SHARE
COPY LINK

SEX

Burlesque booms in radical, naughty Berlin

Burlesque is not just a naked lady in a cocktail glass - that is just one style of a complex movement in which Berlin has reclaimed its pre-war global top spot for radical naughtiness. Jessica Ware spoke with one of the capital’s performers.

Burlesque booms in radical, naughty Berlin
Photo: Elsa Quarsell "The Domestic Burlesque"

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.

Click here for a selection of photos from “The Domestic Burlesque”

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

WORKING IN GERMANY

‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change. 

SHOW COMMENTS