It is a dark and cold Friday night in the beginning of October and I am on my way to the oldest traditional theater house in Stockholm, Södra Teatern. This weekend there are a lot of international artists in town, maybe not the typical ones, these ones are burlesque performers and I am about to see them perform at the 3 year old Stockholm Burlesque Festival. If you are not in the burlesque platoon it can be quite hard to even have an idea of what they actually do on stage.
We all know it is about getting naked in the end, but what about the beginning?
When I hear the word burlesque I immediately think about Dita von Teese lying in a giant champagne cup covered in Swarowski crystals. To find out the actual facts I went backstage to discuss the world of naked women and tassels with the burlesque dancer and festival co-producer Fräulein Frauke.
First, tell me about the festival…
The festival is one of Europe’s biggest burlesque events and is running in Sweden for its third year. It was initiated by Duchess Dubois and The Amazing Knicker Kittens in 2010, had a break in 2011 and my husband John Paul Bichard and I, were asked to join the production team for last years festival.
It is a great celebration of burlesque, and all the joy, creativity, and warmth this art form has to offer.
In a festival there are many performers from all over the world, so its a great way for the audience, both “burlesque veterans” and those new to the scene to really get a big and grand experience, as well as it is working as a lovely “community mingle” for us performers, to hang out and get to know each other.
What’s the essence of burlesque, what’s it really about?
In one sentence I would say it is “cabaret entertainment with a feministic undertone, using some form of striptease as a medium”.
There are two forms of burlesque, one can argue: what we call “classic burlesque”, a tribute to the women that did burlesque before the porn industry changed the adult entertainment world in the begining of the 60´s. Ie, a vintage inspired ode to these times (typically 1880-1950) and these amazing and strong women.
And then we have “neo-burlesque”, that is more “modern” in its take, not necessarily adhering to the vintage aesthetic, and is more about conveying humor, politics, theatre and crazy stunts.
A lot of performers do a bit of both and in a club there is usually a mix between the two “sides” of burlesque, which is a great way of making it interesting and relevant today, rather than just “pretty”. In all burlesque, neo or classical, feminism and the politics of women in contemporary society are an important element.
How come that you became a part of the burlesque scene?
Before I knew what the world “burlesque” meant I already loved it! I have always been interested in sexuality and how we as a society sees and react to sexuality and erotica. I have been singing jazz since I was a kid with my pianist father and always loved the film classics such as Cabaret with Liza Minelli. When I started to do pin-up and retro styled modeling it felt very natural to put all of my interests together and take it to the stage!
While talking, we are standing in the hallway by the make up room, it looks exactly how you would image it, with large mirrors framed by lightbulbs and with several international artists getting ready for the stage. I feel like a spectator invited for a quick peek into a peculiar world run by sparkling women and men in mustaches.
I look at Fräulein Frauke, she looks like a 50’s pinup model all dressed in vintage and with carefully curled hair, and I ask how come that you are able to work with some many international artist?
For a festival, a big community get-together, we have people apply to be part of it. Nobody gets rich from performing at festivals, but its a great way of mingling and meeting promoters and performers from other countries as well as being inspired to up your game and develop. There are often workshops and happenings around a festival which are great for career building. We (me and my husband) also runs “Fräulein Frauke Presents” , one of Europe’s largest burlesque clubs, where we have built up a wide reaching international network of performers and producers.
What facts do people tend to get wrong about burlesque?
I think it is getting better and better. In the beginning I had to explain a lot that what I do is not porn or degrading to women. But sure, people are sometimes a bit confused. It seems like it is hard for some to understand that female sexuality and expression, on our own terms, is NOT a degrading thing and that we are not there just to please a male audience.
Who is the ultimate burlesque style icon and why?
Oh, that is hard. My favorite burlesque performer is Gypsy Rose Lee- an amazing performer who mixed a lot of humor and wit into her über-glamourus performances. She was biggest in the 40´s and went on to have her own TV show. Today, of course Dita von Teese is the most famous one and she is a glamorous ambassador for the whole scene, but there are countless women (and a few men) both from history and today that are amazing performers and truly inspiring.
There is a delicate atmosphere in the room. The performers are deeply concentrated but still joyful and energetic. A man whom I later realizes is the master of ceremonies is asking for a cigar without any success. The show is about to start so I begin to round things up with Fräulein.
What reactions have you gotten from “first-timers” leaving your show?
Oh! So positive, which is lovely! People usually absolutely love it, because it is not just watching the show that is the deal at a burlesque event, it is the atmosphere and fantasy space we create and invite people o take part of. Most people come amazingly dressed and really immerse themselves in the great environment and open atmosphere where everybody, all sizes, all ages all genders are welcome.
Later that night, I walk out from the theater all happy and whimsical. It has been a strange evening. I am not sure the last time I got drawn into a different world like this, and it was definitely a long time since I laughed this much. During the show I was surprised how political and gender transcendent many of the acts were. There were overwhelming cheers in the saloon when the group Black Bird Burlesque Cabaret gave a kick to Putin. It made me realize there are many ways of questioning inhumane ideologies and burlesque is most definitely one of them.