Bringing burlesque back to its artistic roots
The fact that a Council-run venue is about to run Queenstown’s largest-ever burlesque show demonstrates that the art form is going mainstream in New Zealand.
On 14th February, the Queenstown Memorial Centre will play host to The Valentine's Burlesque Ball featuring some of the country’s top burlesque talent.
It’s being run by Oblivion Westwood, who’s been working to establish a burlesque community in the region.
“Burlesque – yes, it is stripping. But it’s also an art. It’s very different to what they do in a strip club (and I have nothing against strip clubs – but the two forms are different). A woman in the North Island recently got council funding for a burlesque show and I think that’s a pivotal point for the art form.”
Oblivion Westwood describes burlesque as ‘empowering’ – there’s no age limit or prescribed body types.
“One burlesque star, who recently passed away, was still performing and I think she was about 92 or 93 years old.”
Burlesque has its roots in comedy theatre, where artists performed satirical versions of literary classics. It became hugely popular in Victorian London, where performances often included music, outrageous costumes and puns a-plenty. It also became popular in the USA, where female nudity and exotic dancing were added to the mix. While the UK moved on to Edwardian musical theatre, the American government did the one thing that ensures an art form’s popularity: outlawed it.
“One of the rules was that nobody could dance while naked, so burlesque dancers would stop moving, still like a statue, the moment they’d taken off all their clothes. Another law was passed that said nobody could be naked on stage, so they’d dance naked behind frosted glass,” says Oblivion.
“It’s a reveal, it’s a tease. Burlesque is theatre, art, it’s often comedic. There’s a London-based Kiwi girl who finishes her show the moment she takes her garter off… that’s it, that’s all the nudity the audience gets and it’s brilliant. It’s up to you how much they reveal – you have all the power. You’re flirting with the audience and it’s very empowering.”
Oblivion Westwood got into burlesque around four years ago. The art form has had a resurgence in recent years and many performers undertake formal training at circus schools. But Oblivion, originally from Wales and now based in Queenstown, didn’t have access to a school so is mainly self-taught, using YouTube and the occasional masterclass with an expert overseas (particularly for her new pyrotechnic routine called ‘Fire Pussy’).
“I was a dancer, a stripper. That’s not the usual way to get into burlesque… I came in through the back door!
“Dancing is totally different. You’re dancing on a pole with guys all around and you’re hustling for tips. But as a typical headstrong female I thought I’d teach myself burlesque, so I bought a couple of feather fans. You could learn a lot at a burlesque school, but stripping has taught me things they don’t cover, like how to deal with leery men and how to keep going even if something goes wrong.”
She refers to a moment at last year’s La Nuit D’Extraordinaire – a vaudeville show that’s part of the popular Arrowtown Autumn Festival. Oblivion was dressed in an incredible Medusa costume, performing an interpretation of Medusa’s tragic story. Then, at a pivotal moment in the story, Oblivion reached out to an audience member to help her step down to a lower part of the stage.
“He was very drunk and the next thing I knew, he climbed on stage and was stumbling about behind me. Inside, I was thinking, ‘get off the fucking stage!’, but I incorporated him into the performance.”
Oblivion shut him up with a few jelly snakes she had stowed in her headdress and quietly ushered him off stage. Many thought the man’s interjection was part of the performance, something Oblivion says “wouldn’t have been the case if security had come in to remove him.”
The Valentine’s show will be different. Oblivion promises a “perfectly choreographed show with big costumes, it’s a show to come to if you’re curious about burlesque – classier, with more glitter and less avant-garde than our boutique shows at The Club.”
It’ll be MC’d by Mr Lola Illusion and Oblivion promises a very special pre-show Burlesque Bazaar with themes bars, nibbles and interactive and immersive artworks that are not to be missed.
“It’ll be interactive, it’ll make people think. I want people to participate and not just be a voyeur. I’m always thinking: what hasn’t been done before, what haven’t you seen before?”
Event details on Eventfinda.co.nz
Words Bethany G. Rogers