Lights, tassels, action! Berlin Burlesque Week, Germany’s biggest burlesque extravaganza, opens May 27 for a fourth year with seven days of performances from over 80 international artists. At this point, it’s pretty clear that the retro art form is a bonafide part of Berlin’s performance scene – and a pretty international part, from the top down. California-native Lolita Va Voom has been serving as co-producer of Burlesque Week since 2016. For this year’s Burlesque Week she’s presenting her variety show Jews! Jews! Jews! on Fri, May 31 at Ballhaus Berlin. The whole week itself runs May 27 through June 2 at various venues. We talked to Va Voom about how one falls into burlesque, what to expect at Burlesque Week and the often misunderstood feminist aspects of the entertaining performance genre.
How did you get into burlesque?
I’ve been dancing since I could walk. I had a good body for a dancer; I was very thin and shaped like a 12-year-old boy. But when I went through puberty quite late, aged 15, I got really curvy and it became clear I wasn’t going to be a professional dancer. It was very hard for me to come to terms with and I lost a lot of confidence. I moved to Berlin six years ago when I was 22, and about a year and a half later, I was working at a coffee shop. A Canadian girl came in who was on tour with her burlesque troupe. She invited me to see a show she was working on at Ballhaus Berlin, and then she eventually introduced me to La Viola Vixen who I took classes from and who is now my co-producer for Burlesque Week!
Many people see burlesque as a traditionally feminine art. Does burlesque reproduce ‘conventional’ femininity? Or does it play with it?
I think it parodies it. I mean, you’re creating a fantasy for people. There are performers who are not feminine on stage at all, and there are male performers – Boylesque. So it’s more about taking the modern aspects of femininity and making them your own and interpreting them in a way that you want to portray them to the public.
So modern burlesque is different from the burlesque of days gone by?
Yes, originally burlesque was for men; the audiences, bookers and producers controlling the shows were men. But since the neo-burlesque movement in the 1990s, it’s more of a woman-dominated sphere. I performed at a show on Friday night and there were maybe five men in an audience of 40 people. My performances are 100 percent controlled by me, which is something I love about burlesque compared to classical dance – there aren’t rules, you can do and not do as much as you like. I control how much the audience sees and when they see it.
Is this newer movement much like the old one or do you see some experimental stuff?
Yes, sometimes there are acts with a political message. In the US and the UK, places where the political situation is tumultuous, I see a lot of performance art and good burlesque coming out of it. My idol and dear friend Rubyyy Jones has an act called “Potty Mouth Princess”; there’s a viral video of a bunch of young girls, aged six or seven, who are talking about women’s equality using vulgar language – they discuss gender pay gaps and rape statistics, using “fuck” and “shit”. The point of the video is to ask whether the bad language is more offensive than the bad things happening on a daily basis. Rubyyy took the sound clips and mixed them into music, lip syncing as she strips – it was the most touching political act I’ve seen.
What’s unique about your own burlesque style?
Most of my routines are shaped by my dance background. I do a lot of dance-based high energy movement, flexibility and floor work. I work to a lot of rock and roll, so it’s really fast-paced. One of my first acts was to “Kiss” by Prince, and that was the first time I really felt my character, Lolita. She’s really sassy, in a strong and powerful way. I also run my own show called Jews! Jews! Jews! and that’s been my biggest contribution to the scene here. It’s an all Jewish and minority-focused cabaret. I’m not religious, but Judaism was a huge part of my identity growing up in America, and I really wanted to find a way to have that part of my life here. Our first run attracted over 100 people, which is pretty good for a first show, and we’re presenting it again on Friday (May 31) for Burlesque Week.
What else can we expect from Berlin Burlesque Week this year?
This is our fourth Burlesque Week and it’s our biggest yet. We wanted to create something that would include a lot of local performers and bring people together from all over the world to show them how amazing the industry is here. Jo Weldon is coming from New York; she pioneered neo-Burlesque, and she’s teaching two classes as well as performing at our gala on June 1. There’s something for everyone; drag and glamour, comedy and circus sideshow, which includes gore and the grotesque. We’re also really happy this year to put on a talk headed by Missa Blue, a woman of colour, about representation in the industry and cultural appropriation, which has been a hot topic for sure.
Would you say that burlesque is more accepting of different bodies?
In theory, the ethos of burlesque is that it’s for all bodies, yes. But there’s still a big divide between pop-up performances at corporate events, where there’s a preference for classically beautiful women – slim and usually white – and shows that are produced for a burlesque-specific audience. The latter are usually put on by women, for women; those audiences are often 85 perfect women and female identifying people. I know there are a couple of festivals and shows in the US dedicated to fat bodies, I think it’s amazing that there’s space for that – there’s one in Atlanta, a specifically ‘all-fat’ show.
Has burlesque improved your relationship with your body off stage?
I’m definitely more comfortable with myself now, yes. That’s also due to living in Berlin. Being naked isn’t inherently sexual here, whereas in America all nudity is viewed as being sexual.
Nonetheless, Berlin is pretty sexualized. Does this affect the demand for burlesque?
Yeah, that’s definitely been talked about a lot – you can go and see a butthole anywhere if you want to. Which is totally true! But it’s really different because there’s a certain element of tease and anticipation in burlesque, and also theatricality in the performances, versus going to Kit Kat club and seeing a bunch of people naked. And that’s cool too! I like that there’s space for both here.
Berlin Burlesque Week, May 27-Jun 2 | Various venues, see website for programme