Let the World Burlesque Games begin!
Producer Chaz Royal tells us about this year's edition of Europe's biggest pastie-fest
'We've had to be more strict this year because of the competition - during the review process, if we didn't think each person had a shot at the first-place title, we wouldn't put them through.' No, it's not an Olympic coach discussing selection procedures for London 2012. It's Chaz Royal, creator of London Burlesque Week (LBW), talking about the capital's sixth annual jamboree of tassels, tease and titillation - with the odd twist.
Running from May 7 to 13, this year's LBW event is rebranded as the World Burlesque Games - glancing suggestively at a certain other competitive event scheduled for summer 2012. 'At the end of last year we talked about how to kick things up a stage,' Royal says. 'With the Olympics coming to London, this was the year to do it.' Not that you'll see the O-word on any official WBG material - unsurprisingly, there's no official connection.
Those selection criteria are no joke, however. This year's festival saw a record 400 applicants in the running for 100 spots, equally divided between homegrown and global talent. And the competition isn't just for show, either. With nine events taking place over seven days at four venues, there are eight titles up for grabs: British and international female, male and newcomer awards plus gongs for alternative and variety-oriented performers.
The economic climate has prompted a little tweaking here and there. 'The audience is still there but spending habits are different,' Royal notes. 'A lot of regular cabaret and burlesque-goers are pretty skint these days but we can't just rely on tourists willing to pay high prices. And it's increasingly difficult to compete with the amount of dinner cabarets offering discount offers. That's the challenge, to see what'll work best every year.' Still, advance sales have been robust - at the time of writing, the closing event is already sold out - and you're unlikely to see much scaling back on stage. 'A lot of the international female crowd have extremely opulent, over-the-top showgirl costuming,' says Royal. 'Full-on two-meter headdresses, thousands of Swarovski crystals.'
It's not just about female glamour. Introduced only last year, the boylesque element of the competition looks to be a keeper, splitting into British and international strands. 'Last year's male show probably got the highest energy and the best reception of the week,' Royal says. 'The guys have to really try - it can't rely on being sexy and glamorous, it has to walk the line of comedy and push boundaries as well. It's not just about man-sexiness.' The 'twisted' section of alt and fetish work is also back and this year's WBG sees the introduction of the Triple Crown category for more variety-oriented burlesque, including performers inspired by tango and martial arts.
There's even what you might call an equivalent of the cultural Olympiad: the exhibition 'A Brush with Burlesque' runs on Brick Lane throughout the WBG, offering a selection of new work by artists who take burlesque performers as their subjects. The pieces range from evocative oil paintings and charcoal drawings to comic-book pastiche and expressionistic graphic design. Fans of the scene will recognise a few familiar faces on the walls.
As well as novelty and international acts, WBG offers the chance to see many of London's best performers at work. 'There's nothing else like it in Europe,' Royal insists, 'and the US competitions tend to focus on American performers. This is a showcase for an international audience, not just another gig.'
See our listings and the World Burlesque Games website for more information.