by | May 27, 2024

By Mama Natalia

Burlesque, the Art of Tease, has had a tumultuous history – both the world over and certainly within Australia.

The word itself, derived from the Italian burlesco and burla (translating as jest or joke) first appeared in the early 16th century as the title of Francesco Berni’s Opere Burlesche, a collection of satiric poetic works famed for enraging the conservatives of the time. From the 17th century, it became a staple of pseudo-intellectual writings, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, and a sweeping term used to define anything that did not follow the usual rules of society. The period between the 1860s to 1940s was instrumental in cementing burlesque as a feminist form of creative expression, when bawdy comedy and satire was joined by female striptease and nudity, much to the chagrin of the pearl-clutchers.

Since then, Burlesque has refashioned itself numerous times over, building on its foundations as a mockery of ‘polite’ society into a subversive art form utilising striptease, clowning, circus art and cabaret (among others) to tell its tales. It is as unique as the artists performing it, revelling in its ability to shun regular convention, turning it on its axis just when you believe you’ve got a handle on what it may think itself to be.

Which is where much of the tumult lies – for like all forms of creative expression where passion and ego collide – the question about what does and does not constitute burlesque has been almost as vicious a debate as whose version of God is the ‘right’ one.

In Rhinestones we Trust.

Enter Holly Mouat, a relative newcomer to the Australian burlesque revival of the 1990s and early 2000s. Holly began her own journey in 2016 when she won a raffle at an event which included a free burlesque class. This twist of fate set her on a path of creative expression and led to the co-creation of ‘Queens of the Damned’ – a horror and fetish themed production house offering some choice niche themed events in the late 2010s.

 Shimmery Burlesque is a sweeping departure from Holly’s usual fare, a collaboration between herself and her mother, costume designer Kerrie Schultz – creator of Shimmery Couture. The show is a mother-daughter passion project that entwines Holly’s own artistic journey with that of Kerrie, an accomplished bridal modiste turned costume designer whose obsession with vintage glamour permeates from every pore of this lavish production.

Narrated by Lady Shimmery (Abbey Paige Williams), the show takes the audience on a journey through a love-affair with fabric and fashion, playing out as an abstract 4-dimensional lookbook of colour and crystals. Visually, it is absolutely stunning to behold – rich creams, golds and silvers are accented by occasional bursts of jewel tones that dazzle and delight. No seam or stitch has been overlooked in this sumptuous feast for the senses – costume porn aficionados will easily absorb their fill and then some.

Set pieces are equally as impressive. Strategically rhinestoned items of vintage furniture (some family heirlooms from Kerrie’s own childhood, and others cleverly upcycled from thrift stores and good old Facebook marketplace) accent the stage but never clutter it – and there are a handful of deliciously clever props interspersed throughout the production that are utilised to perfection.

Lighting design is handled by industry great Jason Bovaird, whose multiple decades of award-winning technical work throughout the Australian arts scene serves only to enhance the magic. Clearly lovingly crafted, each transition and spotlight is perfectly set, seamlessly supporting the narrative as it unfolds.

The cast is, in a word, phenomenal. A rich anthology of burlesque artists and dancers, from those who have been eager ecdysiasts for decades to those only newly minted in the art of tease, take the stage together in a largely ensemble piece that nonetheless gives most of these magnificent performers their moment to shine. Armed with their own unique personalities, characters and styles – and wrapped in Lady Shimmery’s stunning costuming, every artist is a delight to watch, prompting giggles and cheers from the audience with every wink, glance and wave.

There are of course standouts. Burlesque powerhouse and award-winner Velma Vouloir continues to chokehold one’s breath away with a presence that had most of the audience begging in submission. Audience favourite Dallas Fox brought old-world Hollywood glamour and charm, and the roar of appreciation that followed her act was one of the loudest of the night. Aerialist Shannon and the acrobatics of Juniper Fox held everyone in thrall, lending a welcome break from the bumps and grinds that were the bulk of the show.

But it was not all just about the burlesque. Iva Grande, Kimera Diamond, Va Va Valentine and burlesque legend Maple Rose gave much of the event its comedic oomph, their inimitable talents in clowning and character performance giving the show a crowd-pleasing dimension it may otherwise have been missing. Dancer Valeria was also a standout, and while they did not have nearly as much featured time as they should have, I found myself seeking them out every time they were onstage.

As an MC and storyteller, Abbie Paige Williams was a sweet host, with a beautiful singing voice that served the source material well. At times she seemed uncomfortable with addressing the audience directly, her tendency to stare dreamily into the distance forming something of a wall between her and those she sought to immerse in her tale, but once we had settled into the second act she became more at ease, even daring to flirt on occasion during what might have otherwise been an uncomfortable silence when the sound tech missed their cue. The danger in creating an immersive show is that an audience expects to be immersed, and a little eye contact with the first few rows goes a long way in that regard.

The real beauty of Shimmery was, however, that no one performer was given precedence over their peers. The entire cast worked effortlessly as one to create a rich tapestry of entertainment that extended from beyond the stage and into the wings. This was well-reflected in the crew behind the scenes, with Kimera Diamond and Maple Rose in charge of choreography (with Iva Grande and Sham). There were even some cheeky little cameo stagehands along for the ride, names I am sure any industry regulars would recognise.

It was heartening and satisfying to see diversity in casting – in ethnicity, age and body type. As a female-led production, Shimmery touts itself as being wholly dedicated to inclusivity, and it has laid some strong groundwork here. In future productions, it would be wonderful to see more diversity in their featured artists (without having them share the stage with another white performer in the foreground), and perhaps a few more artists over a size 18 (because more room for more rhinestones is never a bad thing), but overall, the show did not scrimp on representation – which is, let’s face it, the bare minimum one would expect in 2024.

Those burlesque aficionados wanting more drama in their storytelling may be somewhat disappointed. Unlike some of the more recent shows gracing Australian stages, Shimmery Burlesque is neither obviously political nor intentionally subversive, choosing honey over vinegar to lubricate its audience. While the wider Fringe arts set may currently delight in ripping their patrons hearts out with taloned fingers (a strategy I adore and am not personally unfamiliar with), that type of heavy-handed brute-force narration would not work in this show. Shimmery’s form of rebellion is far more subtle, drawing the unsuspecting viewer in with silk and feathers, lulling them with shiny objects while leaving them completely undone. The power of this production lies in its ability to utilise razzle dazzle to get what it wants…a bigger audience for a very worthwhile art form. Some may decry this as merely surface level entertainment, but with mainstream conservatism once again on the rise, the mere act of a woman (or twenty) taking to the stage on their own terms to unapologetically remove their clothing is still very much its own political statement.

At its core, Shimmery Burlesque is a love-letter to classic striptease and old-world vintage glamour. It does not seek to change the world on a grand scale, but effortlessly elevates the art of tease to a larger (and more expensive) stage, with the talent and spectacle to match it. Shimmery is the type of production that the Australian burlesque industry and its performers deserve, and I can only hope that it heralds further shows of this magnitude in the future, across all genres and interpretations of the art.

Images: Beth Watkins

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