Mat Ricardo meets… Beatrix Von Bourbon
Beatrix Von Bourbon is a burlesque performer who has made a home for herself in the space between the glorified showgirl and the contemporary dancer.
She has performed extensively in Europe, including several seasons in German variety theatres, and on all the finest British burlesque stages.
Our writer (and performer in his own right) Mat Ricardo sat down for a chat with her and also took some lovely pictures.
Mat: Hello. Who are you and what do you do?
Beatrix: Hello! I am Beatrix Von Bourbon and… ahh… ok… well the problem is that I like to say I’m a stripper but recently when I say that, and there’s somebody around who knows what I do, they say “Oh come on now, don’t sell yourself short, you’re an artist, you’re a burlesque dancer”.
M: That would be my reaction too. You’re different to a stripper. There are similarities between a stripper and what you do – the Venn diagram is smushed together, for sure, but-
B: There’s a lot of weight on the word “stripper”,a lot of negatives.
M: So how did you get into it?
B: I was an angsty teenager listening to nu-metal music, which I grew out of, and then got into punk music, which I also grew out of as I went further back in the musical timeline and got into rockabilly and rock & roll, via psychobilly of course.
M: Of course.
B: And when you shop for rockabilly records, it’s hard to avoid the pin-up culture, so I found pin-up culture, and I knew who Bettie Page was. Simultaneously since being a child and seeing some of my grandmother’s old clothes I’ve liked vintage styling. There’s something magical about old clothes that are still present now, that were once really fashionable, but aren’t anymore. They’ve got some kind of wonderful aura about them. I remember having a big dressing up box at home with my grandmothers great big red dance dress and a pair of knee-high go-go boots I found at a jumble sale that I wore at every opportunity until I sadly grew out of them. So – pair all that with the dance training I had as a child, and finally reaching 21 and wanting to explore my sexuality and find out more about that side of me, and to use it to make some art… put all those things together and while I was trying to find a way to express all that, I found burlesque, and it was a good fit! It’s a combination of lots of things that I love, so it came very naturally.
M: We’ve known each other for a few years, and we’ve shared a lot of bills, and one of the things that strikes me as interesting and different about your work – and you touched on it just now – is how you make art from your sexuality. Your work is more personal than many burlesque performers.
B: Yeah – I think it’s hard for me to avoid being personal. I’ve tried in the past making acts on request and they’ve always ended up weak because I’ve got no resonance with it.
I think the empowerment thing is just a media-constructed illusion and rubbish journalistic angle for people writing about burlesque.
M: The way I see burlesque – when it’s done well – is that it’s in between theatre and stripping. The reason that I react badly when you call yourself a stripper, isn’t because I’m thinking “Don’t do yourself down”, it’s because, frankly, your stuff wouldn’t work in a conventional strip joint.
B: No, it wouldn’t.
M: So, it’s not stripping.
B: I hear what you’re saying, but I guess what I’m interested in doing is adding another definition of the word. Stripping can be what I do on a theatre stage. A lot of American performers would get annoyed at people saying that burlesque isn’t stripping, because in America stripping came from burlesque, so burlesque should always honour striptease. So they’d get upset if there was no stripping in a burlesque act, but in the UK people get annoyed if you say that a burlesque act has to contain stripping. It’s all about the differing historical contexts.
M: When I’ve worked with some of the New York burlesque performers, I was surprised by how much raunchier the style there was.
B: I think there are a lot of British people in the audience wanting that extra bite.
M: A lot of bad burlesque gets by because it’s supposed to be empowering. So here’s a question: Is self-indulgence sometimes the same as empowerment, when it comes to burlesque?
B: Yes. (laughing) Moving on… No wait, you can’t just drop that in there! I think the empowerment thing is just a media-constructed illusion and rubbish journalistic angle for people writing about burlesque.
M: So when you perform, what do you want to do to your audience?
B: I want my audience to respond to my work the same way I respond to an Egon Schiele painting.
B: I know. I want them to see that I’ve had a journey. That what I’m presenting is a significant aspect of what I am now. I want to spark little bits of empathy, or resonance, maybe give them a question for them to ask themselves.
M: Have you had any particularly surprising audience reactions?
B: I was surprised when my mother saw me perform for the first time, and said “I really liked that. There’s clearly some intelligence in that”. That was a surprise.
M: So she liked you, but who do you like? Influences and heroes?
B: Very few heroes who remained heroes for long. I think it’s important to keep my influences fresh, but there are three that have stayed with me from childhood: Penn & Teller, Kylie Minogue and Jean-Paul Gaultier. I really rate Penn & Teller for their presentational skills, their charisma and strength of character they have on stage.
M: They seem to have become massively successful and respected on their own terms, which I think is the absolute key to it.
B: Totally. Kylie I’ve always liked because she’s got this magical sexy charm that I don’t think anybody else has in quite the same way. She’s kind of a seductress but not in a femme fatale way… and Gautier – I first became aware of his work because of the iconic Madonna bra. It was so simple, and yet really striking because it said more than just being a piece of clothing. It had all these external references, and when it’s put on Madonna it becomes more that just a bra. Even now, I look at the runway collections and “right click, save as” into the inspirations folder.
M: You know a lot about that stuff – last night we were tweeting at each other during The Apprentice, and you mentioned someone was wearing fake Fendi.
M: Ok, let’s talk about your tattoos.
B: People always ask if they hurt. People tend to associate tattoos with pain so heavily that they miss the whole point. Like many people, I didn’t know much about tattoo culture when I started, I was young when I started getting tattooed. More and more I started spending time with people who knew about tattoos and eventually I learnt about conventions, and how you can get tattooed by somebody world class and awesome from America, at a convention in London. So that’s how my chest piece happened. You can find out about my individual tattoos and who did them on vonbourbon.com
M: What’s next, ideally?
B: I’d like to work in a German theatre again, because I love being in Germany and even more than that I love being on a theatre stage. And the money’s good!