Typography

Following on from its long and tasselled popularity enjoyed worldwide, the local burlesque scene is finally making itself comfortable on the Finnish stage.

All art requires a certain amount of courage, but what does it take to sashay, strut and strip in front of howling strangers – while your nipple tassels are on fire? That’s the performance forte of Petra Innanen, aka Bettie Blackheart, a “Queen of the Fire Tassels” and bringer of all things burlesque to Helsinki.

The art of burlesque, a colourful mélange of theatre, dance, comedy, striptease and cabaret grotesquery, has very old roots but has undergone a modern international renaissance in the past ten years, thanks in no small part to independent enthusiasts like Innanen and her husband Epe Tenhunen.

The couple, long time denizens of Helsinki and its punk, do-it-yourself subculture, were first attracted to burlesque about seven years ago, after being exposed to underground burlesque parties in New York and California. “We thought we’d just start our own,” says Innanen, a painter by profession. So they began learning the craft.

Tenhunen, an IT systems specialist and former UN peacekeeper assumed the hyper masculine persona of Frank Doggenstein, the “Godfather of Manlesque” and the first male burlesque performer in Finland. “I do a very Finnish guy – very masculine, silent, lonely,” Tenhunen explains. “He’s looking for love, but everyone’s afraid of him. I can be really scary onstage; I go really close to the audience if possible. My characters are lonely, but I try to show their comic, tender side.”

Initially Tenhunen, Innanen and their friends were only able to put on informal parties in houses, lofts or other borrowed spaces, “Wherever we could,” Innanen says. Some local clubs thought they just wanted to put on ordinary strip shows, and turned them down. “There is stripping involved, but burlesque is about so much more than that,” says Tenhunen. “It took a while to get people to accept it, but when someone wants to listen to you, it’s quite easy to explain,” Innanen adds.

Stripping back the past

The word “burlesque” has roots in a medieval Italian word meaning “to send up,” and variants of the theatrical form are at least as old as the vulgar comedies popular in ancient Roman times. Burlesque took on its recognisably modern shape in Paris in the late 19th century, and became a form of mainstream entertainment on the American and British vaudeville circuits.

The heyday of burlesque didn’t last long, however, as the rise of cinema and radio slowly choked off the market for itinerant vaudevillians. To make ends meet, promoters began to focus almost exclusively on the striptease aspect, to the point where it wasn’t even “burlesque” at all. Yet, while the bulk of the entertainment business went elsewhere, the art carried on with performers like “Lili St. Cyr” and “Gypsy Rose Lee, who also wrote the story that became the basis for the 1943 Barbara Stanwyck film The Lady of Burlesque.

In San Francisco in the 1960s, a young woman named Angel Cecelia Helene Walker, or “Satan’s Angel”, picked up the torch for burlesque – literally, setting her twirling tassels aflame in local clubs as the first sensational “Queen of the Fire Tassels”. At age 66, Walker still occasionally performs today on the international neo-burlesque circuit, and even taught Innanen the fire tasselling technique for her own act as Bettie Blackheart.

Burlesque…

…is a humorous theatrical entertainment involving, dance, comedy, striptease and sometimes grotesque exaggeration.

…performers perform under a stage persona often with a humorous name.

…term is French, but its roots are found in an Italian word burlesco meaning ‘send up’.

…existed in various forms as early on as in Ancient Rome.

…took its modern from in Paris during the 19th century.

…began to blossom in Finland in the early 2008.

International seen onstage

The Finnish burlesque scene blossomed in 2008 with the first annual Helsinki Burlesque Festival, organized by Innanen, Tenhunen and Turku-based performer Kiki Hawaiji. The fourth festival, held this month, features some twenty acts from Finland, Sweden, the US and Japan, demonstrating the remarkable breadth of this new wave of the art form.

“My burlesque is based on Japanese breathing and rhythm,” says Nananko Kai, a drama director from Tokyo performing at this year’s festival as “Cherry Typhoon”. “My act is very theatrical – I love to tease with my face, my mood and my energy from my whole body,” she says. “Some people describe me as ‘Sweetie-Spicy-Chubby-Tiny-Dinamo’. On the other hand, my dance is very quiet and mysterious. It is very Japanese, I think.”

Whatever their style or origin, burlesque performers tend to agree that despite the overt theatricality involved, “burlesque is about being what you are,” as Tenhunen says. “Frank Doggenstein is not totally me, but his emotions, his needs are something that I know.” This come-as-you-are ethic comes across to the audience, who are as varied and mixed as burlesque itself. “At every party there are new people we don’t know, from ages of 18 to 95, from all walks of life,” says Innanen. The party scene creates “a special place, not just a club for 20 to 25-year olds or a rock club.”

American Suzanne Ramsay, aka Kitten on the Keys performed in Finland in the summer of ‘09. “It was such a joyous time – the audience was so wonderfully varied and enthusiastic,” she says. She likes the laid-back, friendly atmosphere of the Finnish parties. “I have performed in France a lot and they are not the warmest audience, but they are getting better. They stare at you like you are a monkey in the zoo. I believe they are thinking too hard about what it is we are trying to do. Please do not overanalyse – let’s just have fun, damn it!”

“I seem to get all these biker guys coming to me,” says Tenhunen about his Doggenstein persona. “They tell me ‘I don’t know if that was really shit, or really great’. Sometimes their wives or girlfriends have dragged them to the show, but then they usually want to come again. They get the feeling that we are not like some superstars, we are just each other.”

But for Kai, however, her persona reflects deeper meaning intertwined with the cycle of life and the art of burlesque. “Have you ever seen the wind scattering the cherry blossoms in spring?” she asks. “It’s just like it’s snowing. The flower is dying, but that is its most beautiful moment. So I named myself Cherry Typhoon: life and death, response and motion, beauty and ugliness. I think that is life and that is burlesque.”

The Helsinki Burlesque Festival

29 January – 6 February

www.helsinkiburlesque.com