Colourful boas, fish-net tights and seductive music. A burlesque dancer's life is a glamorous one and Malta's own Undine LaVerve and Miss Moonspell certainly look the part. Ramona Depares meets up with them prior to their upcoming show as part of the Strait Street revival project.
Burlesque dancers are viewed somewhat as mystical creatures. Beautiful, yet somehow very real and far removed from the improbable beauty of, say, catwalk models. This performance art that is often described as "the tease without the sleaze" is currently enjoying a world-wide revival and we mostly have Christina Aguilera and Cher to thank. Their performances in the eponymous Burlesque, while ironically hardly qualifying under the genre, certainly put the B word back on everyone's tongues.
It's difficult not to be fascinated by burlesque. Even before the movie hit the cinema screens, the art started taking on a more mainstream vibe thanks to the notorious Dita von Teese – voluptuous and retro enough to be intriguing, her skits had everyone, both male and female, mesmerised. A true burlesque show is a thing of beauty and something that I did not really expect to encounter on our island.
Enter the Kabuki Guns Burlesque Malta troupe. You might have been lucky enough to witness one of their shows throughout the past year. In all honestly, I was a tad sceptical.
Was this the real thing? Or was it just a gratuitous insertion of the word Burlesque, aimed solely at drawing in the punters? Until finally, I got to see the Kabuki troupe in action and my misgivings vanished in a flurry of rustling skirts, pretty corsets and swing music. I just had to meet Miss Moonspell and Undine LaVerve, the troupe's two mainstays who had somehow managed to keep an entire clubful of people spellbound.
Miss Moonspell – aka Marianne in real life – tells me that, together with Mila (ie Undine LaVerve on stage) she has been running Kabuki Guns Burlesque for the past few months. The two took the over the Maltese arm of the company after its founder, Canadian dancer Liv Yorsten, left Malta. Why Kabuki? Kabuki refers to the classical Japanese dance-drama, known for the stylization and the elaborate make-up worn by its performers. And the Guns bit? Undine LaVerve replies with a cheeky smile.
"Well, we all know that girls with guns are hot!"
However, both dancers point out that – despite popular misconceptions – burlesque is not about being overtly sexual.
"People's reactions when I say that I'm a burlesque dancer invariably include the words...oh, so you're a stripper. You really can't equate burlesque with stripping. Sure, some burlesque performers include this as part of their repertoire, but it's not a necessary element," Undine tells me.
Miss Moonspell nods her head in agreement, adding that as a mother and wife that certainly is not the kind of performance she'd want to be associated with. Miss Moonspell is no new face to the Maltese public. Her dancing background has seen her take part in various TV shows and she is also a known model. Why burlesque?
"It's classy and it was created for real women. The art embraces women in all shapes and sizes. You don't have to be a size eight to be a burlesque dancer. It's all about your inner beauty."
Undine is also an experienced professional dancer.
"I have tried most of the genres. From classical to ballet. I loved ballet but didn't have the figure to be a professional ballerina. Then I discovered burlesque, which encompasses a bit of everything – from classical to ballet to modern. Burlesque is definitely my niche."
Of course, setting up a Burlesque troupe requires a certain expense. The costumes alone, it is very easy to see, are far from cheap. The two dancers are very thankful to Liv, who literally bequeathed her whole wardrobe to the company before departing. They've also been lucky enough to find support from local businesses which appreciate the art, such as alternative clothing store GoryGoth. The other issue involves finding enough dancers with the requisite talent and technique. This part of the problem, at least, is being addressed through the weekly classes that Miss Moonspell and Undine LaVerve are giving. The response, mostly through Facebook, has been encouraging so far.
"People are intrigued and we have had ladies of various ages and backgrounds applying. The idea is not just to offer tuition but also to prune out those who have high potential so that they can be included in our public performances," Miss Moonspell tells me.
Undine, however, adds that it is an uphill battle to conquer the previously mentioned misconceptions and that a number of applicants are extremely wary upon first contact and require lots of reassuring that nothing "shady" is expected of them. At this point I can't resist asking Miss Moonspell the obvious question: given that Maltese men are not exactly well-known for being liberitarians, how does her husband react to her chosen art?
"Well he's used to me performing in public, even before I started doing burlesque. So I can't say that it has really affected him. Moreoever he knows that he can trust me not to go too far. As for my children...to be honest they love the idea that I dance for the public. It's all very glamorous and fun for them!"
In the meantime, it promises to be an exciting summer for the two dancers, with the first big event coming up on Saturday June 25 with a performance in Strait Street as part of the launch for author George Cini's book, which itself celebrates the most notorious street in Valletta. During July, the Kabuki Guns will also be hosting workshops given by world-renowned dancers Bam Bam Blue and Adeline Le Shay. The events will culminate in one massive performance bringing together both the Kabuki Guns and the foreign guest performers.
It's definitely going to be a burlesque summer.
Catch the Kabuki Guns in Strait Street on Saturday at 7 p.m. and at Remedy in Paceville on Friday July 22 (more details to be announced at a later stage).