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A Bibian Blue creation
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Photo by Xavi Calzada
Taboo at Sala Apolo
While burlesque has been revived for some time in the UK and US, it is a relatively new scene here...or is it? Though the actual word ‘burlesque’ has only appeared in the city in the last few years, Barcelona has a long history of subversive, artistic and erotic genres, meaning that, in many ways, burlesque is very familiar here and fits right into city life.
The word ‘burlesque’ comes from the Italian burla, meaning a joke or a mockery, and original burlesque performances had something of the ridiculous about them, parodying the politics of the times. While burlesque went out of style towards the end of the 19th century in the UK, it flourished in the US and made its transition to a much more erotic art form. After attaining phenomenal success, and catapulting many of its strippers to stardom, it began to decline after Prohibition and by the Seventies had become a seedy and underground rarity. In the mid-Nineties, neo-burlesque was invented in the US, the scene revived, and the rest is history.
While at the end of the day, a burlesque act is stripping (down to nipple-covering ‘pasties’ and a G-string), it is now anything but seedy. There is an air of female sensuality and power rather than degradation, and the crowd tends to be appreciative rather than leering. The acts are edgy, avant-garde, often funny and, of course, very erotic. Style influences range greatly, from Twenties’ flappers to Fifties’ pin-ups or rock ‘n’ rollers, often combined with a modern edge; so you could see anything from a Marilyn Monroe-lookalike with tattooed biceps to a fire-breathing flapper. Many of today’s body-size stereotypes are also broken down in the burlesque scene, where people have cottoned on to the fact that skinny isn’t necessarily the most sexy look.
Here in Barcelona, the best place to see good examples of this genre are at the monthly Taboo nights at Sala Apolo. The show celebrated its third anniversary in April and has gained international fame for its unusual mix of quality burlesque acts plus the live band Mambo Jambo, which features Eighties’ rocker Dani Nel·lo among others. The Apolo makes the perfect venue with its lavish curtains, balcony and cosily-lit private tables, while the crowd is of all ages and types with more than a few regulars. The show is presented by the large and sexy Madam Taboo, definitely challenging the notion that larger women can’t carry off a corset. Between songs and chat from Madam Taboo (note: don’t sit at the front if you are shy!), you get to see national and international acts such as Kitty Bang Bang, Miss Polly Rae and Vinila Von Bismark, Spain’s most famous burlesque artist. Acts are as varied as they are exciting: glitter, bubbles, cream, fire and even the odd snake are all possibilities. Carlos Conesa of Taboo describes the night as, “Funny, visual, erotic and elegant. What makes us unique is the addition of the live band, which really lends a lively atmosphere.”
Another show currently running in Barcelona is Live in Burlesque, to be found at El Molino—also the location for last month’s Second Barcelona Festival of Burlesque—and there couldn’t be a more fitting venue for a show of this type. Opened in 1898 and originally called La Pajarera, the theatre-café was re-named ‘El Petit Moulin Rouge’ in 1908, when it began showcasing a Spanish version of what was to be found in Paris at that time: cabaret, striptease and music hall. The venue lived through many years of splendour and success, being revamped and redesigned according to the whims of Modernistes and other architects, always serving as a Barcelona reference for alternative and edgy nightlife, and was the making of many stars such as Bella Dorita and Merche Mistral. In 1976, it was awarded the first FAD Sebastià Gasch award for having a “unique approach” in the theatre scene. Today, following closure from 1997 to 2010, El Molino has undergone yet another facelift, leaving it decidedly modern but still intimate, and showcasing a variety-style cabaret show, presented by Merche Mistral herself. The show includes live singing, high-energy dancing, burlesque acts and acrobatics, and while it’s not really neo-burlesque, it could easily be described as a Spanish version of burlesque, complete with bawdy jokes and Benny Hill-style slapstick.
Barcelona, of course, has many underground scenes, mostly inappropriate to these pages, but there is one other club that treads the line between and that is the Cabaret Berlin. Formerly infamous strip club Bailen 22, followed by a stint when it was called Lotus, the club is now firmly on the right side of the law and hosts grown-up cabaret nights using all the equipment left over from its seedy past, poles and swings included. When it’s not in one of its periods of being temporarily shut down, the club’s shows include music, live acts and corseted waitresses.
If you prefer to join in the action rather than be a simple spectator, there are a number of different burlesque classes taking place in the city. The most authentic of the lot is to be found at Tribalona, where dance teachers Eva Tallada and Noemí Castell hold weekly burlesque dance classes as well as one-off workshops where you can learn to look and move like a Fifties’ pin-up. “The classes are getting more and more popular,” said Tallada. “They come in shy but the music helps them to open up and relax, as does imagining being someone like Marilyn Monroe. The classes really help to get rid of insecurities and negative image complexes. Many women have forgotten how to express their feminine sensuality; we try to recover this.”
Costume is key in setting the scene for burlesque acts, and home-grown Barcelona corset designer Bibian Blue sits firmly on the top of the style pile in this case. The kicking off of the burlesque scene here could even be attributed to her and her pals the Chilli Cats duo a few years back, when they set up a series of events named Nights in Burlesque. “We put it all on to show off the then collection, which was based on the total burlesque look, with specially-made costumes, photoshoots, a show and press releases,” explained Blue. “The recent collections are not as pin-up as back then, more futuristic, but I still deal only with corsets, either directly on sale or hand-made for special events like weddings or shows.” Blue’s beautiful collections do not suit all pockets, with prices ranging from €140 to €1,200, so if you are in search of basic burlesque kits, the internet is probably still the best bet.
While the neo-burlesque scene may be experiencing a plateau in other countries, here it is very much still growing, making it fresh and exciting, a place where international artists want to work and collaborate. As with most things Barcelona, burlesque has been taken in, shaken up and served up nicely with a liberal dose of originality and style.
Taboo at Sala Apolo: www.sala-apolo.com
El Molino: www.elmolinobcn.com
Cabaret Berlin: www.carlitosgroup.com
Bibian Blue: www.bibianblue.com