With her coiffed blonde hair, shimmering floor-length dress and cigarette holder tilted just so, she looks like she’s stepped right out of a golden-era Marlene Dietrich film. Else Edelstahl is the dazzling alter ego of Inga Jacob, a young Berliner who organizes Bohème Sauvage, a monthly party that resurrects the vintage glamour and decadence of Weimar-era Berlin at several venues throughout the city, including the Postfuhramt on Oranienburger Straße. The dilapidated elegance of its domed hall with peeling paint and creaky wooden floors exudes the perfect fin de siècle melancholy for a party that invites you to dance, drink and gamble like it’s 1929.
Smokey-eyed vamps in fringe dresses and pearl necklaces abound, filling the hall with a swirl of sequins and feather boas, while men in tuxedos or knee pants and suspenders lounge at the bar. Smoke curls through the air above the clinking of champagne glasses and the murmur of the crowd.
Inga began hosting such events at her home several years ago because she was tired of parties where no one dared to dance. Here, the guests surge onto the dance floor, leaving barely enough room to swing their knees for a Charleston. Others wile away the night at poker and roulette tables or conduct late-night séances in a small curtained-off room. And then there are the burlesque acts: glamorous and sensual, involving elaborate costumes, feathered fans and, of course, glittering pasties that drive the crowd wild.
Inga knew from the beginning that she wanted to have burlesque acts as part of the entertainment. But when she launched Bohème Sauvage in 2006, there were not a lot of options. “I booked Medita, the only burlesque dancer I knew in Berlin. Aside from her, I had only heard of one other at the time,” Inga recalls.
Another burlesque night organized by Inga, Salon Kokett, formerly at CCCP Club and debuting at Bassy on June 1, is a smaller and more dressed-down affair. In contrast to the all-encompassing aura of the past that pervades Bohème Sauvage, Salon Kokett has a more eclectic vibe. The night, which is set to take place nearly every week, features pin-up beauties and vamping divas with names like Golden Treasure and Marlene von Steenvag.
Some in the crowd are dressed to the nines in fishnets, corsets and petticoats, while others seem to have wandered in by chance, clueless about the theme. Regardless, once the performances begin, everyone eagerly pushes towards the stage or scrambles to stand on a chair for a better view.
These two events have only increased Berlin’s thirst for more. In response, Inga and three partners, including burlesque artists Lady Lou and Julietta la Doll, became the Secret Seduction Society, dreaming up an evening of deadly delights known as La Fête Fatale, also at Bassy. Here, the ladies aim for diversity, bringing in acts outside the classic burlesque genre that veer toward the weird, cultish and carnivalesque. La Fête Fatale’s motto, “Where beauty meets bizarre”, emphasizes the fact that there is more to burlesque than beautiful women taking off their clothes.
The bizarre element is particularly important to Lady Lou, a blonde New Zealand bombshell who first came across burlesque in London. “I love that there are all kinds of burlesque – beauty and glamour but also the weird and grotesque. Too much of either would become boring,” she says.
And the most recent Fête Fatale, with its ‘Intergalactic Burlesque Timetravel’ theme, was certainly anything but boring. One look at the guests’ attire confirms the crossover appeal of the event. From the Belle Époque to a sci-fi future, get-ups ran the gamut from Star Trek aliens and mod robots to slinky flappers and goth vamps. Monocles and leather, spacesuits and corsets mixed easily. Whistles and cheers greeted each act, whether the opulent Egyptian-goddess performance of Lola van Dyke, dripping with jewels in an iridescent turquoise gown, or the voodoo-priestess ritual of Femme Façade, wielding a sacrificial knife and dancing like one possessed.
According to Lady Lou, the American burlesque scene is generally more fixated on classically glamorous acts, such as those of Dita von Teese, while European burlesque tends to be more circus- and cabaret-oriented, or what she refers to as “talent burlesque”, involving fire eating, hula-hooping and juggling. European artists also often place more emphasis on telling a story about why the clothes are coming off, instead of just choreographing a striptease to a piece of music.
In an age in which the body is less taboo than when burlesque first thrilled audiences, and in which access to images of naked bodies is readily available, this shift towards the literally ‘burlesque’, i.e. parodic and grotesque, might be the main draw.
A recent and related development is the surprising and growing amount of women in the audience. Lady Lou believes it’s inspiring for women to see a performer looking great and having fun, even if she doesn’t have a perfect body. “At events like Fête Fatale, there’s a performer women can identify with; she’s got a big bum or small boobs,” she says. “Burlesque is about a woman’s fantasy, not a man’s, about a woman creating an alter ego for herself.”
But if more people – women in particular – are taking notice, the scene nonetheless remains largely under the radar. “In Germany, burlesque is still pretty much an underground affair,” says Inga. “Many people still have never heard of it.” Here, acts are generally confined to smaller venues.
There are some larger burlesque-related events, such as techno parties, and more mainstream venues, such as the Wintergarten in Berlin, that include burlesque performances in their programs, but these events shy away from the provocative acts on display at Bohème Sauvage or Fête Fatale.
Meanwhile, the smaller shows are attended more by people who are involved in the burlesque scene themselves. But burlesque may be edging closer to the mainstream. Lady Lou attests to increasing interest among Germans and a growing number of German burlesque artists taking to the stage with high-quality shows. “This year is a really good year for burlesque in Germany,” she says.
The Berlin scene may be smaller than that of other cities such as London or New York, but it has its advantages. “Berlin attracts a lot of individualists, creative and crazy people who not only live and let live, but also often greatly appreciate each other’s work. There is a love of detail and a sense of humor,” says Marlene von Steenvag, a dancer who has been performing internationally for several years.
“Burlesque in Berlin is different from other cities,” adds Xarah. “Whenever I watch shows here, I like the energy and I have the feeling that something new is going on.”