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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Aussie Burlesque Babes Triumph

melbourne burlesqueMoira Finucane and Jackie Smith are in the thick of parenthood.

We meet in a Fitzroy café, and before getting down to business, out come the baby photos of their five-month old twins. This family achievement is the perfect complement to a 15-year strong personal and creative relationship that’s produced numerous acclaimed shows, the most prominent being The Burlesque Hour.

A queer variety act with a distinctly feminist edge, The Burlesque Hour has been a phenomenal success since its inception in 2004. Sold-out seasons around Australia have been matched by no less than eight seasons internationally. Box office estimates suggest that around 30,000 people have seen the show, in countries as far flung as Croatia, Italy and Japan as well as here in Australia. For an alternative act that by rights should only have had marginal appeal, this is a remarkable achievement.

Inspired by the British music hall tradition, Finucane and Smith conceived The Burlesque Hour while touring the UK with Sydney’s iconic Club Bent.

“For the very first time we saw the old theatres of London and something happened to us. We thought: ‘Our work needs to be in a place like this’,” explains Finucane. “So we came home with that idea of putting the old and the new together.”

What followed was a period of creative development; some of which, Finucane admits, was around the kitchen table.

The couple’s research into the rich, variety-style entertainments offered in music halls revealed an artform both deeply transgressive and intensely political; typified by artists such as the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Halls’, Marie Lloyd, who ended up in court as a result of her risqué songs packed with double entendres.

Smith, who picked up a 2004 Green Room award for her Burlesque Hour direction, says the music halls were distinctly provocative.

“They’d get fantastic dancers to do an amazing ballet, or an incredible singer that would bring you to tears because her voice was so beautiful, and then there was always something a little bit edgy, like a naked lady,” she says.

The Burlesque Hour’s stylistic nod to these traditions is the creation of a cosy, salon-style atmosphere. In Melbourne, that’s meant decking out Forty Five Downstairs with rich velvets and candlelit table seating.

It’s all about “cherishing” the audience, says Finucane.

“People have said ‘Oh, you’re out to shock people’ but that would be extremely arrogant. If you think that you can shock the audience, you assume that you are infinitely more worldly, more sophisticated and politically on the ball than them; and that’s not necessarily correct – we assume our audiences are really intelligent and open,” she explains.

Over its various seasons, The Burlesque Hour has become a high profile showcase for quirky talent. The forthcoming production boasts Japanese butoh dancer, Yumi Umiumare, and gender-bending circus performer, Azaria Universe. The ever-popular The Town Bikes also make an appearance, and, for the first time in Melbourne since 1992, Maude Davey will reprise her infamous strawberry act. The sassy routine, which has entered queer performance art folklore, was devised for the Ms Wicked competition, and was first seen at now-closed Collingwood venue, The Club.

Set to a Chris Isaac song, the performance climaxes in Davey extracting a strawberry from her vagina.

Davey says the act draws on a long tradition of feminist art of the 1960s which focused on female genitalia.

“We considered a few options when we were putting it together, including a Barbie doll,” she says. “But I thought that would be a bit uncomfortable - the strawberry is lovely to work with. If you think about the shape, it’s the perfect fit.”

The Burlesque Hour at Fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
August 7 – September 14. Bookings on 9662 9966
By Daren Pope. Photo: Pascal Francois.

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