I’m in a room full of virgins. No, this is not a Star Trek convention or a youth group. I’m at the Civic Underground below Goulburn Street and it’s packed. Eliza Goetze reports.
People are sitting on their bottoms on the dance floor like eager schoolkids when we’re asked if we’ve been to a Gallery Burlesque show before. When only a few put up their hands, the show’s founder, Onur Karaozbek says, “I’m assuming that means we’ve got a lot of Gallery Burlesque virgins…”
The show was part of the Sydney Fringe Festival and Gallery Burlesque’s last for the near future, and those who have come expecting a traditional burlesque show were in for a wild Wednesday night.
The warm and outrageously bawdy MC, Lauren LaRouge, smirks down at us from the stage in blazer, top hat and garters. “To those standing,” she says, “I hope you’re wearing comfortable shoes.
“If not, perhaps the tingling in your loins will distract you from the pain…”
Anna Felactic and Team Rocky deliver a striptease Rocky Horror medley. Fiery redhead Amber Flame delivers a speech pleading for more ‘magic’ in modern life with glittery flames spilling from the front of her underwear. Meygan La Fey stabs her lover to death and licks fake blood from her fingers.
Sheena MissDemeanour performs a graceful geisha routine, then “Turns Japanese” and reveals a g-string and Hello Kitty nipple covers. Rosie Rosette does unspeakable things with a rubber duck in shower cap, towel and loafer underwear. Herbie Strangelove is a ‘naughty puppet’ who strips off everything but his foam burger-shaped head and a tool belt.
Kelly-Ann Doll pulls an unsuspecting male audience member onto the stage, shoves him onto a chair, performs an energetic lap dance, feeds him tequila, blindfolds and kisses him his girlfriend watches in the front row.
Festivals like The Fringe are helping to push entertainment like Gallery Burlesque up from the underground and further into the mainstream. The burlesque scene has been heading this way both locally and internationally in recent years.
Festival director Richard Hull said, “It has been rediscovered. I remember seeing burlesque at the Famous Spiegeltent in Edinburgh six or seven years ago, which sold out.
“I think the Fringe Festival reflects the mood at the time, and then in so doing, brings it to a much wider audience, who will go and see stuff they probably wouldn’t think of going to any other time.”
That was the case for burlesque first-timer Jaselle van Gestel, 19, of Marsfield. She found out about the show through the Fringe website and said the show was raunchier than she was expecting.
“I was expecting it to be more like Dita von Teese,” she said. “But I’d love to go to more things like that – it’s such a different way of spending a night out.”
It was also a new experience for Nick Aplin, the man who became part of Kelly-Ann Doll’s explosive show. “It was great fun,” he said of his moment on stage, adding he would “definitely” be back.
It’s an art form scoring not only new fans but new performers in large numbers, according to Amber Flame, who has been performing with Gallery Burlesque for about a year, since it too, was quite new. “There are a lot of girls getting into it,” she says.
When she started out, she had “no idea this whole world existed. And then I got into it and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ – there’s this huge community,” she said, citing other burlesque clubs and nights such as 34B and Ruby Revue.
“There seems to be much more interest in it from the mainstream and [people are] becoming more understanding of it.
“The performers’ friends and family all get introduced to the scene. You know, my friends had no idea about it and now they’re all regulars at burlesque events.”
But she believes the number of performers is growing faster than those of audiences and venues.
Herbie Strangelove, who has seven or eight years under his proverbial belt, said the growth of the Sydney burlesque scene “seems to have hit a level about four years ago… [But] because of the consistency of it, it’s facilitating larger and larger events.
“I guess the glamour is what’s been seen to bring it to larger social strata. A lot of people like to feel good about watching girls take their clothes off on stage, or guys, if that’s indeed what they like.”
A rarity in his field, not because of his gender, but because he is straight – “There are lots of boys who do it, it’s just that most of them are gay” –Strangelove said Gallery Burlesque “let people do whatever the hell they want.
“Most people see it as a forum for experimentation…I’ve seen people do classic shows at GB but mostly they do new and innovative stuff.”
But after Tone bar in Surry Hills closed last month, Gallery Burlesque is without a home and Onur Karaozbek has struggled to find a suitable replacement. He was forced to move the show to the Civic, where many patrons struggled to get a view of the stage, on short notice.
Larger than the Civic Underground and other small venues like Goodgod Small Club, but smaller than the Hordern Pavilion and Enmore and Metro Theatres, Tone left “a massive hole” in the supply of mid-size venues in Sydney, Karaozbek said.
“It’s expensive to put on a night, people don’t usually think that,” he said. This is not surprising, given Gallery’s show had around twenty acts. “People like me cannot afford to pay five thousand dollars to Metro Theatre just to put on a night.
“I love it, but in the end I need to pay my rent too.”
Having spent most of career in London and Edinburgh, Richard Hull believes Sydney has “lost out” on its small club scene. “I think, generally, it’s hard to keep small, independent, live performance spaces going and I think Sydney needs more of them.
“I know a lot of pubs have lost live rooms because sadly, for a period, it became apparent that it was much more lucrative to have a room full of pokies than to run a live venue with costs and risks involved.”
Gallery Burlesque is now “taking a break” – “not something we wanted, but something we have to do,” adds Sheena Barnes (aka Sheena MissDemeanour).
“There are always highs and lows in this [industry],” Karaozbek says, “Whether you’re a venue or a promoter.
“It’s a gamble.”