The Malta Independent 14 July 2020, Tuesday

'Burlesque makes me feel strong and powerful' – Undine LaVerve

Jeremy Micallef Monday, 20 August 2018, 11:00 Last update: about 3 years ago

It’s easy to denounce something we do not understand, but who are we to decide what individuals should or shouldn’t do? Jeremy Micallef speaks with internationally respected Burlesque dancer Undine LaVerve on Burlesque and Female Empowerment.

Let’s go way back – why burlesque? When did you first get into it? Give me a little history.

When I was growing up my mum definitely made sure I could pursue anything that I wanted, so I danced, acted, painted, sang, played the piano; everything you can think of, I’ve done it.

When I was 12 I moved to Malta, and I stopped doing a lot of these things, but as a teenager I kept on dancing and acting. As I grew older, at around 17, I started looking for something that I would really enjoy doing. I tried hip-hop, belly dancing... then one time my friends invited me to a burlesque class which was being taught by a Canadian instructor, Liv Yorsten.

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I was reluctant at first, but after a month or two I completely changed my mind. It encompassed everything I was looking for – a bit of acting, a bit of singing, dancing, costumes and glamour, and the cheekiness.

I remember when I was doing ballet classes they would tell my mum that I’d never be tall or skinny enough. In burlesque you can be any size, any shape, and any age.

 

Is it the fact that you could express yourself in a ‘real’ way?

It just encompassed everything, so I immediately told Liv to begin mentoring me, which she did.

This was a good start for me as she was a professional, but unfortunately she eventually left the island, and I was left to figure things out for myself.

 

When did you get your big break?

I did a few shows with her at the time, and I was also asked to do some hen’s nights, which I still do a lot of today. I started looking for opportunities abroad as I had had some experience at this point, especially considering there wasn’t much work in Malta.

In 2012 I had a show in Amsterdam because they knew my mentor, and that really got the ball rolling. Once you get out there and you meet a few people, you make a good impression on promoters and bookers – then people keep booking you.

There seem to be a lot more opportunities abroad. There wasn’t any opportunity here, so at the time finding work abroad was a necessity.

People always say that there’s no opportunity in Malta, but I created my own opportunity – in 2015 I started organising shows because I am “the scene”. This year and last year have been really busy because I make my own work.

I was travelling a lot to Italy, Paris, Poland, Germany, Spain and Russia where I worked with a troupe for a while. I was travelling around Europe performing at festivals and shows, and eventually you become part of the community and make contacts all around the world.

 

And you organise your own shows in Malta?

I decided that since this is something that is very particular, it needs to be done for an educated audience. People who come to the show need to know what they’re getting themselves into.

I did one show which was open for the public so that people could get a glimpse of what burlesque actually is, and I did a couple of interviews which was a good start.

People think it’s something inappropriate or indecent but it really isn’t – it’s Art. It’s not about the reveal of the flesh at the end, but the journey getting there. Being sensual is just one of the elements.

Unfortunately some people can’t see past the flesh because they don’t understand the art form and it’s all they concentrate on. They don’t see the beauty and the art of it.

 

What was it like starting the Burlesque Academy of Malta (BAM)?

It was difficult at the beginning as I did not have many students, so I mainly focused on individual classes and workshops. As interest in burlesque has grown, I now have an advanced class and a beginner’s class.

The classes are very good for confidence and self-love. We’d talk a lot and we look at ourselves; we talk about what’s sexy; how to touch and how to move; what looks classy and what does not, because it’s so easy to cross that line between looking classy and looking vulgar.

 

Burlesque does flirt with that line a lot, doesn’t it?

It depends what style you do. Classical burlesque not so much, but some girls cross that line even then. I like it when burlesque is a bit risque though, because it reminds me of the 1930s and 40s when it was a bit raunchy.

 

How has the style changed since then?

Burlesque comes from the Italian word ‘burlesco’ which means to joke, or make fun of.

At the time you’d have dancing girls at the vaudevilles, at the circuses; you had the Moulin Rouge in the late 1800s. Started in the UK by the British Blondes, eventually it got to America, which is where it really caught on which brought about the Ziegfeld Follies, Gin Minsky, and many others.

During the Great Depression it got really big as you’d have music halls showing 6 performances, all the way from noon till closing time.

 

Female empowerment - what is your view on the matter in relation to burlesque?

Once a year I produce a big annual show entitled ‘MalTease’ where I get some foreign acts along with some Maltese talent. Obviously I promote on social media a lot, and sometimes I get people commenting things like “I don’t see how this is empowering”, “I don’t want to come see this! This is degrading”.

And I told them that they should come watch, ask a question during the Q&A at the end of the show, and then make their own decision about it.

On the first night someone asked me what my parents think about what I do, I told them to ask my parents – my dad is the singer, and my mum was actually in the audience on the night since she sometimes helps as stage manager and costume assistant.

I sat down with my girls to discuss what female empowerment means for us, and we figured that it’s a term that has been used so much that its losing its meaning. What does it mean to feel empowered?

I bring it up because the modern feminist movement has attacked grid girls, ring card girls, and such women for “objectifying” women. From what I understand, feminism is all about autonomy – free choice to do as one pleases.

Anything radical is not good – I do consider myself a feminist, but that is just ridiculous. Burlesque is empowering to me because I get to go on stage and feel good – free. When I’m on stage I get to express myself as I please.

It makes me feel strong and powerful.

We manage ourselves, there’s not additional process which forces us to fit into someone else’s imagine of what they want us to be. You create your costumes, your own choreography, your own music – you create something that you can express on stage which is totally yours.

That’s what’s empowering – your own freedom to express yourself as you want.

 

What are your plans for the future?

The next step is to produce a Maltese Burlesque Festival whilst simultaneously running my monthly shows again. Not this year, probably next year – and that would consist of events spread on 2 nights. We’d have a competition night and a gala night, and we would have a lot of foreign performers.

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