Sunday, 22 February 2009 20:44
By Fiona Purdon couriermail.com
IT is 11pm on a cold New York winter night but while the city shuts down, it is burlesque dancer Amber Ray's peak time – whether she's performing or sewing costumes.
After the interview Ray will return to designing costumes to cater for her ever-evolving looks and themes.
Her hundreds of costumes – corsets, feathers and headpieces – are crammed into the 3.7m by 1.4m closet, and also bedroom, of her tiny Brooklyn apartment, only five minutes from her many performance clubs at Manhattan's lower-east side.
She shares the closet with her artist husband.
Evidence of both their colourful professions litter their apartment, which includes the main bedroom, a kitchen and bathroom.
"We only have a small space but New York is expensive. Maybe now we are doing well, we will make a move," she says.
"I like staying up late, I'm a night owl and the city is quieter. I like the quiet to get a lot of my costume work done. I do a lot of things myself, except I don't sew the corset, but I revamp things and build things up from scratch."
Ray is making her first trip to Australia with the three-city vintage-styled event, The Burlesque Ball, kickstarting at Brisbane's Globe Theatre in Fortitude Valley on March 7.
The audience is encouraged to "Dress to Impress" in black, red or burlesque, with a spectacular prize for the Best Dressed Award at the ball, which will be hosted by comedian Dave Bloustein.
Ray is "obviously excited" about bringing burlesque's magic and intensity to Australia with five acts – three classical (for the ball) and two risque (for any other gigs).
"It will be a good introduction to burlesque, polished and pristine," she says. "I've heard good things about Australia – (that) you guys are fun and like to party.
"After so many years in burlesque, I feel extremely comfortable in my own skin, no matter where I perform, and I have worked hard on my act."
Ray says that burlesque is related to cabaret because it is theatrical, fun and comic, but there was also a striptease and sensual element (Ray usually strips to her g-string).
She says burlesque has evolved and changed over the years.
In the 1950s it was the domain of gentleman's clubs, but it now has wider appreciation, appealing to "husbands and wives and suburbia".
"You don't have to pay for a Broadway ticket to see a funny and sassy show in a club, which appeals to a lot of people," she says.
Ray believes that after years of being dictated to by fashion magazines and the media, women love to attend burlesque because it helps them feel comfortable with their bodies.
"Women like to see it to feel more liberated in expressing themselves. Up on stage I'm having a good time, (and) it's a good thing – helping women with their own sexuality and getting in touch with their female mystique," she says.
"I hope women become empowered by their own femininity.
"For so many years we were told what we should look like, what's right and what's wrong."
She loves her "dramatic" curves – a 56cm waist, 94cm hips and 30DD bust.
"I've got some major curves. I'm not a skinny girl.
"I like to be a woman. I don't like people telling me how I should look," she says.
Through her show, she believes she's doing her bit to help audiences get in touch with their "spirit and body" and to make them feel better about themselves.
"I love every flaw and curve on my body. It shows that real people can be fantastic – you don't have to be an amazing and skinny model."
Her only exercise is running up and down subway stairs, but burlesque has become so popular, it is now an exercise option, which she says is more fun than "getting on the treadmill like a gerbil".
She says burlesque started in Europe in the 1890s with some influences stemming from British theatre as well as the Moulin Rouge dancing girls in Paris.
Ray is inspired by the "beautiful and lush costumes" of the Moulin Rouge and is thrilled that burlesque is more accessible than when she first left her Lake Michigan school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
"I knew at 18 I wanted to be a dancer so I went to a gentleman's club and envisaged fishnets, furs and rhinestones, but it was a cheaper experience. I didn't like hustling for money," she says.
"I moved around the country wanting to be an artist . . . until I found my people in New York," she says.
Ray says there were fewer than 20 burlesque dancers when she arrived in New York in 2001. Now there are hundreds, including several Australians.
Ray immediately felt at home on stage under the lights.
"I love to see the crowd's reaction."