Coronavirus brought down the curtain on live theatre, with performers being forced to showcase their art online. Thankfully, some curtains in smaller theatres around Australia are starting to rise again and live performance is making a very slow, measured and physically distant comeback. La Femme, a seductive, surreal burlesque revue reminiscent of the infamous Parisian Crazy Horse cabaret, created by Australian performing artists Bella Louche and Porcelain Alice, is one such show.
Penthouse spoke to Bella and Porcelain about what it’s like to produce a show during a pandemic and the future of live burlesque performance in Australia.
How did La Femme come to fruition?
Porcelain: La Femme was born from realising Bella and I had complementary aesthetic visions for a revue show and similar experiences of being femme that we could share and narrate for an audience. We then embarked on about a two-and-a-half-year conversation and dreaming process, assisted by the City of Sydney and many independent creatives.
Bella: Both of us had visited the Crazy Horse Cabaret in Paris, which is famous for leggy chorus lines with highly stylised and modern burlesque routines. We were inspired to create our own high-end neo-burlesque show, but with an Australian edge. It's taken us several years of workshopping to get the show up and running, but I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved.
How did you two come to be working together?
Porcelain: I like to think mutual admiration. We have been on the bill together many times in variety shows and rotate through the same burlesque residencies around Sydney.
Bella: Porcelain Alice and I circled around the burlesque scene for quite a few years but finally bonded in 2016 on a disastrous pilgrimage to a burlesque convention in Las Vegas. We both love glamour and want to take over the world, one G-string at a time.
How would you describe La Femme in a sentence?
Porcelain: A burlesque revue full of strong women and provocative narratives.
Bella: A seductive, surreal and provocative dream.
Porcelain Alice / Iota Media
What have been some of the inspirations behind La Femme?
Porcelain: A lot of images we have tried to create are reminiscent of fashion runways or inspired by popular culture references.
Bella: The title of the show is multi-layered. In French, "femme" literally means "woman", but in a modern context, it aligns more with feminine energy and gender expression. There is such complexity in the Australian femme experience, and we wanted to showcase all the different ways to express femininity.
A lot of the acts from the show are informed by research into the works of iconic Australian artists such as Kylie Minogue, Chrissy Amphlett, Carlotta, Florence Broadhurst and Jenny Kee but also some rebellious identities like Madam Lash, Anette Kellerman and Rosaleen Norton. There is such a wealth of femme art and music in Australia that I think often gets overlooked.
The show definitely also has a fetish edge to it but not in the obvious way. Fetish can be defined as a desire for material objects or unusual body parts. I think for me particularly, beautiful clothes are my fetish. I'm all about the wrapping, not necessarily the gift—if that makes sense. Lingerie, opulent gowns and beautiful shoes are a big part of what makes the world of La Femme sexy, not just the bodies of the beautiful performers.
Who’s in La Femme?
Bella: We have a small ensemble cast, and the show is structured around showcasing individual talents. We have a drag artist named Lady Fur who can rock both a couture ball gown and a spectacular pole dance routine. We have a hauntingly beautiful singer, Ava Torch, who has a hypnotic voice that makes you feel like you are part of a dream sequence in a David Lynch Film. We also have a fierce vogue artist, Karlee Misipeka, who brings a really refreshing and modern femme energy to the show.
Porcelain: Us! Ha! But also, Nicol and Ford, who worked on almost all of our costumes and Scarlett, of BitchCraft, who created the soundscapes in lieu of an emcee, are also crucial members of the team creating the onstage vision.
"La Femme has had such intense responses. people have either loved or hated it. Lukewarm ambivalence would be a boner killer."
What drew you both to burlesque in the first instance?
Porcelain: The potential for such intricate dress-ups and a place to express myself.
My earliest memory of burlesque was watching Lillian Starr sparkling with this fierceness I hadn’t seen from a lot of dancers, she told a story, was erotic, was comedic, and years later (about eight years) she contributed a lot of her voice to La Femme, and I feel so grateful.
Bella: I have scoliosis (a curvature of the spine), and when I was about 12, a specialist suggested I wear a corset to help my posture. I started researching corsets and was really intrigued by the look of them. Through some internet trawling into corsets and vintage lingerie, I found Dita Von Teese, who is the world's most famous burlesque dancer. From that moment on, I was obsessed with glamour and striptease.
Why do you think burlesque shows remain important today?
Porcelain: Because femme-identifying people need a platform to express their sexuality on their own terms.
Bella: Burlesque opens up really important conversations about sexuality and gender politics. It's one of the few areas of the art world that embraces and gives space for all femme bodies.
Bella Louche / Iota Media
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
Bella: The opening act is called "Valley of the Dommes", and it definitely starts the show with a bang. It's a corporate-world wet dream with epic lighting, big blazers, big hats, big legs and big muffs.
Porcelain: For me, it’s the spotlight first hitting the silhouette of Lady Fur.
What has the audience response to the first production of La Femme been so far?
Porcelain: I think positive overall—and people have had discussions with me about topics I hoped the show would encourage people to talk about—and some people just like the tits and lights. We did, however, get some ignorant negative comments from a few individuals who don't understand the art of drag.
Bella: I think audiences have enjoyed the point of difference of La Femme as a burlesque show. We are being brave, forward-thinking and have a very different style to other burlesque producers and directors. La Femme has had such intense responses. People have either loved or hated it. Lukewarm ambivalence would be a boner killer.
Has COVID-19 affected the production?
Porcelain: Yes. It pushed back the whole run of shows but also impacted our ability to rehearse as a group.
Bella: COVID threw us a curveball but also offered an opportunity to rethink our business structure. Due to venue capacity restrictions, we do two sittings per night of a show rather than the traditional single sitting. Having a smaller, intimate crowd definitely makes it feel more opulent and alluring. Our first few shows sold out in a matter of days because everyone has been really hungry to get out of the house and experience new things. You can only binge Netflix for so long.
Get tickets to La Femme:
7th November tickets
8th November tickets
Follow La Femme on Instagram.
Header image: Bella Louche shot by Lauren Horwood.