A decade or so ago, burlesque had fallen from fashion.
Who knows what kick-started the current trend – Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge or Dita von Teese or just that whole retro revival thing – but there are now at least six burlesque bars in Melbourne alone, as well as 'bump and grindercise' classes, specialist shops for clothes and accessories (the nipple covers are called pasties if you're hunting for some – tassels are optional) and there is an explosion of practitioners taking up the art.
Feeding off this renewed interest, Australia is now celebrating its fourth annual Burlesque Festival, with shows kicking off in Melbourne, heading out to regional Victoria, then off on a whirlwind tour of most states and territories – except WA ironically, considering the number of mining towns where raunchy and topless entertainment has never gone off-trend.
The 2013 festival kicked off with a Baby Bombshells newcomers contest on June 6 and followed on with Empress Erotique on Friday June 7.
No less than 15 performers took part in the Empress Erotique, in an epic evening that was the dance equivalent of War & Peace.
The stage names alone are sumptuously wonderful: from Honey B. Goode, Agatha Frisky, and Mimi Le Noire, to Clara Cupcakes, Jessabella and Fifi Fatale.
Then there are the stunning costumes – acres of feathers and silk, plenty of sequins and rhinestones, a fair bit of leather and lace, and more corsetry, stockings and suspenders than you could poke a riding whip at.
Following the tradition established by performers such as Josephine Baker (she of the infamous banana dance) and others from the Folies Bergere and Ziegfeld Follies, each of the performers has a routine, based on a song or outfit or character.
They ranged from the traditional – Salome, Inca goddesses – to chanelling glamorous ladies of the past, such as Marlene Dietricht; some were more modern – an eco-warrior, complete with gun and knife that sliced her corset right off – and others were just darn scary, with bondage themes and even a touch of bestiality.
But whatever costume they started with, most of it was discarded after a song or two. Which is the only aspect of modern burlesque I have some issues with. It's true every art form adapts and develops and is interpreted in a range of ways, but a burlesque show has to be more than a striptease if it's going to keep its point of difference.
The art, after all, is to tease the audience along without actually revealing all – or it used to be. And many of the acts still follow that, some more creatively than others. But how scintillating is it to start with a bondage outfit then take it off? Surely the sexy bondage should be the end 'tease'?
Acts such as Tasia, Perle Noire, and Kelly Ann Doll had the audience in raptures with their coy confidence, skillful moves and sassy displays of just enough to be seductive without losing their mystery. Others were simply awesome, such as the acrobatic couple called Sidney and Skopalova, the latter a former rhythmic gymnast, whose act combined circus acro adagio moves with a sexy duet that was breathtaking. It was as if the Russian gym team had taken up lingerie tango.
The Empress Erotique show included a mix of local and international acts, and the headline acts definitely nudged the standard up a notch.
An awful lot of the 'also-rans' seemed to rely a bit too much on the fact they were getting their kit off as entertainment enough; the artistry and fun 'send-up' element was lacking.
It was only after two hours of performers that I saw a single pastie being twirled. Mind you, then it was on a girl's bottom, which demanded a new level of skill and respect.
At the end of the day the performers all deserve a medal for smiling through an epic three-hour show wearing little more than a couple of pasties and some lurex in a huge, cavernous hall with precious little heating and a smoke machine that had a mind of its own.
Of course the audience has to be suitable warmed up to make sure the effort is appreciated, and here MC Reuben Kaye was truly masterful. (Free shots of absinthe from one of the sponsors didn't hurt, either, and the audience is asked to come along suitably dressed for the occasion, which helps create a fun mood.) Armed with (and happy to use) an excellent singing voice, Reuben joshed and bantered and minced his way into the audience's heart, while still keeping hecklers in hand, and getting laughs all the while.
For those looking for a fun night out with a group of friends – maybe with dinner thrown in and definitely a few drinks – the burlesque tour promises a great night out. It's also pretty good value for the number of acts performing, but I would probably have preferred a shorter show focusing on fewer, more quality acts.
The national tour show may be slightly different so go with an open mind – and at least three hours to spare.
For those keen to join the rush, workshops are also available; details online at australianburlesquefest.com
*Please note: Shows contains some nudity and adult themes and is not for the faint hearted!
The Australian Burlesque Festival
Venue: Thornbury Theatre | 859 High St, Thornbury VIC
Dates: 7 June 2013
Tickets: $65 – $55
9 June – "NOUVELLE ROYALE" MELBOURNE, VIC
12 June – BALLARAT, VIC
12 June – LAUNCESTON, TAS
13 June – HOBART, TAS
13 June – ADELAIDE, SA
14 June – BRISBANE, QLD
15 June – DARWIN, NT
19 June – NEWCASTLE, NSW
20 June – CANBERRA, ACT
21 June – "NOUVELLE ROYALE" SYDNEY, NSW
22 June – "THE BIG TEASE" SYDNEY, NSW
23 June – "The Busties" Industry Awards Night – Sydney, NSW
More information: australianburlesquefest.com