Jan 052019
 

Here are some photographs from the exhibition I recently put together, based around my book, Viewing Pleasure and Being A Showgirl, How Do I Look? Thanks to the artists who took part: Sophie Lisa Beresford, Julie Cook, Nwando Ebizie as Lady Vendredi, Alice Finch, Laura Gonzalez, Lucy Halstead, Sharon Kivland, Britten Leigh, Chloe Nightingale, and Isabella Streffen. 

Jul 162018
 

My book has been published, Routledge. 

About the book: 

Drawing on interviews with a breadth of different showgirls, from shows in Paris, Las Vegas, Berlin, and Los Angeles, as well as her own artworks and those by other contemporary and historical artists, this book examines the experiences of showgirls and those who watch them, to challenge the narrowness of representations and discussions around what has been termed ‘sexualisation’ and ‘the gaze’. An account of the experience of being ‘looked at’, the book raises questions of how the showgirl is represented, the nature of the pleasure that she elicits and the suspicion that surrounds it, and what this means for feminism and the act of looking.

An embodied articulation of a new politics of looking, Viewing Pleasure and Being a Showgirl engages with the idea (reinforced by feminist critique) that images of women are linked to selling and that women’s bodies have been commodified in capitalist culture, raising the question of whether this enables particular bodies – those of glamorous women on display – to become scapegoats for our deeper anxieties about consumerism.

Dec 022011
 

Over the summer I became an expert showgirl-spectacle viewer. 

During one show in Paris, my mind wandered and I began to develop a future consulting job for myself in which I get invited to view shows at rehearsal stage in order to advise how pleasure might be best generated in the show.  I pictured my business card, ‘Dr Alison J Carr – showgirl consultant’.  I mean, I think I could really help shows out, despite their wonderfulness, they really can make some bad dubious directional decisions.  I could help them avoid that and enable them to create appeal for the broadest possible audience.  And I could get to see the shows for free.  

Dec 022011
 
I tried to photograph the interior of this theatre, but without a magazine publishing deal they would not work with me.  So I loved the show, but it makes me sad to think about it.  

In the dark theatre, I could not make notes.  I make notes in the pub afterwards: 
 
Voulez Vous Coche Avec Moi number: women groin moves/sex moves. Kicking routine ending in water, Busby Berkely.  Homoerotics not sublimated, cavemen with Mohawks and one woman with boobs out, men rolling on each other.  Men stripping in shower.  Dancing in black leggings. Drag singing.  Jumpers in black bodysuits with lime stripes.  Girls not fully on beat of the music.  Smiles! I love smiles! Sex moves.  Contemporary choreography and music.  Girls over a barre number.  I’m Coming Up by Pink – strange disco headwear.  Trampy women in ‘cameras-flashing’ number, lace bondage leotards.  Short-haired female dancer going for it, my favourite dancer.  Tap-dance on a podium Matrix-style.  Sailor scene, strip for men.  Tango with two men and one woman.  
Dec 022011
 

I also visited Paradis Latin, and here are my notes from that show.  At the end of the evening I rode a ‘velib’ – a bike you can rent in the street, to my friend’s flat to say goodbye to her before she travelled back to Berlin.  Just some context for you!

Paradis A La Folie: Madness in Paradise.  Tourist crowd, same one as Nouvelle Eve.  No style.  Gaggles of women in 20s.  Couples in groups in 40s, boring looking.  2 x couples alone in 50s.  Blouse and purple knit jerkin.  Australian bus load of 20s in semi-smart clothes (but a bit townie too).  And audience on holiday, relaxed, drinking, speaking English.  Large Indian family.  Lower-middle class demographic?  Professionals, skilled workers and students?  Banquet tables.  Large groups of women. Sparkly diamante hair-band.  A straight audience?  A photographer comes round, I say no.  It’s strange how on the metro if I saw these women I see around me, I’d feel an affinity with them, but not now, in this context.  The lights dim.  Video projected.  Roses outfit, 5 girls, 4 nudes, t-bar tan shoes, all short brown hair, 5 boys.  Compère lowered on to stage, a pale pink top hat and tails.  Rose nude lowered from ceiling long hair and flower thong, ballet flats, nude with leaves.  Ballet pas de deux.  Female singer enters from back of auditorium.  Rose coloured long dress with large rose neckline.  Singer with 4 men and then compère.  Showboys for moment, lots of jump steps, tapping, cheeky, cheesy choreography, very Constance Grant Dance Centre.  Compère speaks to audience in French, then English.  Waiters on stage, the male dressed-up host as we came in, now in drag.  In ballet class number at the barre, evolves and more sexy leotard girls come out, very Eric Pridz video.  Judo boys – manly???  Music, Daft Punk-esque beats.  Steam shower with girls, just towels, 4 girls, strip with tease removing towel.  Bit more knowing choreography.  Bums in showers – men.  More comical choreography.  Barbie doll bodies – hairdown, swish hair head roll.  Rave disco scene – techno.  Pop/street dance influences unzipped skeleton wet suits.  Goes to black, zip-up full skeleton suit.  Oh-la-la song.  Girls in Adidas type tracksuit bottoms.  Compère back, black suit.  Angelou, unicycling bartender.  The formula makes me think of the ‘70s.  Country fair carousel, rotating with girls on as architecture – blonde pageboys.  Opens up into 4 girls in leathers on motorbikes, take off helmets and shake out blonde hair.  Strip off to boob harness and thong.  Dance on the bike, arched back.  Hair swinging.  Rope and man in white pants – ‘Christopher’ – sublime smile – Tarzan/Indiana Jones music.  Shaved armpits, arm decoration, sequinned shorts.  Very flit, flexible, was he an Olympic gymnast 15 years ago?  The guy spotting him is a star too.  Montagues and Capulets Prokofiev music, period dress.  Court dance, with boobs, pas de deux scene from Romeo & Juliet.  Strip off to under-net, they marry, sexy ballet??  Hip hop tribute to Romeo & Juliet.  4 girls in waistcoats, jeans and Trilbys, 5 boys in just jeans and Trilbys.  Body hair-free evening.  Boys as objects.  17tth Century Louis 15th number, girls as boys court dancing, boys strip off and stay, girls leave.  Real boys in same sort of outfit and they strip off too.  2 sets of boys dance together.  Bouillon?  Tap-dancing juggler.  Can-can, better costume, better choreography (than La Nouvelle Eve).  Girl tumbler, 3 boy tumblers.  Compère in white tails.  Thanks technicians, dressers, musicians, front of house.  Cheerleaders, singer in a long white gown – Marie.  No fake boobs.  Crossdresser type dame goes back and forth between male/female dress.
Dec 022011
 
I visited the the smaller scale cabaret ‘La Nouvelle Eve’, and drank a small bottle of champagne, included in the ticket price, whilst making these notes:


Audience: tourists, families – large Indian family.  Middle aged couples, girls aged 10, boys aged 13?  Australian student group.  Young smart couple, 20?  Middle aged large group, breaks up into men and women.  Two German women in 60s.  Everyone dressed up smart.  American father and son.  Preppy Americans in front of me.  Opening number, 10 women, 4 men.  Is this chorography dated?  Disco-ball entrance, blonde-singer, g-string.  5 girls techno-beat number, red top with cut out heart on sternum, more commercial dance.  4 boys enter, girls leave.  3 girls back – smiles! Topless dancer, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  Sparkle sleeves, original.  I like the dancers, personality.  Head-dresses, just hair up, understated.  Blonde-singer comes on with very Moulin Rouge headdress.  Topless, singing.  She doesn’t have ‘it’ fully.  Two men juggling with hats.  Black waistcosts, white shirts and trousers.  Australian audience member pulled up on stage – juggler speaks English – tourist language.  Cancan – three boys in red and black, two girls in pink.  Ten-girl line, multicoloured costumes.  Lots of yelping, like wildcats.  Boy cartwheels and tumbles, takes centre-stage, why?  Kicking music, same as Constance Grant Dance Centre uses (my dancing school).  Three boys come on.  Boy doing jumping splits – why?  All girls in twos, 2 girls dancing together.  Mr Bean type clown enters.  Physical comedy.  New number, 4 girls in trousers and 2 boys – all in the same costume, 5 girls in floppy drop-waisted dresses, 2 couples come on.  Feels fresh, dramatic tango-like.  Girls are boys in the choreography.  Nice use of back.  Cuban-heeled Oxfords on girls as boys, boys in a flatter heel but that’s the only difference in costume.  Music is a bit Eurovision.  4 boys from Grease, 2 girls on ribbons, topless in S & M harnesses.  They leave.  Black strap costumes – nice.  Blonde singer is ‘Arta’ the star girl/compère is a better dancer than singer.  No singing.  Topless male, more manly.  White costume dancer with ballet-flats and thong.  Enigma type music for ballet.  Arta back in long backless frock.  Good set of lungs on her.  I don’t like her bottle blonde bob.  Jazz Hot Baby – blue leotards and bows, pillbox hats.  Great costume, not used enough.  Jazz Hot – great song, would love a bit more tapping out.  Arte talks in every langue – she’s like a flight announcement.  Frothy, needs balls.  Arta gets 4 audience men to dance on stage.  Really?? A bride as a prize?? Bit weird.  Bit buy-a-Russian-bride.  Man comes on stage with showgirl holding a baby.  Weird.  Like Fire number, film Showgirls hand-move.  Arte, she’s good, but I want a larger personality to carry the show, she’s slightly lacking in charisma.  How do shows queer themselves?  Finale black and pink.  Love Me, 6 girls, topless, platform shoes for shorter dancers.  Oui Je T’aime finale number.
Dec 022011
 
In the summer I went to view a number of showgirl spectacles in Paris.  During the shows I made notes.  I wrote down descriptions and on the spot analyses of the displays in front of me.  I typed up my notes with the hope of using them in my writing, however I have found it hard to make them useful. As I just cut the words from my Chapter 2, I thought I’d recycle them here.  This is what I wrote from my not very good seat at the side of the stage, at the end of table I shared with noisy disinterested patrons.
Dance, Dance white caps, disco-dancing.  Older showboys.  Thong bum.  Parle Dance? Long hair through caps, high kicks, glitter.  Aujhord’hui 3 singing bun-heads, mics on face, string beads for a top.  Pleat skirt with feather trim.  Camp dancing.  3 nudes high-kicking.  Male dancers, dry ice, uniform-type hats, marching.  Female voice – la la.  Women with coloured trim dresses.  As girlfriends to soldiers.  Bead top.  Boobs covered for some.  Red dancing pom pom.  Slim thighs.  Amazing costumes with moving parts.  Juggler act to techno music.  Pirate number, men.  Hookers for pirates, hair down.  Boobs out and harnesses.  Sultry looking faces.  Pith helmet – safari suit.  Orientalism outfit.  Harem with beads and harem women.  Strange fan-like headdresses.  Cat-like women – leopards, enter wailing – ahhhhh, fight with soldier guards.  Body ripples.  Medusa.  Blonde girl slave enter.  Jumps into pool with snakes.  Snake dance underwater!  Kisses snake.  Couple fly in on string in neon and UV light.  Orientialism.  Pantomime.  Real boobs.  Featured act – male and female acrobat.  East-European looking.  Circus type ringmaster.  Clowns – men – mini horses walk on x 6.  Kossacks!!!  Orientalism less successful than using tropes from entertainment – girl clown number.  Pointing to own construction – more useful.  2 girls in one dress.  Lions – dancers as lions.  Wide trousers on clowns.  Drum bit featured act.  Audience interaction.  Mexico – big sceam from crowd “Mexi-co!!” “China” “Ukraine” “Brazil”.  Drunk woman – act – dancers clubbing, comedy.  Cancan, no men.  Men.  All cartwheel.  All cartwheel and splits – but male extra-flex man!  Boogie Woogie number.  3 singing women – English – all other in French – short-hair wigs.  Punks/Cher costume – zip t-shirt.  ‘New Generation’???  3 girls and all men.  “I will survive!” song.  Tom of Finland hat and jacket – strange Eastern European Eurovision moment.  Stage lowered with men.  Mirror ball man – over the top pink costumes.  Hip wiggle move.  Wardrobe malfunction –  lights not on on one side of pack.  Pink boots, thigh high and ankle.
Aug 272010
 

I went to University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) special collection to meet the women who started the oral history archive there, and read some of their transcripts http://www.library.unlv.edu/speccol/).  The testimonies of the various Las Vegas showgirls were amazing and addressed such wide issues from technique, upbringing, travel and visa arrangements, racism in Vegas etc.  They make for amazing reads and I managed to photocopy some of the best.  This made me wonder about using appropriated interviews too.  I’m not sure I have to be the interviewer, I’m just really interested in the voice of the showgirl.  It still doesn’t quite answer the question of what I will do with the interview material, but it got me thinking about it.


Aug 062010
 

I saw the show at the Lido (http://www.lido.fr/us/cabaret-paris.html) and had great fun.  It was so camp its indescribable.  They feature showboys in their show as well as showgirls, and I have to say they just made me cringe (I’m cringing so much I cannot bring myself to type a description of their worst costume).  A featured act was a male acrobat who performed on two long bits of material.  He was incredibly strong and flexible and his costume was a small pair of white shorts.  I was interested to think about this.  Through the use of his body, he displayed both a masculinity (strength) and femininity (fluidity in his movements and flexibility), this routed his performance outside of camp, somehow and located him in some sort of more serious object-of-desire place, in a way that the showgirls operate.  The showboys, on the other hand, are total camp, in a way that sort of negates their skill and makes them look like a Butlins act.  They are not any sort of object of desire, they are, as far as I could tell, a tacky joke.  Of course, I have no access to the spectrum of responses that a gay male spectator might have, and who knows, perhaps they function as an object of desire for them.  My point is, for me, showboys, no.  (From other performance instances I can say, male showgirls, yes).
 
Watching Crazy Horse (http://www.lecrazyhorseparis.com/) I lost my visual innocence.  The cabaret featured a troupe of female dancers, who performed butt-naked except for a very small strip of what looked like black gaffer tape, strategically placed. Although there was an audience roughly evenly split between men and women, I felt transgressive watching it, as though the whole spectacle was directed towards a male spectator and not me.  It was by far the most knowing caberet-revue I have seen.  It reputedly crosses over with burlesque as earlier this year Dita Von Teese was their featured artist.  However, I think this says more about Dita’s hetero-normative position within burlesque that she can cross over into more overt stripping contexts, rather than Crazy Horse’s closeness to burlesque. 
 
I felt that the show did a number of things in terms of styling and choreography that took the whole thing far closer to a gentlemen’s club dance context.  For example, the lighting and choreography dissected the bodies so that we saw perhaps, only legs performing.  I found the amount that we did not see the faces of the performers quite shocking.  There was no opportunity for the performers to ‘send-up’ the performance with their faces in darkness or out of view.  I found this the hardest aspect to handle.  I also felt that the repetitive use of the arched-back position that pushes the bum out moved the performances away from mainstream theatrical dance technique (which is often clearly visible in burlesque performances and particularly at the Lido) and more towards of gentleman’s club stripping.  I realised watching the Crazy Horse that I actually need to watch strip shows featuring lap and pole dancing so that I can write about the gaps and overlaps between the different styles of performing I’m interested in.  The show also featured some numbers that felt really disturbing and uncomfortable, for example a solo performance with a dancer who commenced her number tied up in ropes, and then used the ropes as props to perform on.  It’s S&M references felt shallow and quite frankly, anti-women.
 
The featured act was a male tap duo, which came as a blessed relief.  Fully clothed, the two were fully spot-lit, used their faces, audience interaction, humour and a number of different tap dancing ‘quotes’ to create an entertaining number.  And then we had to return to the strobe-lit naked women.  It was like our one moment of fun.  The seriousness of the naked women was alienating, I longed to see some smiling faces!


Sep 062009
 
I walk out into the floorshow.  The audience surrounds me.  I strike a pose in the spotlight.  I am wearing a strapless, floor length black satin dress slit up the side.  The music starts.  I wait for my cue.  I start to sing…[1]
 
I propose the scenario I describe above be called the ‘Tallulah Moment’; the moment when the female performer enthrals an audience, projecting her personality, skill and physical presence using the accoutrements of her profession—lighting and costume.  This moment is important to me and by using my personal identification with it as part of my investigation, I shall illuminate how a close read of its use in classic Hollywood films can be re-read as a celebration of women within a feminist discourse.
 
Why Tallulah?  The name calls to mind the eponymous ‘Bugsy Malone’ (1976) star and the actress, Tallulah Bankhead and through them, it represents excess, opulence, sexuality and joie de vivre—all highly appropriate for my purposes.  The word ‘moment’ relates to the photograph, the symbol, the emblem but not exclusively to the static.  The Tallulah Moment is a moment because I am referring both to the moving image and the frozen symbol.  In the classic Hollywood film, narrative flow is interrupted by such ‘moments’ bringing the unfolding of the story to a temporary halt.  In this interruption, I find potency—it is credit to the Tallulah Moment that it can be extracted from the film story and stand on its own.
 
Hollywood has used the Tallulah Moment as a device for generating pleasure in its audience. It functions by giving the female character, who, in the course of the conventional narrative is strait-jacketed into stereotypes and simplistic desires, a platform for the display of her power.  Ultimately, the storyline chastises her for that display, but within the Tallulah Moment, the woman is not punished; she is celebrated.  Hollywood developed its celebratory spectacle of the female form through studying the Ziegfeld theatrical tradition of opulence.  Indeed, Ziegfeld’s Follies provided both a ready supply of attractive young women for the Hollywood talent scouts in the 1920s and storyline fuel that was light on story and heavy on opportunities to theatricalise.  Therefore, Hollywood has used the setting of the theatre and the chorus girl, the showgirl, the dancer and the singer frequently since it started to produce films—‘All singing! All dancing!’[2].
 
The 1930s-1950s represent a heyday for both the Musical, and other genres, like Film Noir that employ the Tallulah Moment.  Therefore, it is this time period I want to address.  A musical ‘interruption’ in these films may take on a number of different forms, and a film may include a variety of them.  The Tallulah Moment proper features a single female singing and/or dancing, alone.  A variation on this is a partnered dance where the woman has a male counterpart.  The dance nevertheless allows the woman to shine, supported by the man.  Fred Astaire does not outshine Ginger Rogers when they dance together.
 
The naughty Ziegfeld flapper/dancer of the Twenties became good-girl virginal figure[3] during the Hayes Code era (from 1930 to 1968), where inference was everything.  The partnered musical number within a Musical film[4] functioned as a metaphor, representing the complexity of sexual relationships.  Through gesture and dance moves, the back and forth of a love affair is embodied.  During the dance sequence it is as though the two dancers go on date, have their first kiss, have an argument, reconcile and have sex.  The dance stands in for the work of the relationship and through it we can understand their affection to one another that is not shown explicitly during the film.  It is through reading the dance as more than a dance that we can understand why the characters become so attached, having seemingly only just met. 
 
There is a complex craft in constructing the Tallulah Moment.  It is created through a song (usually with lyrics but not necessarily), elaborate set, direction, camera angles and cuts.  For example, in the titular dance of the film ‘Cover Girl’ (1944) the Tallulah Moment is introduced with a montage of magazine covers before Rita Hayworth descends down an elaborate smoke-filled set and removes a long gold coat to present herself in a gold flowing gown. She continues running down to meet a troop of men dressed alike as photographers who dance with her in turn, lift her up and support her swoons.  The scene concludes as Hayworth runs up the path she descended on with the men running after her and glitter falling from the sky.  All of these effects are deployed within the overall construct of the film as well as the studio system’s crafting of the actress as a personality in publicity campaigns and advertising.  However, the story lines of these films repress strong female voices or personalities—something I perceive as I look back on films that reflect a different ideology of femininity.  Indeed I have to suspend my pangs of sadness as I indulge my black and white film habit.  It is so apparent how constrained the women are, which reflects the societal attitudes and limits that women where subject to pre-Second Wave feminism.
 
But there is release in the Tallulah Moment when the woman explodes with charisma and unapologetically revels in her objectification.  The woman owns her body and the gaze within that moment.  I recognise within this moment something quite absent in my life and I want that moment.  Whilst the Hollywood machinery constructs a moment so pure in its pleasure, overlaying heavy-handed devices to ensure how my gaze is taking in that woman, it is credit to the women who thrive in this moment that they are not a zero point at the centre, but a charismatic being.  Whilst I watch these moments, I imagine the performance in its barest incarnation—a woman, in a dress, in a spotlight.  I imagine my gaze undirected by lingering pans and insinuating cuts.  
 
During the 1930s-1950s time period the Hayes Code opened up possibilities in representing the female body that have effectively been closed down since then.  I am identifying the Tallulah Moment as one of these possibilities.  What I see happening was actresses with a high standard of technical dance training (and with that a working methodology of how to handle the gaze) were employed to display sexuality.  The freedom and fantasy of their use of their body is being used as a way of being sexually provocative without being overt.  My insider knowledge of dance training enables me to see that work being done and to feel its effect.  It takes skill to project your body as a fantasy space and this is what I am interested in suggesting.  When Rita Hayworth performs ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ in ‘Gilda’ she owns her body as a fantasy space, and credit to her for that.

 


[1] Imagery taken from ‘Gilda’ (1946) Columbia Pictures, directed by Charles Vidor starring Rita Hayworth.
[2] Taken from the promotional advertising posters for the 1929 film ‘Broadway Melody’, the first musical film featuring sound; ‘All talking All singing All dancing’.
[3] See Ruby Keeler in ‘42nd Street’ (1933), ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ (1933) and ‘Dames’ (1934).
[4] For example the Fred Astaire films; ‘Swing Time’ (1936), ‘Shall We Dance’ (1937), ‘You’ll Never Get Rich’ (1941), ‘You Were Never Lovelier’ (1942).