This is something I have been considering a lot recently. With the Burlesque Festival season in full swing, many of the top performers are doing the rounds and appearing in festival shows the world over. More so this year than any other, it seems to be many the same performers featuring at the festivals, which implies that they are head and shoulders above the rest of them.
There are also endless discussions on social networking sites: “Who is the best performer in the UK?” “Who is your favourite performer?” etc. where the same names appear time and time again. Again, this shows that certain performers are considered to be much, much better than most.
So, what makes a good performer? What makes someone memorable, recommendable and marketable? There are hundreds of performers in the UK, and many hundreds more abroad, so what does it take to stand out from the crowd and be considered 'one of the best'?
Some of the below are superficial, some are not: these are my opinions on what I believe makes someone both a good performer and what makes others think they are. I would also like to state that I have been on both sides (good costumes, not so good: part of a clique, not part of a clique, etc). I am not referencing any particular performers at any stage, these are mostly sweeping observations and statements meant to apply broadly rather than specifically.
I genuinely believe that this is one of the main factors in determining whether someone is perceived as a good performer: image is everything. For better or for worse, the audience and promoters will react more positively towards a dancer wearing a swarovski covered silk gown, than a dancer wearing unembellished primark underwear, regardless of whether the girl in the gown is actually a better performer.
A fabulous costume implies to others that you are committed to your art: that you have invested time, money and effort into your act. A poor costume implies that you don't care about your routine, despite whether your efforts have been concentrated towards your dance, acting or clowning ability.
Obviously image is important, and many of the best performers have realised this and invested a lot of time and money into their costumes, meaning that up and coming performers often believe that a beautiful outfit is the way to success.
I heard a wonderful quote a couple of weeks ago: as burlesque becomes more commercial, there is a lean towards a commercially perceived ideal of female beauty.
I tend to agree with this: burlesque is seen as a celebration of the female form in all its wonderful diversity, and there are many world class dancers who do not necessarily fit what the media considers to be an 'ideal' body type. However it's hard to disagree that most of the top performers also have amazing figures.
There is an obvious reason for this – if you are taking your clothes off in front of an audience, you want your body to look its best, so performers will exercise, diet and work hard at perfecting their figure. The more a dancer works, the more they will want to look good, meaning that the top performers will invest a lot of time and effort into their appearance, which perpetuates an idea that if you have a wonderful figure, you will also be a wonderful performer.
This is one of my particular favourite things with performers: those who give good face!
Some performers are wonderful dancers; some have perfect figures; some have incredible costumes. However if they don't look as though they are enjoying themselves, they are boring. Simple.
Facial expressions do a lot to enhance a performance: whether it's a growling sex-face, half-closed sex-kitten eyes, a coy rosebud mouth, a wide-open faux-shocked expression, or many combinations of these. It is proven that whenever an act is on stage, regardless of what the act is, most audience members will spend most of their time looking at the performers face – this is why TV broadcasts of variety acts usually employ close-up camera shots.
Conversely, many performers have realised the power of giving good face and have rehearsed certain facial expressions in the same way they will rehearse their dance moves. I actually don't like this: it shows and feels forced and stagnant, and many times I actually believe it affects the true potential of a routine.
The performers who are cited among the best know the power of the face and their facial expressions and have fun with them.
Who You Know
As with any walk of life, I honestly think this is one of the main parameters in predicting success. It's “Who you know, rather than What you know.”
The burlesque scene is often criticised for being cliquey. I actually don't think this is really a bad thing: if you are a promoter running a show, you may have an overarching theme in mind for the style of show you are putting on, in which case there may only be a handful of performers who will fit your vision. At the same time, if you have a group of performers you work with regularly, who are all good performers, who all get along well and turn in a consistently high standard of work, then of course you will book them rather than taking a chance on someone you don't know. It is a sensible way of ensuring your show meets your standards.
If you are a performer who is 'in' with one of these groups, you are guaranteed a level of exposure you wouldn't get if you were merely doing the rounds. Especially if that show is particularly well received, reviewed or respected. A regular performer with one of the best shows will naturally be viewed as one of the best performers, regardless of whether you actually are one of the best, or whether you merely happen to be friends with the promoter.
One of the great things about burlesque is that it is open to all: anyone with a modicum of talent, or merely the craving to be on stage and be the centre of attention for a time can have a go, and some of these will rise to become incredible performers. There is no elitism with cabaret; no system of training as with drama schools, no exams and levels as with ballet; anyone with drive and determination can have a go.
However; most of the top performers have had some sort of training, whether before beginning burlesque or after starting when they realise that only by learning stage-craft can they progress. This might be learning basic performance skills such as dance or clowning, or specific talents geared towards one particular act. The best performers know that only by training can they hope to become the best, and keep improving.
In one way or another, a lot of performers who are considered to be among the best, are masters of promotion. Some people just seem to have the knack for self-promotion on social networking sites or just generally.
Publicity seems to equal talent in many minds: there are performers in every art form who are described as 'coming out of no where' or being 'an overnight success'. On the whole this is generally not true, with these overnight successes usually working away for years before achieving a seemingly meteoric rise.
I often refer to burlesque as being the hardest sales job in the world. We are essentially selling a product to a consumer: the consumer being a show promoter and the product being ourselves. Good sales people can 'sell ice to the Eskimos' so if a performer is naturally good at this, they can make people believe that they are one of the best, whether they are or not, and whether they even realise they are doing it!
After a combination of all of the above, a performer will be imbued with a sense of self-belief; believing the hype that they are a good performer. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy and will show on stage – all of the best performers own the stage: they know they audience can't take their eyes off them, and will turn in the best performance they can.
The top performers are often described as having that 'X-Factor' – that indefinable, indescribable aura on stage, where you simply can't look away. A friend put it succinctly when describing one act: 'they could take a shit on the stage and you'd still go wild for them'
This is truly the hallmark of what makes the best performers: the inherent belief that they are meant to be on that stage and you are meant to love them.