KYOTO – When the history of burlesque in Japan is written, Kyoto deserves a chapter of its own.
When it comes to performance art, the obvious and immediate association for Kyoto is with the demure gestures and movements of geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha).
But peel back the curtains a little further, and you see that the city has a vibrant cabaret scene that helped produce renowned burlesque performers such as Erochica Bamboo, a former winner of the Miss Exotic World Pageant staged annually in the United States.
Although Bamboo has been based in Berlin since 2011, she’s helped inspire other notable burlesque performers, such as Cherry Typhoon, who have in turn helped guide and influence a younger coterie of performers in Kansai, such as the Kuroneko Burlesque collective, a group of neo-burlesque dancers which is pushing the entertainment form onwards and outwards.
Though most dancers still keep their real names private, burlesque in Japan has come along way from the days when they would hide what they were doing from friends and family, as Cherry Typhoon has admitted doing previously.
The Kuroneko performers do not give out their real names due to fears over personal safety; there have been isolated cases in which the dancers have been tracked down and stalked.
If anything, the performers of Kuroneko (which translates as Black Cat) embrace the artform. At their shows, audience members are encouraged to take pictures throughout and post them on social media websites.
“Photos are fine,” says Mecav, one of Kuroneko’s principal dancers, after a recent show in Kyoto. “We don’t allow videos, because we want people to witness what burlesque is actually like. Seeing what we do on a video on your phone or on social media is not at all the same. The show is something that we should enjoy together.”
And as for those who do show up to a Kuroneko show, it offers a telling indication of how attitudes to burlesque have changed.
A recent show at Annie’s Cafe in Kyoto, a cabaret bar that looks like it belongs in the bubble era, there were young couples, groups of male and female friends, women on their own, and yes, a few older and enthusiastic but ultimately appreciative gentlemen.
Over the course of more than two hours, the Kuroneko dancers shed garments and brought the house down, or more accurately, had the audience on their feet, as they glided up and down a pole in the middle of the dance floor and teasingly and outrageously performed to all manner of music, from classic hip-hop to Showa Era (1926-89) showstoppers. If it’s entertainment your after, then Kuroneko provides it by the barrel.
One of the standout performances was dancer Izumi Amazoness’ satire-laden performance where she emerges dressed like the construction worker from The Village People, replete with a fake beard and moustache, a high-visibility work vest and a tool belt before settling into a raucous dance routine to “2 Live Crew” before segueing into Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It.” Needless to add, she sheds almost everything, including her beard.
One of the tricky things about burlesque can be explaining what it is (fun and, at times, risque) and what it isn’t (a strip show).
As Mecav says, there is a lot packed into the word burlesque, “and it is very hard to explain.”
“Our meaning of burlesque is close to a variety show, but which stems from classic burlesque,” she says. “Our dancers are from different genres, for example belly dancers and pole dancers. Burlesque is based on the concept of teasing and taking off our clothes. But the show is more than that.”
Both Mecav and her colleague Eliana, the principal dancers and founders of Kuroneko, came to burlesque via different paths.
Mecav, originally from Yamaguchi Prefecture, took up hip-hop dancing when she moved to Kyoto for university. From hip-hop dancing she began to try pole dancing, and from there she moved to burlesque. Along the way she’s been guided and influenced by the Japanese stars of the profession such as Erochica Bamboo and Cherry Typhoon.
Eliana, on the other hand, is an accomplished salsa dancer.
“Technically, I’m not a burlesque dancer so I don’t have a concrete image of the future of burlesque,” she says. “It is more like a variety show or entertainment for me. It is all about passion. It sounds cliched to say so, but without love nothing works. It’s something that’s always on my mind.”
Mecav says that the first burlesque show she saw, in Osaka, was by Tokyo-based Murasaki Babydoll, founded by Typhoon. She came away hooked, thinking it was both “erotic and funny.”
“Of course the dance is the premise of burlesque,” Mecav says. “But it’s also about putting our individuality and creativity into the performance.
“And yes, teasing is a very important part of burlesque.”
Mecav adds that, historically, comedy, parody and satire are integral components of burlesque. As is shedding clothes.
But, as both women point out, there’s an identifiable distinction between burlesque, or neo-burlesque, which is closer to what Kuroneko does, and the kind of stripping performed at strip clubs, which is performed very much for the male gaze.
Caitlin Coker, a dancer from California and a lecturer at Kyoto University, where she studied dance, says that Kuroneko operates to a strict code that “points to them wanting what they do to be seen as a respected job and not something seedy.”
That includes covering up between performances while they might be chatting with audience members and regulars.
“Mecav also teaches her students how to be professional with clients and not be misunderstood as just some erotic lady,” Coker says.
While neo-burlesque is gaining in popular traction, Mecav says she wants to see it grow more, and faster. But as Kuroneko’s shows, which are staged mostly in the Kansai region, are all organized only by Mecav and Eliana, it requires considerable time and effort.
Spring will see Kuroneko move in a new direction when it takes up a short residency at Theatre E9, a new arts space in the south part of Kyoto.
Both Mecav and Eliana hope that the move into new surroundings can bring a different audience to Kuroneko shows.
After that, Mecav says she will take some time to pause and consider which direction she wants to take Kuroneko and burlesque.
“It’s important to be independent when doing burlesque,” she says. “Ultimately I’d like for people to stop in and see burlesque after a day’s work in the same way people might stop into an izakaya (Japanese pub).“
For more information about Kuroneko Burlesque, visit peraichi.com/landing_pages/view/kuronekoburlesque.