Books clubs are getting ballsy. Literally. Thanks to EL James’s bondage-lite Fifty Shades trilogy, the new wave of sexual liberation – or, at the very least, a desire to go beyond a night in with a cheap bottle of Shiraz and a copy of The Joy Of Sex – has brought with it a renewed interest in filthy fiction. And in finding a place to discuss it.Read More
Now, I know what you’re thinking: why is Kate, the wuss that didn't get her fire safety badge at Brownies because she was too scared of lighting a match, and who still can't light a hob with one now, doing at a fire workshop? In truth, I wanted to find a daring activity that made Editor-at-Large Alexi Duggins' hot wing challenge look about as extreme as getting the 38 night bus home without earplugs. It had nothing on this: this was real, singe-your-eyebrows-off fire.
Despite my similarly extreme wimp levels, I actually had a hoot finding my inner “Master of Flames” with Red Sarah, who's been teaching these kind of fire workshops for some 15 years. It's an exhilarating – and properly sexy – alternative to fannying around Bethnal Green Working Men's Club with a feather boa between your legs. And, best of all, I no longer wince when a stranger offers to light my cigarette with their Zippo.
Read the full story on Time Out or after the jump.Read More
You can find my wee trend article on brand spanking new (but, like, totally vintage) club night, La Belle Epoque. Trust me: you'll have a Wilde old time, especially after 10 absinthes or so, in Time Out's spangly (yes, it well is spangly) Clubbing section tomorrow.
Read all about it first, in full, HAR and you too can party like it's 1899.
London’s love of vintage dress-up nights is legendary, a scene so popular that you can dance across the decades, from ’20s speakeasies to ’60s happenings via ’40s swing nights, in a weekend.
But every now and again, a period night comes along to challenge your wardrobe and offer a glimpse of a particular seedy and sexy time.
Parties such as roaring ’20s night, Prohibition, and wartime shelter soirée, The Blitz Party, explore specific eras on a grand scale. But now the events company behind both these nights, Bourne & Hollingsworth, is rewinding even further at their new night: La Belle Epoque.
It focuses on early 1900s Paris, a time as yet overlooked (in a big way, at least) by the city’s nightlife creatives. The party at Shoreditch Studios on Saturday, masterminded by Anne Kapranos, Essence Communication’s lifestyle director, brings to life an outrageously bohemian nightlife scene, steeped in absinthe, the ‘beautiful era’s seductive green liquor of choice. Kapranos thinks that it’s the next big trend in period clubbing. ‘People want more of a challenge,’ she says. ‘They want do to something sexier.’
They floated the idea at dinky Fitzrovia bar B&H last December, and now they’re back with a customised warehouse space filled with airborne circus performers, absinthe tastings and demonstrations, different levels to sit and sip on, sideshows, can-can dancers and sozzled poets. ‘The whole venue is going to have a green glow too,’ she continues, ‘like you’re inside an absinthe bottle.’ A multi-sensory clubbing experience, indeed – if you stay sober enough.
It’s a fascinating era to explore – and the most interesting dress-up idea this year so far (or maybe that’s just the absinthe talking…). So if you’re unfamiliar with the fabulous Belle Epoque, but fancy unleashing your inner green fairy, here’s a brief guide on how to go clubbing, 1900 Paris style.
La Belle Epoque Literally translated as ‘The Beautiful Era’, La Belle Epoque was a period of wealth for the upper classes in Western European history from around 1870 to the start of World War One in 1915. Its beating heart was in Paris. Simultaneously, the avant-garde was blossoming with impressionism, new modernist literature and theatre, and the increasingly popular cabarets, where the bourgeoisie and the lower classes would mix.
French licensing laws were relaxed, which led to a vibrant café culture in the Parisian district of Montmartre. The area became a hotbed for the world’s artists and for after-dark pursuits. For cabaret and depraved glamour, party people would look no further than Paris’s most extravagant music hall, the Moulin Rouge, which opened in 1889. There was an overriding emphasis on boozing and bawdy fun, as Parisians were tempted out of their cramped apartments and into the many sociable cafés like Le Chat Noir and Brasserie des Martyrs, once frequented by the likes of Charles Baudelaire, which transformed from literary salon by day to lesbian den by night.
The music One can’t help but wonder how much attention was paid to background music after 20 or so verres of the green stuff, but at La Belle Epoque, the focus is on authenticity with a modern take. ‘There’s only so much French music hall you can listen to,’ says Kapranos. ‘We’re mixing Edith Piaf-esque stuff with can-can numbers, modern French music and a bit of modern British music too.’
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the Belle Epoque was absinthe, the drink favoured by the era’s creative geniuses, such as Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec and, famously, Van Gogh, who sliced off part of his ear during an absinthe-fuelled psychotic episode.
In a 2006 New Yorker article, Jack Turner referred to this cloudy green drink as the ‘elixir of bohemia’. A cheap tonic of anise, fennel and, crucially, wormwood, it was incredibly popular as the cost of wine and cognac soared. It was eventually prohibited in France following a tirade of anti-absinthe propaganda that claimed it caused lunacy and degeneracy. Some say it was to smarten up the French army, preparing them for World War One.
Although it has never been banned in the UK, today it’s better known as the shot of choice for pissed students who want to experience its mythical hallucinogenic effects. Marilyn Manson fans aside (he favours blood-red Serpis absinthe, you know), its decadent romanticism has been quite lost.
‘Anyone that’s been doing absinthe shots lately has probably had it mixed with Red Bull in a student pub,’ says Kapranos. ‘It’s not the right way to drink it; it’s supposed to be quite a slow drink.’
She’s referring to the elaborate ceremony used to prepare the drink. Belle Epoque barmen would pour ice-cold water over a sugar cube balanced on a special slotted spoon into the tonic, causing it to turn a cloudy pale green.
At La Belle Epoque you’ll find many practitioners of this ritual – and they’ll even be using authentic wormwood-infused stuff from Pernot-Ricard, a revival of the original nineteenth-century commercial absintheurs Pernod Fils (whose 136-proof stuff was used by the French army in Algeria to disinfect drinking water – you can see why they wanted to ban it!).
The fashions Think debauched Victorian groupies in a Marilyn Manson video. Raid the high street for the ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend. Watch Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge’ for inspiration, but strip it of all the glitz and add a dark twist.
Says Kapranos: ‘It’s not as easy as a flapper dress and some pearls. This period probably hasn’t been covered before because a lot of people wouldn't know what to wear.’
For girls, she says, the basic look is corsets, ruffly skirts or petticoats (which you can find in Beyond Retro), stockings, big ‘haven’t-brushed-it-for-five-months’ hair, fishnet stockings and feather boas.
Guys can go for either the rich gent look in a top hat and tails, or starving (but drunk) artists – which we think is far more fun. Use Ewan MacGregor’s ‘Moulin Rouge’ character as a base, she says. Look tortured and you’ll blend in just fine.
‘People can just make stuff up,’ urges Kapranos. ‘When I went to the first one I just wore some underwear that I’d bought for a frisky Valentine’s day and a shawl.’
La Belle Epoque is at Shoreditch Studios on Sat May 15. See Time Out's Clubbing listings.
For more information on the Belle Epoque, visit (weirdly enough) www.greendevil.com.
"I know I'm a genius, but some people think I'm shit," says Scottee over a plate of posh chips. "But I love that people hate me, babes."
He's half taking the piss and half deadly serious, but whichever way the 22-year-old performance rebel (and long time Run Riot contributor, we might add) is taking over the capital, one oversized, sequinned bow tie at a time. Brash and fash, he'll confront you with issues to discuss over your fois gras, while being deeply personal and subversively dark. His one-man show, 'Buy A Better You', comes to the Soho Revue Bar on October 24, so we caught up with him to stuff our faces and talk (a lot) about what he thinks about London's performance art scene, why his work means something, and… Lisa Stansfield.
How did you come up with your performances? "I just do, I don't know how. Theatre bores me because it's about 'making up a story' and I think it's far more interesting to show people what is already there. It's about breaking the rules. Instead of having the audience in a theatre, take them into other spaces and explore how they can be used in performance. I totally disregard the whole thing about the 'fourth wall' – not having your back towards the audience – and I also try to break the relationship between audience member, participant and actor. Audiences can't always expect to be entertained – sometimes they should make their own entertainment, and that can in turn by entertaining."
What if the audiences act everything incorrectly? "There's no wrong because the show is what the audience makes it, so there will never be two performances that are the same. But there's never a wrong thing to do because I don't preconceive what I want them to do; there doesn't necessarily need to be a narrative to link them all together."
Who influences you in that way? "It's kind of Shunt Lounge-y, but it's more about this guy called Augusto Boal. He's a South American theatre practitioner and he developed 'Forum Theatre'. It's a bit like 'agitprop', where you engage your audience to become actors, but he calls the audience specta-actors. They would look at a worst case scenario while a joker tries to get them going and questioning right and wrong, asking to be shown what to do, and then the specta-actors show what to do and in doing so become the performers. They become performers with an opinion. Shunt still adheres to a lot of rules. Their early work didn't, but you look at their new stuff and it's all like 'We've got some friends who are aerialists, let's put them up in the air'. It's lost its grit for me. I think they've got Arts Council funding and they've done what everyone does who gets Arts Council funding does and that's tick boxes and think 'Bums on seats'. That's not on my agenda.
What else don't you like about conventional theatre? I think there's a real lack of development bases for performers. There's a place called Arts Admin and I've had so many run-ins with them. They are funded by various different bodies and provide services, training, information and development for live artists, and they have this weekly mail out where they choose a certain selection of work they think is new and interesting and send out to about 30,000 contacts. They denied me for two weeks running when I wanted to publicise my show. And I just sent this really snotty email, like, "How many fat trannies from Kentish Town do you know who are 19-years-old and are producing and directing their own shows, developing the skills of mime, drag, theatre and fringe theatre?"
Why do you think they denied you? Because I don't have drama school training and I didn't go to RADA and do all that. That's the reason I do what I do, because I haven't been mentored into a certain way of thinking, or been institutionalised. In their eyes I'm young, uneducated and doing work that they think has been done before. But on closer inspection, they'd see that I know my references, but I'm not covering any used ground. I'm young, but I'm ahead of my years, and I'm also educated in other ways. But I suppose people only see what they want to see.
Who do they think you're copying? The comparison I get all the time is Leigh Bowery. Just because we're both fat and we wear funny clothes. I worked out why we're different the other day, though: I've always been a performer and I've always wanted to perform and Leigh became a performer. He was a fashion designer first, and then he was more of a musician, so he didn't really perform that much. I think that's one clear difference. I'm also much more political. I think his work was more about shape and perception and wearing clothes, whereas mine is a lot to do with taking off my clothes, gender and body politics. But most people just see fat person that dresses up funny and thinks, 'Oh, it's Leigh Bowery!'
They could also draw comparisons because you both ran cutting edge nightclubs? Yes, we have brought that back, but I think most people use it as a slur. I'm Scottee actually and I'm alive and it's 2008. There's a clear difference.
You do have a very Leigh Bowery-esque outfit on in the video you made at All You Can Eat… But it's made out of paper, some Christmas decorations I found and I just put them all together. The whole point of it was for the outfit to be destroyed throughout the course of the evening and if you compare that to Leigh's work, Leigh would never get anything on his outfits. They didn't have the same punk aesthetic; it was much more a glamour thing for him. Because I know his work inside out I can see how people may think how it's like that. No actually, I can't. I can't see what outfit of his mine is like. So anyone who wears anything spherical is trying to be like Leigh Bowery? I'm just being pedantic because I know his catalogue so much. And yes, little things like it was made and destroyed on the night, and it was made out of paper, and it was covered in jam tarts, make us different.
Do you think you make this explicit enough? I could do, but I quite like annoying people so if they think I'm like Leigh Bowery and think I'm a rip off, then I quite like that attention. I like that people get annoyed and feel the need to voice their opinions.
How did you get into performing? What's your background? I'm originally from the west coast of Northern Ireland. My father was a soldier in Northern Ireland and my mother was Roman Catholic: conflict. So we moved to London and I grew up with both of my parents having major addictions. My mum had food and alcohol and my dad was a coke head basically and that proved to be a turbulent time for me, especially when I was about twelve and they were beating each other up quite regularly, which is quite dark. And I was thinking, 'This isn't what relationships are supposed to be like, I don't think?' So I started voicing my opinion, even though I was always put down for it.
Then I had a partner when I was 14, which was ridiculous. And I got chucked out of school for having a relationship with him. He was the same age, but because I was larger than him people thought I had raped him, when in fact he was quite willing to have sex. So I was taken out of school and I had to talk to the police and then the council came round one day and said they needed to carry out a risk assessment because I had a little brother and he was 'at risk'. All this happened and then I had a nervous breakdown. After that I wasn't re-schooled.
So I was out of education from the age of 14 with no qualifications, nothing. And I didn't know what I wanted to do. My mum was running a day centre for old people and there was a theatre company called Spare Tyre who were working with old people in Camden producing a show about the 1930s and the war and it just so happened that they used my mum's day centre. They needed a runner for production week and they brought me in and thought I was amazing. That show was called 'Same Meat, Different Gravy' and after that had finished one of the company members approached me and said that their next performance was called 'Stinking Pink', at Stratford Circus, and it was a workshop where we're going to do a tour in schools. Then I did the Roundhouse Youth Board and I found the Camden People's Theatre's Youth Theatre. When I was 17 I became CPTYT's company trainee and I worked myself up to company associate. At the same time, at the Roundhouse I became the leader of the Youth Board there and then Hampstead Theatre started to work with me.
But then I thought, 'This is a bit shit actually, I don't know if I want this'. So I became a youth worker, teaching gay young people who had slipped through the net like me to get back into education through drama. Then I kind of disillusioned with that because everything had to be signed off and you couldn't be in the room with a child on their own, which I understand, but there were certain things that they wouldn't want to say in front of other members.
So then I started drinking alcohol and I found nightlife. And obviously the whole Yr Mum Ya Dad thing happened. Buster Bennett who I met in a lesbian pub in Soho and he asked me if I wanted to DJ together. We started Antisocial pretty soon after that because a Saturday night slot at Trash Palace came up. And then Antisocial broke up and decided I wanted to be a performer proper, so Buster and I went our separate ways.
And I've been performing solo for two years. Look at that, the abridged version!
How has all this affected your work? My epitome of female beauty is women in distress. I think women in distress, or women with panda eyes, are really gorgeous. And I think that comes from watching my mum cry and thinking that was quite pretty. I have this obsession with Lisa Stansfield too because my mum would always put on her make-up the same as Lisa Stansfield while listening to Lisa Stansfield, so I thought that that was what normal women were supposed to look like. There's no irony in this at all: I firmly believe she's the beautifullest woman to ever walk this planet. It's strange. My childhood and my background has informed me. With relationships I had to really sort out my family life and I no longer speak to them now because I gave them the opportunity to and said if we talk, we need to talk about what happened in my childhood otherwise I'm going to take this on and I'm going to fuck up the relationship I'm in now, and since I've got rid of that my mental health has been amazing.
I do explore those issues in my work. I wouldn't say what I do is drag, but I always have big panda eyes. I think there's something quite interesting about violent behaviour too. I explore self-harm with another show, 'Lady in Red', where I basically stab myself to death. I like exploring the dynamics of losing love and losing your loved one too. I think when I get older there'll be more of that in my work. But at the moment I think it's more about femininity and my perception on females – it's quite Hitchcock!
Are you the damsel in distress? Yes. I think the more mature I become the more woman I'll become. I've got this really strange idea that I'll become a woman when I'm 50, physically and mentally. I'm mentally quite feminine anyway; I'm quite domestic. But I think there's something great about wearing smocks and shopping at Hampstead Bazaar. That's when I'll think I've made it.
At the moment you seem to do and be everything anyway! Yeah. I'm quite greedy. I host a segment on Queens of Noize's BBC 6 Music radio show, I DJ and I guest DJ quite a bit, I make clothes and I make films that I use in my shows, and I perform as a club performer and a performance artist.
What's the difference? As a club performer you usually do something to music and to help the evening along, whereas as a performance artist you're not always about entertaining. It's more about an experience and it's think-y, thoughtful, takes a longer period of time and is not to a dance track, I suppose.
How helpful has the clubbing scene been to you? Clubbing was my footstool into the performance art realm. I started performing in club because 'proper' places didn't want me. All the places I wanted to work in didn't understand what my mission was. And because there's a lack of alternative performance spaces, I knew I had to have arts funding or I had to go past a hell of a lot of red tape to get a space. It's weird, because there's so much space everywhere, but I needed to get a body of work behind me to get accepted. That's why I did club performances. Clubs lend themselves well to my style, but also they allows me to reach people who weren't necessarily expecting to see some art or to see performance.
Has clubbing become it's own art form? Some clubs are artistic because of the people that run them, but I don't think that nightlife itself has turned into an artistic expression. Also, a club isn't art unless it's engaging. It can be – and Antisocial did make that effort to make clubbing an art form – but I think there are some nights which are two a penny now who think they'll get a VJ in and make their night an arty, cool night, when actually it takes far much more production.
With some clubs, like yours (Antisocial, For3ign! and Issue), it's all about having an 'arty' look… Now there's doing 'a look' and there's wearing a plastic bag on your head. I appreciate the latter, but I notice talent. And someone who really starts to push boundaries and get out of their own comfort zone and put people out of their's, that's when I think 'That's a look! That's art!' I wouldn't necessarily call dressing up art unless it makes me notice it.
How would you define what you do? Are you an artist? I hate the term 'artist', because I don't think I am. I'm a protagonist. An entrepreneur.
Why don't you associate yourself with the alt-drag cabaret scene? If I'm going to be really bold, I think maybe they just don't get me. I've never been let into that circle of people, I don't know why. I've performed at Bistroteque, but it's always been on my own, it's been nothing to do with Johnny Woo, or the LipSinkers, or any of that. I don't call myself drag, but what I do is familiarly seen as drag. It's a question I've asked myself many a time.
Would you like to be let in? No. I don't like to be type cast. And I quite like collaboration: I collaborate with loads of people, so I don't mind sharing the spotlight, as it were, but I'm just not sure that that scene's progressive enough for me. I think it lacks a politic. It's not talking about issues, it's not bringing questioning stuff, it's just men in make-up and boots doing lip-synching. There's no issue work there and I suppose I'm a bit of a socialist and I'm all 'Power for the people, let's cause some revolution, let's cause some uproar'.
So you're a revolutionary? I do want to show people what's going on in the world, because ultimately I would like to run the country, and I do joke to my friends that I am the second coming. Performance art in the Nineties was about going in a white room and, like y'know, blood letting. But then I suppose what I am is between Frank OB letting out blood on the catwalk and Leigh Bowery giving birth to a human baby. One is a bit fickle and talking about how useless men are and one is really too heavy, like THIS IS AN ISSUE. So I think I'm saying, 'This is an issue, but this performance is a bit of fun, let's get involved'.
Do you consider yourself subversive? I don't think I am subversive, I think I show the world exactly what's going on on their doorsteps. They just think it's subversive because they've only just opened their eyes to it.
Do you think you'll ever become mainstream? I haven't become mainstream, because when that happens you water down your act like Paul O'Grady/Lily Savage did, when you take the wig off and become palatable. I don't think I'll ever become palatable. If I do, I won't change anything about my look. I've no aim to lose weight or get on television. Do I even want notoriety? Most performers want their name to live on when they die, but do I want that? What I love about performance is that it's so limited. People can only see my performances if I choose to perform whereas if you're a painter, your paintings can exist for hundreds of years after your life. I could video every performance, but then you'd lose that fact that only a certain amount of people are able to say they've seen you perform.
You do have quite a few videos on YouTube… I get loads of inspiration from YouTube because it's so instant. It's good for finding songs to use as backing tracks or to sing too.
I don't get your Bettie Page video? What's it about? Let me just make up an answer in my head… It's about gender, because it's quite apparent that I'm a boy doing girl things. It's just my perception of what women should be like and because we live in this really cosmetic age and my body doesn't fit into that at all, but I'm still doing these things like applying cream or using Botox. I'm also exploring female masturbation. Bettie looks around and thinks, 'Should I be doing this? Is this right? Can I? Can I? Oh fuck it, I might as well fondle my tits'. I'd say it's a feminist piece because I think I am a feminist. Women are so powerful and men are so weak and boring and so useless that they can't give life to the world.
What do you make of the comments you get under the videos? Some are quite abusive! I love the comments. If people hate me then it means they talk about me for longer. And then fact that I've made someone hate me and made them want to vocalise it to the rest of the world means I've accomplished something. I love negative feedback, because most of the time when people call me a cross-dressing homo weirdo, it's true. Most of the time negative comments are truthful and if you can't accept the truth then, well, you've got a problem!
Are we supposed to 'get' your work? People can take what they want from my work. I'm not like other artists in that I don't have a preconceived answer to what my work is about.
Are you a neo-burlesque fan? No, it's not classy. It's two a penny. It's like, Joan from the Halifax has a weekend off and she's gone down to Harmony and found herself a funny hat and she knows a little swing track that her friend played her and she's like, 'I know what I could do, I could wear sexy lingerie from Ann Summers and take it off really seductively'. It can be really good: Immodesty is at the forefront of what she does because there is an art to her work and no one else can do it. It's about the choreography, it's about the stage, it's about tease, and that dedication is quite nice. If anyone is dedicated to anything, if they're going there full hog then that's a passion and that should be respected. I have a passion and it gets on my tits when people don't respect what I do. But there's so much shit diluting burlesque that it just makes me if I see another burlesque show at the Working Men's club, I am just going to… But that trend is starting to die off, which is really good.
What do you think of the performance art scene in London as a whole? Who do you rate? I think the fringe scene is dire: Venues close down every day. Royal Vauxhall Tavern has a nice feel, but the dressing room is too small. It's just that people are so preoccupied with who has tread the boards there, not by who is treading the boards. Cabaret performance art-wise, there's a really limited amount of work that's good. I love The-O. He's probably one of the only performance artists who I think is good. I love Chycca and I love The-O and I know that's a really small-minded thing to say because we're all friends, but I think that's why we're friends. I like people who are unhinged. Bourgeois & Maurice are amazing too. I've worked with them all but I love them and it's quite natural to collaborate with people whose work you like. No one else really amazes me. I don't even know if I am amazing. I do actually think I'm amazing, that's absolute bullshit.
Why are you not afraid of speaking your mind? I am not here to make friends and I am not excited by shit. So if I think something's rubbish I'll say it's not my cup of tea. That's a trait people need to adopt more of, and when you've got that then you've got something to build from. I do moan a lot, but I can moan about performance art because I'm doing performance art. I'm a bit like a gay Ruby Wax – I don't mind calling people on things.
Scottees one-man show, 'Buy A Better You', comes to the Soho Revue Bar on Friday, 24th October.
For more information about Scottee, go to: http://www.scottee.co.uk
Step back nine decades to a time when nightlife was alluringly illicit. Forget oversized tee shirts and spandex leggings – dinner jackets and luxurious gowns beaded to within an inch of their thread count were the only club wear of choice. Long evenings were spent soaking up dazzling chorus girls and blue comics or, across the Atlantic, trying to find the savviest speakeasy bulging with liquor while dodging the police. Welcome to the golden era of cabaret.
Cabaret was a global affair. In America the Prohibition era of the '20s birthed the 'nightclub' and its seedy entertainment, which was said to bolster the clubs' legitimacy in the eyes of the law. But according to Susan Waggoner's 'Nightclub Nights', by the 1930s, "Nightlife's salvation was the concept of pairing cheap grub with a splashy revue," resulting in an excess of entertainment to suit each themed big-name club, from the Copacabana to the Latin Quarter. Over in France, they were early starters; their cabaret scene grew from the variety shows at famous music halls like the Moulin Rouge in the late 19th century.
But it was the post-World War One climate of Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s where the performance and nightlife scenes were the most free and expressive. Berlin was the epicentre of bawdy after dark performance. In his 2007 book 'Berlin in the 20s', Rainer Metzger reflects, "These were the years of undisguised androgyny; of redefining the roles of men and women; and of constantly changing sexual preferences…paraded in a desire to shock and entice."
Censorship had ended with the demise of the Kaiser and Germany experienced a new and intoxicating liberalism, allowing artists of all kinds and all sexualities to exercise a scathing brand of satire. Cultural commentator at the time, Christopher Isherwood, dubbed it a "sexual underworld" until the Nazis clamped down on the scene when they came to power in the late 1930s. In his review of Mel Gordon's collection of Weimar smut, 'Voluptuous Panic', Stephen Lemons recalls, "A snapshot of Berlin between the world wars includes nudist magazines devoted entirely to children; glittering cabaret shows parading acres of sweaty, perfumed female flesh; and an endless supply of cafes, bars and private clubs catering to gay men, transvestites, lesbians and sadomasochists." Think Marlene Dietrich, art deco architecture, cloque hats and Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the scene starts to take shape.
It is this sexual liberation and sharp, satirical tongue (not child pornography, mind) that has captured the imagination of today's hip cabaret slingers in London. Fast forward a century and Weimar Germanys' cabaret is experiencing a renaissance, taking its cues from this dark period via the dazzle and jazz of New York in down town Vauxhall, London's gay epicentre.
Dusty Limits, aka 36-year-old Brisbane-born Mark McInnes, runs his night Kunst (formerly Kabarett) here at subversive performance art's spiritual home, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It is, he claims, a bohemian hang out where anything can happen – but it wasn't always that way. "I moved to London because I thought there'd be an amazing cabaret scene, but there was next to nothing," says Limits, "There was the sequinned dinner jackets type of cabaret, but nothing to shock the bourgeoisie."
Ten years down the line and its popularity has exploded. "In the Myspace world we live in people are genuinely shocked by something that can talk to them," he muses. "There's a huge demand for live gigging now and this has spilled over into other night time entertainment. Plus it's about dressing up, getting your Marcel wave on and and feeling like part of the show. You can be part of the whole package even if you've got an office day job."
New York, he assures, is even more drained of the alternative. "Cabaret never died in the US but it is just songs from the shows with off-Broadway performers – what I call 'sequinned jacket' cabaret. There are no politics in it all. It's awful; it's such a betrayal of everything that cabaret was, which was potentially a genre that people could be subversive in. You know that something was good if the Nazis tried to stop it," Limits laments. "The critics hated my show at the famous Don't Tell Mamas in the Big Apple. They said it was dirty. For them, cabaret was about people moving him with moving renditions of moving Steven Sondheim songs, not challenging their values and pastiching their behaviour."
That's why, he believes, the Weimar-era cabaret renaissance has found its spiritual home in London. Like Berlin was at the time, "London is the creative and artistic centre of the world. The culture coming out of here is extraordinary. You can go out on any night of the week and see something incredible. I did a crazy one-man performance of a wedding in February, which wouldn't have worked in many places, but people were queuing for half an hour to get in!"
Conversely, he believes that London's sticky politics are a driving force behind the cabaret revival. Limits draws comparisons with Weimar-era Berlin's political climate. He says, "Under the Kaiser, censorship was 100 per cent and entertainment was purely to go on about how great Germany and the Kaiser was. If you wrote a song that seemed to make fun of the Kaiser you got thrown in prison. After WW1, the law became incredibly relaxed and suddenly you could smoke a cigar out of your pussy onstage and sing songs that were scabrously satirical.
"Today, we're incredibly blessed in that we live in a very liberal and wealthy culture but as soon as the cash cow runs out everyone's politics will be out the window. Politics now is genuinely terrifying. This government is becoming increasingly intolerant and it's only a matter of time before if becomes incredibly controlled. If there is an art form that allows people to swim against the current, it's cabaret – audiences want to see truthful performers with no biased agendas."
Predictably, controversial performance artist Empress Stah springs to mind. "Empress Stah fucking herself on stage is a very political act and if one person in the audience that nights feels a bit differently about the world afterwards, down the line that might make them question something else. It's a tenuous link, I know, if you can just go out there and shake people up a little bit, it can have a positive knock on effect."
With songs in his repertoire like 'I Hope (Your Children Die of Cancer)', which, he insists, has nothing to do with children dying but is a pisstake of Hugh Grant, and 'Beaucoup de Lifting', it's clear that Limits himself is well on his way to rubbing London up the wrong way too – and we're all the better for it. Bring on the verboten!
Dusty Limits hosts Kunst at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London, on September 26.
Where is the Weimar now? Dusty Limits runs down his favourite performers.
Bourgeois & Mauricewww.myspace.com/bourgeoisandmaurice Heavily painted pianist/vocalist duo who look like the product of Lily Allen and Boy George and do dark, theatrical and acerbic cabaret inspired by art school, Hoxton trendonistas and new rave.
The Germaniaxxwww.germaniaxx.com Anglo-German comedy duo who sing traditional German cabaret anthems and style their performance on musical theatre and slapstick routines in Blackforest hats.
Amanda Palmerwww.myspace.com/whokilledamandapalmer One half of Boston band The Dresden Dolls, Palmers's spooky vocals and Dietrich looks are sehr Weimar and her solo career drives her down the cabaret track even further.
Diamanda Galàswww.diamandagalas.com To Dusty she is one of the world's most important and subversive singers. She's technically extraordinary, a brilliant pianist and almost too impossible to listen to as she's so emotionally intense.
An article on the new neo-burlesque phenomenon that has swept the country in the past two years and how it has second wave feminists turning in their wheelchairs.
Alternative performance art is running riot in the London. On any given day you can find Mexican wrestlers battling it out, drag queens voguing, overweight ballerinas screaming abuse at their class, or aerial performers dangling over a vintage-inspired crowd. But none is more popular than burlesque.
The burlesque boom is in its stride and more and more women are willing to flash their nipples tassles (using our instructions in last month’s issue, natch!) and get twirling. Innumerable classes populate the tube map offering lessons in strutting, pouting and getting your kit off and you can even burlesque fitness DVDs are available. Now, the London Burlesque Festival next month, which will see over 100 UK and international performers descend on the capital, and British starlet Immodesty Blaize’s two sold out nights at Koko next week cement the titillating art’s popularity and place in London’s nightlife. But it’s posing problems for some as the genre splits in half and differentiates between sauce and satire. Is this a new feminist wave rising from the underground or are burlesque gals little more than sassier Playboy playmates?
One performer who sparks such a debate is Empress Stah (pictured). She’s a milky white nymphet that can twist and loop from a giant chandelier as easily as she can pierce her skin and decorate the needles with strawberries and cream. She is taking Britain’s art scene by the groin, spearheading a new breed of burlesque performers for whom stripping alone won’t cut it in the entertainment stakes. Most are familiar with the showgirl style of burlesque popularised by household name Dita Von Teese, where the emphasis is on stripping using elaborate and glamourous props and costumes (think of Teese’s signature Martini glass routine). But now burlesque has become more difficult to define and Stah and her legions make it less easy too.
Burlesque started as a bawdy working class pastiche of the bourgeoisie (burlesque is taken from the Italian, burla, meaning ‘mockery’). Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, kickstarted the genre’s popularity back in the 1860s when they took their lewd and rude satire (and never-ending legs) to New York City. But in 2008 it’s a complex amalgamation of variety acts absorbed through the decades, from comics to trapeze artists, with striptease often forming the primary focus. It’s termed by most in the burgeoning scene as ‘neo-burlesque’. The new blood is athletic, unsympathetic and has something in-yer-face to offer than pert breasts.
Still, looking around the cabaret show at the Café De Paris at all the suited and booted men gawping and cheering drunkenly at Stah, who boasts barely-there panties as she does the splits mid-flight, one wonders just how far burlesque performers, whether a showgirl or a neo burlesque-ette, will go to please the male gaze. Predictably the notion of public stripping poses myriad problems for today’s feminists, whose foremothers threw bricks through the windows of strip clubs in the seventies. Is burlesque really the continuation of the exploitation of women? Or is it an empowering tool and deserving of recognition as a legitimate art form?
“I’m very troubled by the scene,” admits Liselle Terret, an applied theatre lecturer and a subversive performer by the name of Doris La Trine, who has also organised talks on feminists’ perspectives on burlesque. “There’s an incredible misunderstanding of burlesque and many young women have totally unclear reasons for doing it. They hold a male idea of what burlesque is, focussing on the stripping rather than using the body to make satirical comments on everyday life.” She continues: “Burlesque is really about introducing political and social issues in a popular way, through comedy and teasing,” arguing that burlesque needs to be and recognised as a legitimate form of theatre because “these young women think they can invent burlesque routines in five minutes.”
Roxy Velvet, one of London’s premier performers, agrees. “It takes an exceptional performer to really capture an audience with just a striptease, so burlesque is more about the performer’s charisma, skill and stage presence than the act of removing clothes,” she says, continuing, “The sex trade has become so explicit that no one needs to see burlesque for pure titillation anymore, therefore it must be clever, creative, evocative and charming.”Despite girls doing it for the wrong reasons, Velvet certainly sees the capacity for burlesque to be a feminist platform. She enthuses: “It’s a fantastically fluid art form that gives one liberating and empowering freedom of expression. My ‘Love for Sale’ show is a direct comment about traditional striptease and the sex trade. It’s about the changing balance of power between the stripper and the audience, and between men and women. It’s more powerful for burlesque artists to continue performing their art and at the same time say, ‘This isn’t for you anymore, it’s for me’.”Both want to separate the sleaze from the satire, but Sherril Dodds, a dance studies lecturer and brain behind the Korova Milk Bar events, argues that there are multiple feminist approaches. “Some performers work with really overt critiques of femininity,” she says, pointing to neo-burlesque acts, “but some showgirl types work with stereotypes and find pleasure within them.” She draws on Immodesty Blaize, who won 2007’s Miss Erotic World, as an example of the latter type of performer. “Her look is a homage to the classic burlesque stars of decades gone by, like Gypsy Rose Lee. They’re not a critique on society,” she explains, “but what’s great about Immodesty is that she exemplifies how empowering burlesque is for the performer. She is a large woman, not skinny like your traditional stripper, who takes great pleasure in performing and it’s liberating for her to undress.”Lara Clifton, co-founder of the burlesque agency The Whoopee Club, concurs: “Burlesque is about feeling fantastic in your skin whatever your body type, which is especially important in a time where everyone is anorexic.” Despite the difference in opinion, it seems that the very idea of women of all shapes and sizes being given the platform to perform on and enjoy their bodies is a feminist idea from the start.
Quashing comparisons between burlesque clubs and strip clubs is a bigger mission for some spokespersons. Feminist academics like Ariel Levy and Guardian journalist Hannah Gold are quick to claim that it’s still objectification. The former argues in her book ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture’ that women who embrace this ‘raunch culture’ mistake stripping as sexual liberation, but Empress Stah refutes this. “Women run the burlesque scene and it’s predominantly women in the audience,” she says. “Burlesque is a backlash against conservative feminist theories and a hardcore feminist stance against pornography.” Can Stah’s scandalous performances, which “go right for the feminist jugular” and include blood supping, simulated sex and pulling a string of diamonds from her lady parts, be be viewed as feminist? Well, she doesn’t give a flying f*ck. Perhaps in this age of political correctness, it’s the best attitude to have.
The London Burlesque Festival takes place at various venues from 2-6 April. Londonburlesquefest.com
Immodesty Blaize performs at Koko on 18 & 19 March
A version of this article appeared in Time Out magazine.