London's Burlesque Scene

Photographs and Text by Maximiliano Braun

When I began photographing the burlesque and retro scene in London, I thought of it as a form of revival of an entertainment form. However, it seems so well established that 'revival' may no longer apply. Lady Alex, producer and host of the Wam Bam Club, says there is no shortage of acts and artists. This paints a clear picture that burlesque and variety acts (contortionists, comedians, acrobats) abound in London, along with the venues for them. By that token, the audience is also broad and plentiful.

The first thing that strikes you is the plethora of names used by artists. Words like 'Miss', 'sexy', 'sensual', 'intimate' and 'tease' (among others of similar nature) are a staple in the world of burlesque. You may also find some word play with these words, 'strip tea' and 'sensu'elle' to give an example. However, the most famous example of word play in burlesque is that of the word 'tease', spelled 'teese', thus giving glory to renowned actress and burlesque artist Dita von Teese. Although Dita von Teese's name has a touch of Germanic heritage into it, the most popular language used in burlesque circles is French. Artists like Coco Dubois and dance troupe Cabaret Rouge are examples of this.

The second thing that may strike you is the range of venues where they perform. Cafe de Paris, the Bath House and Proud Cabaret are examples of fine retro venues in London. The Bath House (used by The Tassel Club) stands out among them, because it is an original Victorian building. Its interior exudes its Victorian atmosphere. The fact that the stage is at near ground level and close to the tables means that the Bath House offers The Tassel Club guests an intimate burlesque experience. Cafe de Paris (where the Wam Bam Club performs) also has a long and renowned history since it opened in 1924. Unlike the former two, Proud Cabaret (where the Tassel Club performed during the making of this feature) is a newer and more contemporary venue that holds a vintage feel.

Artist and producers alike know of the common misconceptions about burlesque and burlesque clubs. It would be a profanity to refer to any artist as a stripper, and the clubs as strip clubs. Although the very act of undressing carries a sexual appeal to it, the art of a burlesque act lies more with the details and acting whilst undressing. It is not about getting nude, but about the routine performed while doing so.

Burlesque in itself is a fine art these days. You see some great shows and others not so great. Part of this fine art experience is also delivered to the audience directly. A booking into one of these burlesque, or cabaret, shows lands you in a table with a set dinner for the whole show. Alternatively, if you wish not to pay for the whole dinner set (upwards of £50 per person) you can always pay the admission fee and hang around the bar area.

While the public enjoy the show and themselves (the atmosphere can be very lively), backstage the artists rehearse and get ready to give them a good show. The efforts of a full week’s work and rehearsing come to fruition in a 3-8 minute set on stage. The shows are very vivid and the audience's attention is fixed on them. Certainly, the Tassel Club and the Wam Bam Club offer an amazing night out that can't be equalled by many other forms of entertainment.

For burlesque artists Miss Betsy Rose and Honey Lulu, burlesque represents more than just a set of routines on stage, it is a lifestyle. They can dress and walk like women of long gone golden years. The arts scene surrounding burlesque and cabaret offers these artists the chance of not just performing a vintage act, but also living it by dressing according to the time, and having a full range of accessories complimenting their lifestyle (except the ubiquitous internet-enabled mobile phones). It is demanding however, as the artists have to deliver constantly new and enticing shows. Honey Lulu for example uses a giant tea cup in which she lays in, has a fire routine and a giant suitcase for her shows. Miss Betsy Rose prefers small props and details and puts more emphasis in her dance routine as a whole.

Others like Bijou Noir have a very elaborate act in which a chair, a large French flag, fireworks, smoke and a gunpowder replica gun need to be used to perform her show. If anything, a burlesque act is far more hard work than it appears to be in the short time it lasts. It requires constant dedication and research.

The need to feel unique and deliver an inimitable routine puts stress on every burlesque and cabaret artist. To top this up, the average pay for a burlesque artist is between GBP £100-150 per night, depending on the quality of the act. The pay is lower for up-and-coming artists. The economics of a performing artist are similar to those of many other art forms, particularly because they ought to invest part of their income in props and costumes. It is a hard life, despite the glamour displayed in every show. Some artists perform burlesque as part of a varied set of acts they can perform. Some artists also travel in order to perform more shows. Honey Lulu is a good example of this as she travels constantly between Germany and the UK. Being a burlesque artist is not easy and requires plenty of creativity and self marketing to perform constantly. Miss Betsy Rose and Honey Lulu can barely imagine being or doing anything else. Burlesque is what they do and who they are and they love every second of it. As there is no shortage of acts or artists, London’s burlesque clubs ensure you will experience the very best there is.

This feature was shot in late 2010 and early 2011.

Full edit of 133 images available on request.