When US-born neo-burlesque performer Clea Cutthroat takes to the stage in Berlin her strip-tease is anything but coquettish.
Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’ kicks off her cross-dressing priest act which ends in spatters of fake blood and milk.
First to go is the priest’s robe, which reveals a wedding dress underneath. Cutthroat drinks from a bottle labelled "female hormones" before removing her draggy wedding dress and make-up.
Shoes and wig also end up on the floor as the transformation is complete and the full woman underneath is revealed.
Cutthroat then drinks “holy water” – actually milk – pours it over herself, and then takes a mouthful of “communion wine” to bring the scene to climax as she spits fake blood everywhere before strapping her entire body up in heavy-duty tape.
A "middle finger to gender roles."
For her, burlesque is a lot more than stripping down to fancy underwear. “A lot of it for me is playing with people’s responses and pushing people’s predefined ideas and stereotypes,” Cutthroat told The Local.
She said her performance plays with the ideas of inner and outer beauty. As for spitting blood that’s either a “middle finger to gender roles or even to burlesque itself,” depending on her mood.
Cutthroat is a proponent of neo-burlesque, which rejects the pure glamour of traditional performances for an edgier mix.
Original burlesque performance was initially developed in the 1800s, and often used by the lower classes to subvert societal conventions and to retell popular stories in a more bawdy way. It developed into a sexy strip tease in the early 1900s but faded into obscurity later in the century.
Now the tradition has been revived, and many strands are just as radical as their predecessors – in today’s society embracing physical imperfection while emanating strength can be surprisingly subversive.
“When a performer is on stage, they are in control. There are no rules that say they have to get naked,” Cutthroat told The Local. “I personally only take off clothes if it makes sense in the story.”
International burlesque performers moving to Berlin
On stage, a performer is empowered by the freedom of being who they want to be. Neo-burlesque gives performers like Cutthroat the space to make all their own decisions without the pressure of conforming to expectations – because there are none.
Cutthroat is just one of the many international performers who have settled in the German capital.
Names like Lady Lou, Julietta la Doll, Marlene von Steenvag are all regulars on the scene. They let Swedish photographer Elsa Quarsell into their homes to be photographed for her book “The Domestic Burlesque” project.
This shows the performers in their stage get-up at home in domestic settings – a way of showing the different identities of the women concerned.
Quarsell told The Local she was watching a burlesque show in a working-men’s club in East London when she found herself thinking about the different identities of the women on stage. She soon found herself in cities across the world shooting performers, in full stage get-up, in their own homes.
Her book features many women working in Berlin – the German capital famed for Cabaret has blossomed on the map of burlesque performance over the last few years.
The combination of cheap rent, liberal attitude and good pay has made Berlin a prime place to be for performers, said Cutthroat.
The contrast between stage and home
She came to Berlin five years ago, after realising that “artistically I felt I could go no further in New York,” said Cutthroat. "Berlin allowed me to move into artistic adulthood."
While Cutthroat’s routine might be testing the ideas of inner beauty, Quarsell’s new book takes this a step further, offering a glimpse into the performer’s homes - a world arguably more private than the flesh they bare on stage.
“I wanted to see if they were like that at home,” Quarsell told The Local. Her search for the contrast between art and real life took her as far at the US and Japan and took two years.
“I found that either you would have no idea what kind of nocturnal lives these people were living, and their houses were pretty plain, or they were totally vintage and burlesque-esque.”
For Cutthroat though, who trained as a professional dancer, her burlesque life and her home life are “like church and state, and never the two should meet.”
“Normally I don’t ever dress as Clea at home, my friends wouldn’t be able to cope if I was like that in real life,” she laughed.
“The Domestic Burlesque” is in English and brimming with beautiful pictures. It is set for German release April 25, and will be available at selected retailers across the country and online.
There will be a release party in Pinky's Peepshow in Berlin on the same day, where some of the women from the book will be performing.