(Cover photo: Egyptian Act - GLAMOUR NOIR II: Exotic Nights. Bar Teatro a Barraca, Lisboa. (C) André Pires - New Vintage Photo - 2014)
Literally three seconds after I sat down with Portuguese performer Manu de La Roche, I asked her the one question that I really wanted to know more since last Summer, when burlesque group Lisbon Undergroud Burlesque had an entire month's worth of performances based on film and comic-book characters.
On one hot night in town, Manu, the special guest of the night, performed her version of Batman's favorite thief, Catwoman, and everything we knew about her up to that point had changed.
So, as a comic-book fan myself, I had to ask: Where did that Catwoman peformance come from?
I'm a huge fan of Tim Burton's 'Batman Returns' so when they asked me to pick a character, it only made sense I'd choose Catwoman. It's one of my favorite movies.
From there I had to backtrack and was curious to know more about her journey in the burlesque scene.
My first introduction to burlesque was in 2003/2004, through a Marilyn Manson music video. 'mOBSCENE', where Dita Von Teese makes an appearance. Seeing her bath in a giant Martini glass, I knew it was stripping, but it was different. She wasn't naked. When I researched her, that's when I discovered what burlesque was. It was after reading about her I found out about other performers, like Catherine d'Lish and that's when my interest grew. The fact that it was artistic, captivated me.
Indeed Queen of Modern Burlesque, Dita Von Teese, was single-handedly responsible for bringing back the art performance to a whole new audience, as you can see in the music video below:
Manu performed for the first time in 2011, on Halloween in Bairro Alto, for vintage store Ás de Espadas.
I was still in formation at the time and wasn't sure if I was ready, but they gave a push and it was best thing they could've done. It was awesome. It was a 5 minute act and I still had to model during the show. The place was full and I had a good feeling. It was at that moment I realized I should take this even more seriously.
She is also known for her love for Coimbra, where she does a few performances often enough, as well as been invited to speak at a TEDx Talk a couple of years ago.
I've lived in Coimbra for 11 years. I went there to study at the age of 19 and when I finished my course, I stayed to give classes. The city, in cultural terms, is very developed.
Being part of the TEDx event, gave me the opportunity to talk about burlesque to a whole new audience. It was a challenge to condense the entire history of the art in 18 minutes, which was the time limit. It was a wonderful experience.
Since she started performing in Lisbon, the burlesque scene in the city has changed the past few years, with Pensão Amor and Bar da Velha Senhora being the reference locations to catch a show, but as of fall of last year, Bar da Velha Senhora's change of management also meant that there wouldn't be anymore more performances there. In the meantime, Titanic Sur Mer and Clube Royale have proven to be spots for all burlesque fans.
Personally, I believe there has a been a big boom of burlesque performers, mostly solo ones, like me, as well as people who are part of groups. There's a whole new generation of performers and others who are beginning to explore the art.
In that sense I can say things have been positively developed, at least in Lisbon.
With Lisbon being at the center of everything burlesque, Manu said:
Even though I do perform occasionally in other cities, like Coimbra and Porto, in Lisbon there are at least two shows per month. So maybe that's something we still need to work on.
Just like any art-form, it can draw inspiration from places, like pop-culture references, mainly one pop artist.
My biggest influence is Madonna. Ever since I was a teenager. (laughs) The music video for 'Open Your Heart', Madonna wears a corsage by Jean Paul Gaultier with incorporated pasties. She's always been an inspiration in terms of visuals. Every time she releases an album she changes her visuals in an inexplicable fashion and I admire that in her.
But Madonna is not her only inspiration.
Musically, I'm also inspired by the late David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails. It might not seem related, but visually, there are lots of details that point towards fetishism and ever since I was a teenager, they were my favorite band, so I identify myself a lot with them.
Indeed, Manu is no stranger to the mysterious and dark visuals of Fetishism, as she explains one of her signature acts:
I've got an act that is a homage to North-American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, where I use a mask with the figure of Jesus Christ. That image was created by him, so I was inspired to create a fetish act around that.
Not only inspired by these artists, Manu looks for inspiration everywhere, mentioning noir films, The Matrix and Sci-fi films as good places to take fragments and turn them into something of your own interpretation.
But with someone who isn't willing to be bold, does she worry about any possible controversy?
Controversy, maybe not. I do however want to draw a reaction from someone. There are a lot of symbols I use during my acts, like the Jesus Christ figure and the Egyptian act. But more than anything, my goal is to have a message embedded in everything, so whomever is watching, will be thinking about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. That's what burlesque is for me, to have a theme or an idea and put it behind what you do, so the person watching will have their own interpretation of it. Call it an intellectual mechanism.
Manu has also been teaching the art-form for the last year, could she be teaching the future performers of this country?
It has happened a few times. Once there was this young girl in her 20's. I remember explaining how to put on a glove and she started suggesting alternative ways. I realized that she has the creativity to possibly be someone I can call a co-worker one day and it's an amazing feeling. It's fun to see these new generations of possible performers, because when I started out, there was hardly anyone. Nowadays, because there are more performers, they have a wider access to the art-form.
Being part of such a risqué performance scene, it might be frowned upon those who don't really know what burlesque is, and on a personal level, Manu said:
I've never had to hide myself from the public. There is a separation between my artistic life and my personal life, but I never had to hide anything. Everyone's going to end up knowing, be it by pictures or someone you know will end up seeing you. It's going to get out either way. When I started doing burlesque, I was still a teacher and everyone knew what I was doing. I shared videos and photos of the art-form and reinforced that this was an artistic medium. I've always insisted in being true to myself, including my name. I like what I'm doing, so I don't feel I have to hide anything.
With the Underground Burlesque Fest coming up in July, Manu de La Roche has already been confirmed to perform on the Burly stage. I asked her if she could reveal something, but she left it with quite a bit of mystery.
At the end, the conversation still went on other random curiosities about herself and the work she does, and now having this opportunity to know one of the most intriguing Burlesque performers in Portugal, all I can hope for is that she soon enough performs overseas.
The Underground Burlesque Fest happens on the 1st and 2nd of July in Lisbon. You can keep updated on their official Facebook page.