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Monday, February 9, 2009

Australian Tease Queen Imogen Kelly

Imogen Kelly the undressing roomTHE Mardi Gras festival has had its fair share of queens over the years but it's never had anything quite like Imogen Kelly.

While impersonating French Queen Marie Antoinette in her one-woman tour-de-force burlesque show, The Undressing Room, Kelly doesn't stop at saying "let them eat cake".

"With peasants calling her a whore and the country turning on her, she decides to show them exactly what she thinks of them," Kelly says. "What she does with this cake is quite explicit and involves my full naked body … I do the splits in the cake and from there it goes into this big romp in cream, which is actually surprisingly difficult to do.

"It's almost like her saying: 'To show you how little I care for your insolence, I'm going to desecrate this cake right in front of you."'

It's one of many satirical, subversive and sexy portrayals of women - from Princess Diana to Zsa Zsa Gabor - that Kelly tackles in the show, part of the Mardi Gras festival.

It marks a return to her home town for the woman known as Australia's Queen of Burlesque, whose career has taken her from the nightclubs of Kings Cross to the Moulin Rouge in Paris and the internationally renowned performance troupe La Clique.

"I've been a showgirl at every different level," says Kelly, 37. "I've done it all because I'm so fascinated by it."

When she began her career nearly 20 years ago, burlesque - the art of striptease, satire and parody - was still an underground and much-derided artform in Australia.

When Kelly and a cohort of other performers organised the women's-only night Gurlesque - now a cult favourite - at the Sydney drag venue the Imperial Hotel in 2000, feminists picketed the first show.

"When I started it was an incredibly taboo artform," she says. "Thankfully that's shifted."

Burlesque has now been embraced not only in Sydney but also around the world and has gone mainstream with performers such as Dita von Teese.

For the past two years, Kelly has lived in Brisbane and toured with the successful Australian comic burlesque quartet La La Parlour, who have performed at arts festivals and on television shows such as The Sideshow.

The Undressing Room will also be a fitting return to the festival that gave her her first experience of undressing on stage, however unintentional it was.

When she was a first-year student at art school in 1990, the adventurous young Kelly accepted an offer to accompany one of her friends dancing on stage at Sleaze Ball, the gay and lesbian dance party.

"We'd done a few rehearsals to the music but on the night she handed me my costume - it was this tiny, tiny little lap-lap of fringing," Kelly says. "Nothing else."

Having had a fairly bohemian upbringing, Kelly says she was always comfortable with her body and went on stage in nothing but the skimpy costume.

"But as I was dancing the little thing fell off and the convent girl came out in me. I thought: 'Oh my God!' I had about a second of feeling ashamed but then realised everyone was going crazy, so I just went with it."

But just getting her kit off on stage has never been the name of the game for Kelly. In the true tradition of burlesque, her shows mix political satire, comedy and storytelling into the flesh and spectacle.

With The Undressing Room, Kelly says she wanted to redress some of the slights women in history have suffered because of their gender or risque sexual behaviour.

As well as the cake romp, Kelly also performs a striptease as Marie Antoinette in response to the way the young Austrian was treated by the patriarchal French court.

"One of my favourite stories about her is that when she arrived in France they removed all her clothing in front of the French court and then redressed her as a French woman," Kelly says. "The striptease I perform for her is like her owning that moment, taking that back as a moment of pride for her rather than a moment of humiliation."
Josephine Tovey

Tuesday to February 22 (no show Thursday), 7.30pm Mon-Sat, 6.30pm Sun, Factory Theatre, Enmore, 9550 3666, $25/$20.

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