[A note from the Editor]
Australia. What do I know about Australia?—other than it is a country comprising an entire continent plus some islands. I hear that it is stunningly beautiful, the diving is amazing, they have lots of kangaroos, and they speak English like we speak English, which is to say, not like the English.
I know a gorgeous and talented woman named Imogen Kelly, crowned Queen of our world in 2012—I was there—whose thoughtful essays and sharp critiques occasionally grace the pages of Burlesque Beat.
But among the many things that I don’t know about this magical place are the many burlesque performers, the myriad I hope to see some day both in their home towns and on our stages in New York. We just don’t get enough of the Australian burlesque scene here, and I get it. The flights are EXPENSIVE. Australia is FAR. To help bridge the gap, in this article, Dr. Lola Montgomery introduces us to some of Australia’s ‘forgotten’ performers. Let this serve as a good start. —MM
We Of The Never-Never: Desert(ed) Dancers of Australian Burlesque No More
“The Never Never is the name of a vast, remote area of the Australian Outback, as described in a classic Aussie poem “Where the Dead Men Lie”:
Out on the wastes of the Never Never—
That’s where the dead men lie!
There where the heat-waves dance forever—
That’s where the dead men lie!”
Australian Burlesque has a swathe of well-established current performers, heat-waves who have danced ‘forever’ and forged avenues for our form that simply never used to exist. Performers who created the shows, festivals and even clubs that populate Australian Burlesque. They are our pantheon of superstars, but it may be true to say that the international burlesque audience doesn’t have much knowledge of them, they have never appeared in the Burlesque Top 50, and instead of spending thousands to travel overseas at a loss, performing at burlesque festivals, they either stay at home and make money at the more mainstream arts festivals where established burlesque performers have won a home (or simply break-even, as is the state of most of the arts in Australia today, where the average annual income for a performer is $7000), or accept paid opportunities to travel and perform in events that fall outside of the burlesque world’s radar. I commenced writing this article in about February when I saw a block of our big stars just not getting the press they deserved. In those intervening months, much has changed, and it seems the world has embraced our heavy hitters. While this is changing day by day, with the likes of Dolores Daiquiri and Gypsy Wood being flown by private jet to tropical locales, Willow J staging her lush and experimental A Living History Of Erotic Women, and a phalanx of representatives slaying ’em in the aisles at New York Burlesque Festival.
We are the dancers of the never-never: often outside of mainstream acceptance in the wider Australian arts community (but constantly pushing) and, by virtue of distance and smaller population, beyond the radar of international burlesque. Our achievements are many, we have toiled hard and long and this article is just part of the beginning of our emergence. Our story is not unique, the distance of Australia from the USA and Europe means that the media often doesn’t reach down as far—our tale is familiar to comedians, actors, dancers—all Australian performers. But I always saw burlesque as capable of rewriting traditional narratives, and I’d like to think we can change this tradition, especially in the digital age, where we have access to each other so readily.
Allow me to introduce myself, Lola The Vamp, also known as Lola Montgomery—give or take a Dr. at the front of that as I recently gained my PhD by performing burlesque. I began performing burlesque in 2002. My first striptease was in front of Dita Von Teese, Catherine D’Lish, Kitty West, Rick Delaup and a small but paying crowd at Tease-o-rama’s Evangeline Auditions. It was an incredible day that changed the course of my performing career. It gave me two very valuable things—a humbling and shockingly warm welcome to American burlesque, and my stage name—to Vamp in Jazz is to improvise.
I returned to Tease-o-Rama as often as I could, eventually as a headliner of their tour in 2008, an absolute pinnacle of my career. I was the first Australian to perform or compete at Burlesque Hall of Fame (then Miss Exotic World) in 2006, the first year it was held in Las Vegas. A show I did with Imogen Kelly (who you all know and love) was among a small handful of the first burlesque shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. These international performances saw my work featured in Burlesque and The New Bump & Grind by Michelle Baldwin and The Happy Stripper: Politics and Pleasures of The New Burlesque by Jackie Willson.
But most of my work was in Australia—I was the inspiration and test-dummy/guinea pig for our first Neo-burlesque club 34b (2005) in Sydney, and the instigator of a club in Brisbane the following year. I worked to push burlesque into every venue I could, including major music and arts festivals such as The Big Day Out and The Woodford Folk Festival—places that have earned an enormous place in the cultural consciousness of Australians. I posed for Australian Penthouse and supported one of my idols, Nick Cave. My most arduous and taxing achievement was the decade long slog at the first PhD to include the performance of burlesque as part of the submission. Here is my largest act, Enter The Dragon, from the 2012 Australian Burlesque Festival:
While this list may appear to be a pat on the back, to me it represents years of hard work, love, frustration, poverty, prosperity, and more than a few tears. These things do not happen easily and I see the hard-won achievements of my Australian contemporaries—the ones who have engaged in the uphill journey of community-building. I know what lies behind that and while they are revered in Australia, I would like to see that occur internationally to the same degree. Here is my list of the Dancers Of The Never Never. Like any, it is incomplete, it is hardly enough, and it comes from where I stand.
I met Dolores back in 2003 when I did a Google search for Australian Burlesque and found images of her troupe HiBall Burlesque performing at a Rockabilly festival. I emailed and we have been colleagues and friends ever since. I believe Dolores has a solid claim to being the first of the revivalist performers in Australia. While we had the Sydney scene of the 90s, which in many ways laid a path for current performers, the retro aesthetic that has come to dominate the current resurgence is a hallmark of the Daiquiri style. Dolores just pipped me to the post by a year or so in performing Burlesque Revival, and we shared the heady days of the early mainstream publicity our work garnered. Dolores is a festival director of Australian Burlesque Festival, teaches at Australian Burlesque School, and runs several regular events, starting years ago with Red Door Burlesque, one of the first regular burlesque clubs to exist in Australia. Chances are, if you’ve performed in Melbourne, she has hired you. Respect. It is in Dolores’ DNA to nurture and promote Australian Burlesque.
You may know Tasia by her beautiful debut at Hall of Fame in 2010 as the Lady In The Lamp. Tasia emerged to prominence in Australia with Belladonnas Delux, regular performers at Kings Cross nightclub 34b. 34b was an incubator of many of Australia’s top stars today, where we either tested our ground or showcased what we now knew. Tasia is also an accomplished and sexy gogo queen, and now performs and choreographs as an integral member with The Vanguard (the owner of which, Russall Beattie, was an early promoter in the 34b scene). Vanguard recently completed an Australian tour of Star Wars Burlesque: The Empire Strips Back. Tasia is not only an incredible stage presence, but a beautiful human being. Tour with her and you’ll find this softly spoken goddess dancing quietly to herself in her seat as your flight takes off – it’s one of my great tour memories.
Gypsy is constantly touring the world with arts and Fringe Festivals, often with her husband, a well-known comedian called Asher Treleaven. Together they produce the phenomenally successful Comic Strip, which is a regular at Adelaide and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals. She performed at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival about two years ago and recently toured New York, then spent most of this year touring Europe. Gypsy is also the darling of the Australian political left, with her punchy and hilarious parodies of conservative politicians. She has performed for a number of Prime Ministers and launched her solo show at Melbourne Fringe last year. Her act, a pitch-perfect caricature of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, was performed at 34 the night he was voted out of parliament. Gypsy is a truly brave performer, easily able to be beautiful if her act requires it, but unafraid to sacrifice it for bawdy political parody.
Kelly Ann Doll
Our beloved pocket rocket, she’s a superstar of swing – having won a million titles in that world- before gracing us with her energy and famous footwork. It’s basically the fastest footwork in burlesque – so hot you can see smoke rising. Kelly is another performer I first met at Sydney’s 34b and after winning several state titles in the Miss Burlesque Australia pageant, she was awarded the prestigious title of RAW’s national Performer of The Year this year. Kelly is just plain fierce, funny and adorable.
Click on the images to enlarge:
You must have met Willow at Hall of Fame last year, 2013, when she performed in the Movers and Shakers showcase. Willow was part of the Voodoo Trash Dolls, a Melbourne troupe who were the equivalent of America’s Gun Street Girls. Before most people knew what traditional burlesque was, they were modernising it, with contemporary music, darker costumes and a ton of attitude. Willow runs Bottom’s Up Burlesque Academy, and, as a trained actor, has a fearlessness in her physicality. While possessing the looks of a traditional showgirl, Willow surrenders all to the story of the act. Her recent full-length show, A Living History Of Erotic Women, had Melbourne enthralled, experimenting with the use of space, leading the audience into several rooms. Willow’s studio is a mainstay for touring burlesque workshops and local teachers.
Perth was just a tiny bit later to adopt burlesque than the East Coast, but when they did, they did so with more passion and organization than all of us put together. Since 2007, Sugarblue Burlesque has been a mainstay of Perth entertainment. I visited them in 2010 and was bowled over by their studio space, complete with rows of costuming, a champagne glass, classes, hen’s nights and performances, including a Dr Sketchy Branch. I thought them to be examples to be the envy of the world, while they were surprised, they thought their professionalism was standard. Adora has guided this group to Perth Fringe and all the major Western Australian Festivals. It all began in 2006, when, according to A’dora, ‘myself and Miss Bonnie Fox travelled to Sweden for a Lindy Hop camp. There we saw our first burlesque show, who was a troupe named the Knicker Kittens from Sweden. With this new inspiration and with our Vintage Dance background – Charleston, Lindy Hop and Vintage Jazz and wanted to start a vintage dance and performance company in Perth—so began Sugar Blue Burlesque in 2007 as there was no one doing this or Burlesque in Perth during that time and our brand of entertainment became a massive hit right away.
Here she is with Sugar Blue Burlesque:
Performing burlesque for 11 years now, Miss Nic is from the time I’m from, before the Australian Burlesque Community existed. Hard to imagine now, but we all worked carefully to create our own personal audience bases through individuated marketing. There were no burlesque schools with bursting mailing lists to host our classes, nor were there even burlesque nights. Her famous fan dance is much imitated but never bettered. (see video) Miss Nic is the perfect example of someone who worked damn hard to establish their own burlesque identity—because in those days, most burlesque performers around the world either knew or knew of each other, anything that was too close to someone else was taboo. I don’t mean just in terms of a prop, or a concept—I mean in terms of entire stage persona. The original Gorelesque performer, her work developed into a major show produced in conjunction with Vesper White which ran consecutively from 2009-2012 and is on a short hiatus while this minx has her next bub!
Sarina Del Fuego
I first met her at one of the first of the revival burlesque shows at Edinburgh Fringe back in 2005—now there is an entire section in the program devoted to our art! Sarina became a popular regular star at 34b, with her duo partner Lorelei Lee and as a solo artist. She has spent a few years working the UK circuit and has returned to Australia. A regular on the arts festival scene, her show Noir Revue just toured Australia with the international event Burlesque Idol.
Above are all ‘first-generation’ revivalist performers, who were part of the initial push of burlesque revival. No list of these is complete without sending a major shout to Pip Branson, the man behind 34b and to whom the task of introducing burlesque to a country could not have found better hands. His aesthetic sense, exceptional people-skills, sense of absurdity and love of performers has gone widely unsung but not unnoticed by all who have worked with him.
As I come to the end of this article, I feel some anxiety to set it out for publication. I know I have missed important characters and leaders of our fine burlesque world and I would hate for anyone who has worked hard to feel overlooked. Put it this way: perhaps it means I’ll get to write another chapter to our contemporary history. I hope you enjoyed this foray into the world of my colleagues and friends. They are very beloved to us, and I am delighted to see the world embracing them—hard—in 2014.
*All photos and videos used here with permission courtesy of the respective performers by way of the author.