21:CP – Magazine Interview
The latest issue of online magazine 21:CP – a publication which celebrates modern pinups – features Kittie on the cover and inside in an in-depth interview where Kittie discusses British burlesquing through the ages and it’s modern climate of wit.
Read the interview here:
“Kittie Klaw is a burlesque queen with an Empire. An international burlesque star, producer and writer, Kittie is also the veteran founder of the infamous Ministry of Burlesque. Kittie is an elegant eccentric with a curious mission. A unique personality among the new-Variety elite, she is an expert entertainer with seductive wit and passion for 19th century showbiz. From international invitation to standing ovation she is a burlesque Queen – with an Empire. As the recherché leader of the Renaissance, she is assuredly, the modern matriarch of classical British Burlesquing…”
How do you define the term ‘Burlesque’, and what should and should not come under that term?
‘Burlesque’ – literally means to ‘send up’, starise or make mockery of. Any act which is defined as ‘burlesque’ therefore, must fit this definition – regardless of what else it may (or may not) contain.
Burlesque is an ancient theatre form of ‘musical-comedic-character-satire’ and in Britain it has remained relatively unchanged in over 500 years. The form was exported to the USA in the late 19th century and like most UK comedy exports, the satire was largely lost. Burlesque in Britain carried on regardless. In recent American history (early 20th century), the term ‘burlesque’ was adopted by the adult-industry looking for a name to for the ‘variety’ style revues in which their strippers would perform.
The strippers were indeed the Stars of this stage. Of course, the meaning of ’burlesque’ did not actually change as there were still Burlesque performers in operation (although they were operating in the entertainment rather than adult industry). So, ‘burlesque’ would come to mean one thing in the adult industry but remain unchanged in the entertainment industry.
Borrowing from the style of burlesquers, the strippers, peelers and ecdysiasts often adopted gimmicks or themes and often included comedic skits or repartee in their routines and through these devices, each act delivered a strip-tease. Thus, the ‘burlesque-striptease’ was born. It was a new genre: a hybrid of burlesque and strip-tease. It’s endurance through time and it’s recent renaissance, proves that it has become established as a genre in it’s own right – distinct from both the ‘strip-tease’ and the ‘burlesque’.
British burlesquing has still carried on regardless, relatively unchanged.
I have read articles in which you speak passionately about your efforts to resurrect traditional ‘British Burlesque’ – the term ‘burlesque’ being one that you feel is constantly misused and misapplied…
The difference between the original ‘burlesque’ and the relatively new ‘burlesque-striptease’ is that the latter necessarily contains strip-tease (or adult based entertainment) but the former original, does not.
They were aimed at very different audiences and therefore, were composed and performed very differently. Both ‘Burlesque’ and ‘Strip-tease’ remain independent art-forms in their own right – and should not be confused or ‘interchanged’ with the relatively new ‘burlesque-striptease’.
Essentially we have three clear and distinct forms which are linked by history (Burlesque, Striptease and Burlesque-Striptease) which are often erroneously ‘lumped’ in together, as one genre.
It is important for artistes and bookers to know what their merchandise is and also, what it isn’t. I often worry that the ‘burlesque-word’ has been reduced to a media/press ‘buzz-word’. One which is diluted in it’s meaning. Both the American burlesque-striptease and the classic striptease have enjoyed a lot of press and media attention and are certainly having a renaissance, but the former component of ‘burlesque’ itself has been overlooked and also misrepresented. I feel it’s time to examine it properly, do it justice and give it an all important boost in attention. It too deserves to be celebrated for it’s own merits and rich history. Like striptease, ballet, belly-dancing, magic, circus and anything else we can take inspiration from, the form of ‘Traditional British Burlesque’ also offers performers more ways to add to their repertoires and develop their acts.
As it is not based on any adult forms and has no particular gender bias, it also means that people who do not wish to employ strip-tease can also get involved in the new burlesque scene too.
There are so many unsung heroes of the original ‘burlesque’ genre. There are pioneers of the old satirical form who can still inspire today – e.g. in 1830s, Eliza Vestris was the first woman in Britain to own her own theatre and there, she herself performed as a burlesque performer. She often played a principal boy. Now that’s ‘girl power’.
I feel the press and media have been less than impressive in their research on ‘burlesque’ often apparently opting for corporate press releases rather than research. Fortunately, the burlesque community are increasingly search-savvy themselves and are doing their own research.
Why are you especially proud of the UK burlesque scene, and do you believe it to be superior in some ways to other national movements and the way they interpret the genre in the 21st Century?
I don’t think ‘pride’ is quite the correct word – more a sense of appreciation and perhaps an anxiety for us not to lose sight of the iconic British form whilst we celebrate it’s more glamorous little cousin.
While the American burlesque-strip-tease is wonderful and represents so many great things in itself, it is entirely different from the traditional form of British burlesque and must not be confused with it. Compare American star, Dixie Evans with British duo The Western Brothers and you will see what I mean.
Similarly, we wouldn’t think Monty Python and Bettie Page have much in common either.
No, I do not think that ‘British Burlesque’ is in some way ‘superior’ to other forms. It is different. It deserves to be celebrated for what it is and to be shared and enjoyed as much as any other. Each form should be appreciated and celebrated for it’s own merits. I love them all but I also respect their differences as well as their similarities.
Also, regardless of personal preference in entertainment, it is important to protect and nourish our cultural identities and histories – if we don’t, who will?
You often compare British burlesque with American burlesque. What would be your chief criticisms of modern American performers and how do they differ in particular from those in the UK?
Nationality is not an issue. It’s about being good at what you do and doing what you profess to. I use the terms ‘British burlesque’ and ‘American burlesque-striptease’ to denote difference in genre – not performer nationality.
Many American born/based performers adopt the ‘British’ satirical style themselves and by the same token, many British born/based performers are focussed entirely on American strip-tease and fan dancing etc. Others are focused on other things – Chinese circus, Parisian showgirls, Indian magic, Egyptian bellydance etc.
My only issue is where people are unclear – as they do damage to the wider circuit as well as themselves by misrepresenting a craft. It is the same across the whole of show-business.
Do you remain strictly traditional and conventional in your performances, or do you enjoy experimenting with postmodern reinterpretations? Is the attempt to move on from and/or disregard burlesque traditions always an undesirable one?
I am an Entertainer. My speciality is in the traditional form of British Burlesque. This makes me a comedienne, a satirist and performance artiste, a burlesquer. Therefore, character performing is my personal focus.
Through my burlesques, I love sending up history and culture so, these are reflected in many of my characters. I include my dancing, writing and historical interests when creating a new piece, so my routines do indeed reflect my personality as well as the elements of theatrical ‘tradition’.
As burlesque in Britain, has always generally aimed to burlesque historical events and people, I enjoy keeping that spirit of nostalgia and funning, alive.
In my repertoire of Burlesques, among other things, I send up or ‘burlesque’:
- Victorian notions of sex,
- The image of Britannia,
- The often over-serious personality of
- The affectations of cats
I also have one act in homage to the American Burlesque-Strip-tease. This is my espionage routine (Eye Spy) which was inspired by old photo-comic strips of Bettie Page and is true to the definition of American Burlesque-Striptease – it is a comical skit which results in a contextually relevant strip-tease.
My performance repertoire is deliberately varied as I also enjoy other things too – I love wing dancing and have developed a series of ‘Dream Dances’. These ‘Dream Dances’ are not burlesques – they just happen to be something I love doing.
When you founded the Ministry of Burlesque, did you have a UK readership and British burlesque ‘ethic’ at the forefront of your mind, or did you always intend to reach out to an international base of visitors?
When I first started out, I had no particular ‘plan’ but it has always been an international, all inclusive project. When Ministry of Burlesque was first formed, there was no burlesque ‘scene’, no clubs, no known stars and no meaningful search-engine results for the word itself. It was a personal hobby which became a mission – that eventually took over!
It started as a small group of psychology students who were the dancers for a local musical-comedy band. It grew into something more formal, very gradually. By 2003, the newly named ‘Ministry of Burlesque’ was aimed at encouraging people to take to the stage in a way that was accessible – not daunting or ‘closed’ like many classical entertainment routes can be. The ethic was ‘Why not? – Fun for fun’s sake’
I choreographed routines for solo, duo and troupe activity and our very first acts were indeed of a satirical-comedic nature, all be it with bawdy antics, – a wink-wink-nudge-nudge’, of course.
The very first routine was where we emerged as dancers in ‘burkhas’ and whipped them off to be ‘Carry On’ style belly dancers – oddly enough, dancing to disco. I’d like to point out that we were very modestly attired underneath.
Following on from that, we developed various other satirical, aesthetic style and silly pieces too and it simply hasn’t stopped. My favourite endeavour to date has to be ‘Victorian Values’ – the full length burlesque show which burlesque 19th century morals and was played out akin to the early 18th century burlesque format.
I did not foresee how big Ministry of Burlesque would become. However, I always knew it had the potential. I simply wanted to take it as far as I could and make the most of something fun. I wasn’t sure of any particular ‘path’ or personal career through it.
Meeting MoBFather James was the big milestone – he helped take my hobby and turn it in to a business. By helping me spread the message (‘Together We CanCan’) to as many people as possible via the online community, Ministry of Burlesque is now a full time occupation.
Are you excited by the growing popularity of burlesque, and numbers of performers in countries around the world?
Yes and No. Yes because the more people who are having a go, then the more fun that is being had and the more ideas that are being shared. The flipside is that there is an undeniable bandwagon – one which has already cost the newly emerged professional industry a lot of money and effort.
Everyone should feel included and encouraged to have a go. That’s the beauty of it. For those who do wish to pursue it as a formal career, they must remain realistic as well as ambitious. It is important to note that although burlesque is a niche, in becoming an entertainer of any kind, they are entering an established industry called show business – one which insists upon quality and substance in both aptitude and attitude.
Would you rather burlesque did not enter the mainstream and popular culture?
Here in the UK, burlesque was always mainstream. It has always been popular and part of pop-culture.
In Britain, burlesquing never died – it just morphed in to television sketch shows, musicals and bawdy films (Carry On, Monty Python, Borat/Ali-G…). The Swinging Sixties didn’t kill burlesque here because our burlesques were of a different kind of ‘tease’ and were unaffected by the new wave of nudity, free love and such.
If on the other hand, we are referring to the American burlesque-striptease and strip-tease itself, then I really think that a mainstream shift will allow those how wish to have broad appeal, to do so. If you wish to be subversive or underground, then you can choose to remain so – but everyone should have the right to decide where they want to take their art. The more options and opportunity there is – the better.
The two forms are different – they have had different histories and will have different (although linked) futures.
What do you believe the future of British, and indeed International burlesque, to be?
I think that what the overall burlesque resurgence has mainly done, is given a glorious boost to the idea that performing is in fact, totally accessible. It offers a creative and sociable hobby with real opportunities for those who have the desire, aptitude and attitude to follow them.
In America, the burlesque-striptease resurgence has been going on for over a decade and they will continue to celebrate that which is peculiar to their entertainment history and culture. I think that the UK interest in the vintage American style burlesque-striptease will rise and fall and eventually it will find equilibrium with all the other forms of Variety, cabaret and stage craft. I think that the form of British Burlesque will carry on as it always has done and hopefully regain its prime-time live entertainment slot in our comedy loving hearts.
Aside from yourself, who do you see as leading the way as key figureheads in the UK today?
Immodesty Blaize is definitely the leading lady of the striptease-showgirl style of performing in Britain. She has developed her own style and brand and as such, she has become a fashion/lifestyle icon for many.
As for ‘burlesque’ itself, many of the key protagonists are enshrined in history – Chaucer, Eliza Vestris, Gilbert and Sullivan, Western Brothers etc.
Because ‘burlesque’ itself is in fact an entertainment that does not necessarily attract the glamour/fashion industry, we need to not be distracted by current fashion trends using the ‘b word’ and instead, look to modern day writers and character actors.
Today, we still have Carry On and Monty Python – but only just. As with every generation, the new breed of burlesquers are emerging via television as well as theatre and many of the MoB troupe are indeed trailblazers of this quintessential British genre.
Sacha Baron-Cohen is an excellent example of a burlesque superstar.
Like the stand-up circuit, the ‘burlesque circuit’ has very clearly emerged. Again, as with stand-up, the circuits will go on to feed into media and event productions with a lucky few rising to become stars.
Our thanks to Kittie for her time and generosity.
You can see Kittie and an array of burlesque talent at Edinburgh High Tease at the The Voodoo Rooms on the 7th, 8th and 9th of August.
pg. 21, 22 and 24 by Tas Kyprianou