Immodesty Blaize, dubbed the “undisputed queen of British burlesque” by the Sunday Times, will be introducing the Vamp film Salome this weekend on Saturday 7th March 5.30pm at the BFI Southbank. We realised that she would probably be a dab-hand at writing after hearing she has a couple of novels out soon, so we invited her to write a little piece about what inspires her gorgeously cinematic, burlesque performances.
“When I first performed burlesque, research from books was easy; but actual footage of the old burlesque legends was scarce and hard to source. Since one of the things I loved about them was their strong and unique stage personae, it was only natural for me to find inspiration in female icons of the screen too.
My most enduring image of what a woman should be was statuesque ‘dream woman’ Anita Ekberg cavorting in the Trevi fountain. From there I obsessed over characters that had me spellbound over the years; Jayne Mansfield’s bombshell, Raquel Welch’s irreverent and aggressive transsexual, Kim Novak’s ice queen, and Ava Gardner’s definitive poisonous femme fatale. It wasn’t just their physicality and beauty that resonated, but the attitude. There was something otherworldly and untouchable about their characters on screen, and in a similar vein, the role of the showgirl is to be that very thing up there on stage; a fantasy – alluring, enigmatic, and out of the reach of mere mortals.
I never speak or sing on stage. I enjoy the idea that a showgirl’s silence allows for an area of the canvas to stay blank if you like, upon which the audience can project some of their own fantasy about where she comes from, what would the conversation be if they were to meet, what is she thinking up there under the spotlight. For this reason, I’m drawn not just to the obvious classic epic musicals from the likes of Busby Berkeley, but also to silent classics like Piccadilly, Pandora’s Box and Salome. Without the anchoring of constant dialogue, there is that window of ambiguity through which the viewer can meander and fantasise.
It is the cross pollination between genres –taking inspiration from film, music and art rather than from other dance pieces that I find creates the most interesting and more original results for my own stage shows, and I frequently have ideas that spark from cinematic sources; my ‘Hangin’ on the Telephone’ act pastiches obvious film noir references.
I find Salome really intriguing with this idea of cross-pollination in mind, in spite of the film’s obvious flaws. In its attempts to capture the graphic, 2-dimensional Beardsley world, the results are (by design, or by default) melodramatic, camp, and cartoonish. I’m not convinced that the finished result works, since the pace and story suffer so much; but I know that I find the film mesmerising and eccentric. As far as raw source material for inspiration goes, it is invaluable to have works like this to delve into.
Ultimately I am interested in creating fantasy on stage; pure escapism, and something the audience would never ordinarily encounter. I originally worked in production, and for me to leave this and concentrate on my live performance as Immodesty was simply another means of creating the impossible fantasy worlds that I had in my head. The two disciplines have overlapped somewhere on a venn diagram – I still think about my composition on stage, ‘framing my shot’ if you like, and for my stage directions and narrative I’ll find myself mentally plotting something like a steadicam path, as my map for where to move across the set and props during my performance! I know, bizarre, but I think it works for me! I do really see things in terms of a painting unfolding or a scene in a film.
Cinema archive is not only important in understanding where some of our more modern references have originated from, it is a gift to be able to take those reference points further in a variety of other genres. And I have no doubt it works the other way round too!”