I’m standing in a marquee tent at Woodford Folk Festival, with a hundred other women grabbing my boobs and poking my ‘goodies’ out. Brisbane-based burlesque performer, Lena Marlena, is schooling us in the art of performing cheeky sexuality.
For six days each year Woodford Folk Festival brings together a huge variety of music and performance to the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Vaudeville forms a big part of the program, setting it apart from many other Australian festivals.
I have come here to get a taste for the space women inhabit in the three orders of contemporary Vaudeville performance: circus, sideshow and burlesque.
Burlesque: It’s all a sideshow
Burlesque—an art form traditionally dominated by women—seems an obvious place to start. And so here I am, in Lena Marlena’s tent, learning the steps to a quite literal choreographic interpretation of Elvis Presley’s Little Egypt. We come out struttin’, and if it were a real show I suppose we would be wearing nothing but a button and a bow.
Yet, while striptease forms a big part of burlesque, according to Lena the artform is more about having fun.
“Burlesque doesn’t have to be girls stripping,” Lena says. “It can be a girl singing, it can be a man singing, it can be a man doing magic, but what it has to be is a little bit risqué, a little bit what the general public would probably not go to see, a little bit ruder and definitely tongue-in-cheek.”
Burlesque’s popularity has exploded in recent years and unlike the more conventional sleazy strip-shows, women audiences love it.
“When you go to a burlesque revue it’s 75 per cent women, 25 per cent men” Lena says. “I think it’s so popular because a lot of people have come full-circle now. I don’t know about everyone else, but I think sex is fun and I think a lot of people have forgotten that sex is fun. People forget it’s okay to be sexy. They get really bogged down in the dark side of sex. I think when people present it in a funny way, they go, ‘that’s right, I forgot it was fun’.”
One woman, who has the art of cheeky sexuality perfected, prefers her burlesque with generous helpings of sideshow and circus.
Under the Woodford big top, Lilikoi Kaos slinks out in a full-length red dress and elbow-length gloves. Shrouded in the illuminated smoky air she pulls the gloves off with her teeth and, before shedding the long dress in favour of fishnet stockings and a black sailor-themed onesie, she stubs the cigarette she’s holding out on her tongue.
Lilikoi’s act is a delicate balance of exaggerated femininity, hardcore sideshow masochism and impressive skill. This woman can orbit 50 hula hoops around her body at once, escape a straight-jacket and 38 feet of boat anchor chain, eat glass and hammer a six-inch nail up her nose, all within one 60-minute show.
Lilikoi is circus royalty. Her mother, Hawaiian-born Kim Kaos, was among the first wave of contemporary circus performers and Lilikoi’s godmother, Sue Broadway, was a founding member of the now hugely successful Circus Oz.
“I grew up in circus,” Lilikoi says. “I could hang off a trapeze before I could walk.”
Lilikoi and her brother Keili lived a nomadic life with their mother Kim, travelling Europe, the US and Australia.
“We grew up with Kim, travelling and doing shows. She’s such a strong, driven, independent woman. I think about it now, and think, how the fuck did she do tours and raise kids, keep an eye on them, travel, and she made it so much fun. It was such a great way of being raised. Everyone in normal society thought she was the worst woman in the world but the education we got from her I don’t think we could have got from anywhere else.”
Lilikoi is also an aerialist, but was attracted to sideshow as it allowed her to play with fusing masculine with feminine, and to challenge gender roles in both circus tradition and wider society.
“Sideshow is quite a boys club,” Lilikoi says. “I started doing sideshow, firstly, because it interested me and I really loved it and I liked the history behind it. I liked how it was always the brother of circus and burlesque was the sister. I wanted to play with all of those genres.
“For a long time with trad[itional] circus, women were always on display and it was very much about being looked at, but they were still very capable, strong, amazing women. In the 1970s when contemporary circus was born, circus was really used to re-examine feminine roles and that’s when my mum started circus. She did a lot of acts that looked at changing those gender roles. Lots of them wore non-specific gender costumes and there was no distinction between men and women and what you did.
“In recent years there has been a bit of a relapse…where it’s gone back to different roles for men and women. I like playing with sexy girl costumes but that’s why my acts have always got a bit of a twist because if I’m going to be that show girl or happy housewife then I want to be fucking with those stereotypes.”
Lilikoi sees the performance of femininity in wider society as a sideshow in itself. Parodying a 1950s housewife whilst hammering a teaspoon up her nose, for example, is her way of commenting on the roles we play in everyday life and the pressures women succumb to in their bid for conventional beauty.
“I don’t have the perfect body in this society and I’m not a perfect stereotype and something that really interests me is how many people are quite driven by trying to achieve that. That’s why sideshow interests me as well, because it’s all about oddity and to me the steps that are made to become perfect—all the cutting and changing and sewing together and making up—it’s all a sideshow.”
Freaks and oddities: the sexual and the grotesque
In Vaudeville, women’s roles tend to fuse the sexual and grotesque. This is both evident in Lilikoi’s performance and in Disturbia—a performance installation centred on a fictional town called Koo KooKachoo, which has sprung up in the middle of Woodford. There, men and women are on display in a sort of modern-day freak show. Some of the women are dolled up in gaudy makeup, lingerie fitted around their generous curves, beckoning to the audience with their best come-hither looks. One woman seems quite distracted by her genitals at one point, looking down her pants with a hand-held mirror.
Koo KooKachoo inmates from a nearby mental asylum have taken over. The set is elaborate. Men with bald heads, bushy eyebrows and yellowed teeth are digging up a grave site near the entrance of the town. More of the crazed townsfolk stand and stare blankly from within a complex and truly panic-inducing mirror maze. A man crouches at the side of a bridge yelling at confused festival-goers, another is stomping around in the swampy creek below.
Across the bridge lies the rest of the town. There is a post-office (where employees are busily wrapping rocks in paper), a hospital (with some kinky goings-on between the doctor and the nurses), a brothel (offering foot jobs), a school (where the students are cabbages and oranges), a bar, a cinema, and other buildings of ambiguous purpose. Pyjama-clad men and women inhabit the buildings, existing in their own worlds whilst we, as the audience, act as voyeurs.
Disturbia is a whole other level of freak show, born straight from the mind of Annie Lee, a veteran performer of 25 years, probably best known as Mourne in the Kransky Sisters. The town comes replete with its own detailed back-story and philosophy—known only to the actors—involving a cult, walrus worshipping, magic rocks and aliens.
“The more you detail the philosophy then the stronger it will be for [the actors’] performance and the stronger it will look,” says Annie. “What I want from my actors is that they feel it on the inside, so it’s in their eyes. The feeling you get when you go into Disturbia is very removed from the audience. They’re not performing for you at all.”
Annie is fascinated by the freakish. This aspect of Vaudeville dominates a lot of her work and most of Annie’s shows follow similar themes: exploration of the strange, the odd, human frailty and comi-tragic storylines. I ask her about the sexualisation of the grotesque within Vaudeville tradition.
“There is a sensuality to the gothic and the grotesque, I guess, in a way because it’s not withheld, it’s not covering itself, it’s not secretive. It’s mysterious but mystery has a sensuality about it,” she says. Annie believes it is logical for that sense of sensuality and mystery to come through in Vaudeville performance.
Circus: the pain
Freak shows are one thing, but the sort of sideshow Lilikoi Kaos performs “doesn’t tickle” she tells me. Her many performances at Woodford are wearing her down.
“I figured out that by the end of this festival I would hammer something—whether it’s a spoon or a six-inch nail—up my nose 38 or more times in five days,” she says.
She shows me tiny punctures in her back from last night’s bed of nails trick.
“I have the most nasty bed of nails,” she laughs.
Even circus performers who don’t put their bodies so explicitly on the line push themselves to extremes. An aerialist in the same show as Lilikoi dislocated her shoulder after attempting an extremely difficult trick the night before. As Lilikoi recounts:
“Yesterday I did three shows in a row at Wonderland, ran to the Palace, set up, was on stage and then Tegan dislocated her shoulder so I didn’t have any breaks in between. I was like, ok, now I’m putting a cigarette out on my tongue, now I’m lying down on a bed of nails, now they’re standing on me, oh ok, now I’m getting out of the straight jacket, good… [laughs].
“That’s another aspect of the reality of circus…if you’re pushing yourself too hard you are bound to injure yourself.”
However, while the risk of injury remains undeniably real, women circus performers have a real strength and incredible control over their bodies. Strength is not something traditionally encouraged in women in wider society—where a muscular physique is thought of as masculine and unattractive—but women in circus are able to inhabit their bodies in a different way. Even when traditional circus was in its prime, before women were given the vote, they were able to push the boundaries of femininity in ways many other women couldn’t, just by possessing a physical strength that allowed them to be capable, skilled and in control.
Lithe and lean aerialist, Meiwah Williams, comes on stage dressed as a geisha holding a tray with a teapot and two tea cups. She pours liquid into the cups and lights them on fire. Traditional Japanese music plays in the background whilst she sets two sticks alight before swallowing the flames. The music suddenly changes to fast punk-rock and Meiwah transforms from a coy, modest geisha into a raging harajuku punk, stripping from her kimono to pink fishnets and a pink leotard that has small stuffed toys sewn around the neckline.
Meiwah is performing on silks today. Otherwise known as tisu, ‘silks’ is a long fabric cloth that hangs from the ceiling. Hoisting herself to the very top, she expertly entangles herself within the fabric performing various tricks before tumbling down in a grand finale, unravelling her body as she falls and stopping just before she hits the ground.
After watching her performance we organise to meet at one of the festival’s bars. Gypsy music drifts through the humid air from a nearby stage as we talk over a couple of glasses of wine.
Meiwah says the circus community is a broad church, and she is appreciative of the strength and ability of women performers in the genre.
“Someone said to me today, ‘Wow, you’re not built like a tank and you’re an aerialist.’ I think a muscular body tone is great and looks beautiful on a woman and to see someone who is so strong and fit and so able in their body—I think it’s a really attractive quality,” Meiwah says.
“That’s something I like about circus…you can be a variety of body types and it’s acceptable. If you’re a big woman, you’re the strongwoman, or the base, if you’re a small girl you’re a flyer, if you’re really flexible you’re a contortionist, if you’re really good at throwing things, you’re a juggler [laughs]. It’s the skill that’s important.”
Back in the marquee tent with Lena Marlena, the crowd is divided into two halves. We’re ordered to face each other and perform our Egyptian walks, sexy sashays and hip rolls. A bead of sweat slowly retreats down my spine. It’s getting hot in here, and not just because of the humid Queensland weather.
I leave Woodford for another year knowing one thing for sure: we ladies can hold our own when it comes to performing in Vaudeville. Lena, Lilikoi, Annie and Meiwah are the latest in a long line of strong, independent women making circus and Vaudeville their own; and proving that it’s not just about a pretty face, it’s about hammering a nail up the nose on that pretty face too.