — who uses interactive music videos in her acts — and queerlesque activist Rubyyy Jones contribute a thrilling reportoire of innovation and satire.
But who is going to turn the tables in the tourist traps?
Miss Polly Rae, a sugar-toned, sensual ring mistress of tease, and her co-conspirator, heavyweight striptease renegade Kitty Bang Bang, have led the London revival for the past 10 years, filling West End theatres, historic casino lounges, and twinkling spiegeltents.
"Burlesque was very vintage when we started out, a real homage to the past," says Polly, "Most burlesque acts were solo artists who performed 'classic' striptease, and unlike today, shows were far more burlesque heavy; they didn’t use as many variety or circus acts on their bills."
"Burlesque for me was a big collaborative party," adds Kitty. "I feel like we all made minimal money but the creativity and collaboration was unmatched. I did things for the joy of it. We were all pretty skint but I honestly think we had more fun."
So what spoiled the party mood?
"Over time the scene became saturated. There were too many shows and not enough love and creativity going into them," Polly explains. "Audiences were often watching mediocre burlesque and leaving feeling underwhelmed, assuming that was as good as it was going to get."
"I find the burlesque scene in London pretty uninspiring at the moment," Kitty confesses. "I think there has been some sort of regression. When the scene started we had a real period of creativity."
Kitty feels unimaginative casting and corporate tastes are to blame.
"Venues that book burlesque regularly tend to hire the more classic looking acts, so when it comes to creating a new show, we often think commercially instead of creatively. I think we're all a little guilty of creating what we think will make us the most money and taking fewer risks."
How does one resist this temptation?
"One thing I’ve learnt is to be as authentic as possible," Kitty says, "the second that you try to anticipate what a London audience might want to watch, you've lost. You have to put out something you believe in absolutely and hope for the best. Audiences respond to that."
But Rae and Bang Bang are proud of their current offering at London Wonderground, and rightly so. They have created an exhilaratingly refreshing, unique presentation of an age-old art form to engage a varied and contemporary audience.
"Between the Sheets is built like a pop concert, with transitions, flow and structure," says Polly. "It's an ensemble production; we are a family and everyone has their character. We have an incredible contemporary musical score that has been specifically designed for the concept, with specially arranged and sexified pop anthems, and original songs that make people laugh their heads off."
What sets Between the Sheets apart is its genuine appeal to all genders, tastes and orientations. Male performers are not a token novelty as they so often are in a typical burlesque boob-fest, but artistic directors and equal players. And earthy, relatable humour replaces tired seaside entendre.
Polly concurs: "It's defining element is the modern, contemporary feel and twists on traditional concepts, and the fact that it looks at sex and sexuality in a really open, authentic, non-threatening, fun, and in one particular moment, poignant way."
The progressive intelligence of Sheets is encapsulated in Bang Bang’s absinthe glass act, which turns the best known burlesque motif, popularised by Dita Von Teese, entirely on its head.
"My absinthe show is basically a burlesque of a burlesque show. Initially, I appear to a couple of bars of a classic vintage track. I want the audience to believe that they're about to see a glamorous, traditional glass bathing act. But then instead the audience gets knee slides, air guitar stocking removal, a glass that sets on fire, flaming nipple tassels and a faceful of sugar cube sponge. There is a purposeful lack of measured elegance that you would normally see in that type of act."
Slip Between the Sheets at London Wonderground on 4, 18 and 25 August, and 8 September. Tickets here.