Circus dynamo ... Anna Lumb performs in The Burlesque Hour. Photo: Caveboy Studios
Sydney's burlesque scene is busting out all over. There now are eight venues hosting regular burlesque nights. With so many performers and so many shows, audiences can be excused for not knowing which way to look, or what to expect. Will it be a nude ballerina in a giant champagne glass? Or a bondage-clad goth girl with a chainsaw? Will it be theatre? Will it be erotic cabaret, or a stripper with nipple tassels and Betty Page bangs?
''There really is the good, the bad and the ugly out there,'' says Moira Finucane, a veteran performance artist and star of The Burlesque Hour. ''I've seen a huge rise in burlesque all over the country, with people taking dance classes and wanting to perform.''
It's a cultural movement, Finucane says. ''Women - and men - are exploring having fun. They want to know how it feels to really shake it. It doesn't all have to be … cohesive, just so long as people feel alive.''
Busting out … the art of burlesque is at its peak.
Which is great, says Jac Bowie, a former burlesque promoter who ran the Ruby Revue at The Factory in Marrickville for five years. But ''the burlesque boom is about to peak'', Bowie says. ''We're facing a challenging time. We've been steadily growing and now there are too many shows.''
While the audience for burlesque has grown in size, so have its demands for sophistication, Bowie adds. ''It's a mature scene and people expect a lot more than a wiggle and a few feathers. They want polished choreography and a fully realised show.''
Bowie believes punters want a bigger bang for their entertainment buck, too. ''They want more and more in the way of shock value,'' she says. ''In Melbourne there is even a group of performers doing ''gorelesque'', a kind of horror burlesque with blood and bodily fluids. And it seems to me that every performer coming out of New York right now is hell-bent on out-shocking everyone else. It will be a survival of the fittest.''
Finucane's Burlesque Hour has survived longer than most in an increasingly competitive Australian market. The candle-lit, Weimar-inspired extravaganza evolved in Melbourne eight years ago and has since grabbed more than 20 awards on the international festival circuit. Finucane and her troupe of special guests - including cabaret superstar Meow Meow, award-winning stage actress Pamela Rabe and Tivoli veteran Toni Lamond - delight in the original meaning of the word ''burlesque''.
''In the 1600s, it meant a mockery, a grotesquery, an exaggeration and a parody,'' Finucane says. ''For me, burlesque is a sensibility that is risque, razor-sharp and has a humorous wink.''
In the new ''Glory Box Edition'' of the show, Rabe will hark back to the German cabaret tradition with an erotic monologue to open the show. ''She will be stalking the stage in a black leather dress, wearing Vivienne Westwood high heels, reciting a piece called Who Will Plough My Vulva?'' Finucane says.
Lamond salutes the heyday of Australian vaudeville singing medleys that made her parents - Stella and Joe - teenage stars of the Tivoli circuit. Paris-based dancer Holly Durant will perform a Dance of the Seven Veils to Donna Summer's I Feel Love, and there will be a special performance from stage and television actor Maude Davey, whose deliciously perverse club routines earned her the title Ms Wicked in the 1990s.
''You can see her on TV but when you see her on stage it's a whole different ball game,'' Finucane says. ''You will never see someone stage-dive in so many feathers.''
Finucane will perform her signature act, which involves a red velvet bikini covered in three-inch spikes and 150 red balloons. She will also perform a number called Get Wet for Art. ''It's about how art can get you excited,'' she says. ''Yes, it will rain. And yes, the audience will get umbrellas.''
Curating The Burlesque Hour is a ''bowerbird exercise'', Finucane says. ''You peck the eyes out of art forms from around the world, like goth culture, Bollywood and ballet. It's a classic variety show - something for everyone and drinks at the bar.''
New to the show will be circus dynamo Anna Lumb, who cut her teeth on the cabaret circuits of Melbourne, London, Edinburgh and New York. ''I work in physical comedy and theatre so my role is high energy,'' she says. ''I do hula hoop, trapeze, balancing acts and roller skating. I love that the show is very sexy and sassy but it's also full of beautiful images … It's like opening a Pandora's box.''
THE BURLESQUE HOUR
November 15-24, various times, York Theatre, Seymour Centre. BOOKINGS 9351 7940. TICKETS $25-$60.
Where to enjoy a burlesque show
Sydney's burlesque scene is a broad one, encompassing titillating sideshows for upmarket tourists, regular subculture show-off nights, and hardcore performance art.
The Standard (level 3, 383 Bourke Street, Surry Hills, wearethestandard.com.au) features regular burlesque nights. The room plays host to the axe-wielding gals of Gorelesque on November 18 and Destroy the Joint Burlesque on November 25, a fundraiser for ZONTA, an international organisation for the advancement of women in worldwide.
Intimate multipurpose venue The Vanguard (42 King Street, Newtown, thevanguard.com.au) has built a rep for hosting quality acts. Next month (December 8-19) features the return of Star Wars Burlesque: The Empire Strips Back, a rip-roaring sci-fi variety show with an emphasis on the erotic side of the Force. See it before Disney's lawyers come knocking.
Slide Lounge (41 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, slide.com.au) programs regular burlesque-themed nights, with every Saturday devoted to El'Circo, a nine-part degustation intertwined with sexy circus routines. Holly Follies puts the X into Xmas on November 22, and the venue plays host to British burlesque sensation Chrys Columbine - who combines fan-dancing glamour and classical piano in her shows - in The Stroke of Midnight on November 10 and 24.
Rock'n'roll subculture specialist Black Cherry (The Factory Theatre, 105 Victoria Road, Marrickville, factorytheatre.com.au) hosts quarterly get-togethers featuring burlesque acts. Tickets for Black Cherry's NYE extravaganza at The Factory (December 31) are on sale now.
Crystal Bar in Martin Place (Crystal Boudoir, GPO, 1 Martin Place, gposydney.com) entertains tourists and suits on the razzle with 1920s Paris-inspired shows. The emphasis is on high-toned grace and poise rather than humour or bawdiness, however.
The Arthouse Hotel (275 Pitt Street, city, thearthousehotel .com.au) holds weekly life-drawing classes - Dr Sketchy's - in which all the models are fully costumed (or not) burlesque artists. Can't make Chrys Columbine's Slide show? She also hits the Arthouse stage on November 13.
Every Friday is burlesque night at Dome (level 1, corner of Crown and Cleveland streets, Surry Hills, domefunctions.com, 7.20-9.30pm, $25), whose gorgeous interior is the perfect fit for such entertainment. DJs keep the crowd pumping after performers such as Holly J'aDoll and Lauren La Rouge have strutted their stuff. Columbine will perform on November 16 and 23.
And finally, 34B, one of Sydney's longest-established burlesque nights (Q-Bar, 44 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, www.exchangehotel.biz), calls it a day after seven years. It'll be all tears and mascara on November 30.