A recent interview with neo-burlesque dancer Aurora Galore for Exeposé. We discussed burlesque stereotypes, the politics of performance art – and Israeli sex clubs…
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Aurora Galore is a stage name, but it’s the only name I’m getting. “Nooo,” Galore tells me coquettishly when, as my first question, I ask for her real name. “Nobody knows it.” Galore is a burlesque dancer, one of the best in the business, so it seems natural that she remains as enigmatic as the industry she’s in. Burlesque dancers may have originated the term “pin-up girl” in the late 19th century, but today the British burlesque scene is difficult to pin down. At its core, burlesque is a performance art, and usually involves an element of striptease.
Galore, 26, began dance training at the age of two, attending dance school before deciding to become a burlesque performer at 19 years old. “My favourite film when I was little was Gypsy [the biopic about the famous American burlesque performer, Gypsy Rose Lee]. My mum would put it on every day after dance school,” explains Galore. She laughs. “Mum paid for me to go to dance school, and was confused when I became a burlesque dancer. I told her: ‘It’s your own fault for showing me Gypsy!’”
“[DITA VON TEESE IS] AN INCREDIBLE BUSINESSWOMAN, BUT SHE DOESN’T INFLUENCE ME. SHE IS VERY STATIC AND CLASSIC, AND THAT’S NOT THE TYPE OF PERFORMANCE I DO.”
Currently seventh in the Top Burlesque Performer rankings, Galore has won a slew of burlesque awards, including Most Innovative Performer at the Olympics of burlesque, the Burlesque Hall of Fame, in 2014. At 5ft 1”, Galore is a “petite powerhouse” covered in tattoos. She is the physical and stylistic antithesis to Dita Von Teese, the American burlesque dancer and former wife of Marilyn Manson. Von Teese is often credited with reigniting the burlesque scene. “Dita is our most famous performer because she married someone famous, but before that she was just a run-of-the-mill performer,” says Galore. “She’s an incredible businesswoman, but she doesn’t influence me. She is very static and classic, and that’s not the type of performance I do.”
It certainly isn’t. Galore’s performance style is like nothing I’ve seen, or previously associated with the idea of ‘burlesque’. As Galore states, “nowadays when people think of burlesque they think of vintage, 1950s pin-up girls”. Von Teese’s routines are slow-paced, gentle: a slow removal of sparkling corsets and stockings set to 1940s music. However, Galore’s dancing is defined by aggressive sensuality. Her movements are staccato, accompanied by screaming metal music. If she removes clothes, she doesn’t tease – she rips. With her backcombed hair, clownish make-up and striking tattoos, Galore reminds me of a character from a Tim Burton film.
Burlesque began in the 1840s as a way for working class performers to mock the upper classes. However, whilst burlesque originated as a means of parody, performers like Galore are now in turn parodying it. “I do neo-burlesque, a newer kind of burlesque that began in the 1990s,” explains Galore. “It isn’t classic, and it isn’t glamorous in a traditional way. It’s more off-the-cuff. It’s avant garde.” The notion of burlesque as parody piques my interest. The neo-burlesque style – extreme, physically demanding, aggressive, a reaction against pin-up burlesque– seems to also parody current ideas about what it means to be a modern woman. Ten years ago, women aspired towards a sinewy size zero. The thigh gap was in, and waifish celebrities like Alexa Chung and Kate Bosworth resembled delicate flowers: beautiful, and frail.
Now, however, there’s been a shift. It’s all about looking strong and powerful. We no longer hit the scales to obtain Kate Moss’ waist; instead we hit the weights to get Michelle Obama’s arms. Nowadays the female celebrities we look up to go boxing, like Gigi Hadid, or play basketball like Jennifer Lawrence. They’re not afraid to sweat. It’s about keeping fit as well as looking good. Neo-burlesque seems to hold up a mirror to our new perception of female beauty, albeit a distorted, carnival mirror. Galore sees herself as an athlete, a trained dancer who postpones our interview to fit in a workout. Her strong dancer’s thighs kick out, fists jabbing to the tune of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’. Her routines are absurd, exaggerated imitations of society’s obsession with the ‘strong, independent woman’: the woman who has it all and wasn’t afraid to bust some balls (basketballs, of course) to get it.
“PEOPLE MIGHT DO PERFORMANCES ABOUT GAY MARRIAGE, OR THE COST OF HOUSING PRICES, SOMETHING THEY MIGHT MASK IN A COMEDIC SONG, OR THE WAY THEY PERFORM.”
“My performance style is a comment on how societies view women and perceive beauty,” says Galore. “I like to look weird and I like to look strange – I feel most powerful that way. Just looking that way and prevailing in that joy is as much of a message as if I wrote an essay about why I look that way”. However, when I ask Galore whether burlesque dancing empowers her sexually, she sighs. “No. Not with me. It’s really frustrating because I know that’s not the answer people want to hear,” she says. “But for me burlesque has nothing to do with sex, it’s to do with dancing.” I point out that since Galore dances semi-nude, people might be forgiven in assuming that there’s a sexual element to her routines. “Not with me,” she repeats. “My routines aren’t sexy, they’re kind of bonkers. If I’m doing a fan dance and I don’t have much on, it’s just about being emotionally raw. And freedom, but freedom [gained] from life, not sexual freedom.” Whilst Galore’s routines aim to parody female sexuality, she claims they’re not sexy.
I ask her whether that means she wears her more ‘traditional’ burlesque costumes, like corsets, in an ironic way. She pauses. “I just like corsets. I like the female shape. I have a small waist, an hourglass shape. It’s just a personal preference for my body.” Perhaps it’s from watching too many period dramas, but I have always associated corsets with a) patriarchal control over the female form or, b) modern women hoping to titillate a man in the bedroom. Galore’s preference for the corset because of the way it makes her feel is revelatory. Again, Galore’s brand of burlesque seems an exaggerated imitation of current societal trends. Her attitude reminds me of the confessional videos that have been trending on YouTube for the past few months, in which women explain why they wear makeup for their own benefit, and not for men. They point towards the new wave of feminism, where femininity and female sexuality is being reclaimed and re-examined. The ‘strong independent woman’ dresses sexily and for herself, as epitomised by Robin Wright’s character in House of Cards.
Galore’s dance style is at once strong and yet emotionally vulnerable. “The best performers are the most honest performers,” Galore explains. “You can see their story or experiences just through their movement, and what they want to say through their routine. Most people think burlesque is posh stripping, but personally I don’t think of myself as a stripper because I’m so emotionally involved in what I do.” Galore’s emotional engagement in her dance routines flies in the face of several critiques of burlesque I came across whilst researching the performance art. Liam Mullone, writing for The Spectator a few years ago, described a burlesque show as “a tasteless encounter. I found myself thinking what it must be like to gaze upon a beautiful corpse”.
However, Mullone’s argument – that burlesque is glorified stripping, and as such should not be normalised – seems to centre around precisely the kind of burlesque that Galore and others like her satirise. Last year Imogen Harris wrote an article entitled ‘Burlesque dancers are strippers, pure and simple’ for The Independent. Harris argued that one would be hard come by to find a genuinely transgressive burlesque act. But Galore tells me that burlesque – more specifically neo-burlesque – is frequently political.
“Honey Wilde [another performer] does acts on Margaret Thatcher. People might do performances about gay marriage, or the cost of housing prices, something they might mask in a comedic song, or the way they perform,” says Galore. “Lots of performers have different messages and they’re kind of masks in different forms.” It seems that both Harris and Mallone are guilty of assuming, as I did, that burlesque remains a slinky, smiling, sequinned affair. The world of burlesque is enigmatic, a rock unturned, and a transgressive and sometimes uncomfortable carnival mirror. The best burlesque performers don “masks” in order to unmask political and societal truths.
“MOST PEOPLE THINK BURLESQUE IS POSH STRIPPING, BUT PERSONALLY I DON’T THINK OF MYSELF AS A STRIPPER BECAUSE I’M SO EMOTIONALLY INVOLVED IN WHAT I DO.”
Far from being the corpse-like performer Mullone describes, Galore is bold and animated. Well-spoken (she uses “pertains” no less than three times during our interview), Galore’s slow and measured answers belie the furious energy of her performances. Galore often incorporates circus moves and fire tricks into her routines. She certainly breathes fire when I voice my received assumption that her audiences are mostly made up of middle-class women. “A whole range of people [come to watch]. Sometimes people you’d never expect, like a couple in their 60s,” she says. “People who are open-minded, or like artistic things or like creative things. People who can’t afford the theatre but who want to see some fun cabaret.” She continues: “I had a six-night run in Australia, and every night the audience was different.” Galore’s job has taken her across the globe, from Australia to America, and from Germany to Japan. Galore makes me promise not to print her “weirdest memory” from her career, but to set the scene, it took place at a wedding, in a sex club, in Israel…
I ask Galore about the future of burlesque. Only recently, the Arts Council funded a project focused specifically on burlesque for the first time. The council awarded just under £12k to the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival. “Yes, I was there,” says Galore. “I went to see Pearle Noire [Galore’s burlesque icon]. It was a triumph for the festival organisers, as they got to fly in world-class performers.” Galore explains that two years ago, the council in Hebden Bridge rejected proposals to hold a burlesque night in the town hall. “The entire council said that it was all just stripping.” But despite the festival organisers’ triumph, Galore says that the recession has shaken the foundations of British burlesque, with many venues closing. “Nobody can really afford to live anymore, even just normal people!”
However, it seems more important than ever that burlesque non-believers have access to shows. Galore and other performers like her offer a new future for burlesque, one that is dark, comedic, eccentric and above all transgressive. “If anyone thinks burlesque is just posh stripping,” Galore snaps, “come to a show and see for yourself that it’s not.”