Chasing the Dragons

How do you get a pounds 5,000 Arts Council Grant to bring grotesque burlesque to the Raymond Revuebar? Ann Treneman investigates. Photographs by Harriet Logan
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Amanda Moss went to art school to learn how to paint properly but then, one day, she noticed something as she worked on a figure. "I got to the arms and I thought, 'I'm bored. I'm bored with arms. I am just not interested.' So I got up the courage to say what I was interested in." And that was? "The mouth, breast, vagina, skin and, yes, ears. Not all of them are sexual. But if you look at the ear, it looks the most like a vagina of all," she says, adding, "Oh, and nipples. I'm very interested in nipples."

I look at Moss as she sits in her studio not far from London's Kings Cross. She is 34 and slight, with green fatigues and matching nail polish. Behind her on one wall hang three latex breasts (with nipples). The opposite wall features detailed paintings of vaginas. Around her, lie plaster casts of a female body with a Barbie-esque bustline. "I am interested in isolating and exaggerating," she says. A lot of her fellow artists got interested in penises, she says, but not her. "I don't do phalluses. I thought it would be more interesting to demystify my own sexuality. That's my ground."

It is also Marissa Carr's ground. Carr is 26 and an artist, dancer and real-time showgirl who is fascinated by what she calls "female sexual entertainers". As it turns out, she grew up a few streets away from Moss in Southgate in North London, and now they share a studio and an interest in the body, art and the darker side of eroticism. "We are the baddest Jewish girls from Southgate ever!" she cries. I am not arguing because Moss and Carr do not so much walk on the wild side as dance and prance there. Somehow, I doubt if Palmers Green High School for Girls is going to have them back to make a speech.

They call themselves the Dragon Ladies and, together with Amanda's partner, Adrian Jones, they have put together one of the strangest shows Soho (never mind Southgate) will have ever seen. It's called the Grotesque Burlesque Revue and it appears tomorrow by special arrangement at the Raymond Revue Bar. Marissa Carr says it is subversive and it is certainly not your traditional skin show (not least because it's latex and tattooed). "Is it erotic? Well, it's on that line between being sexy and scary and frightening and grotesque. That's what people say at least," says Moss. "Men do not come up to me and say you were really sexy," says Carr. "What they say is you were really scary, really frightening. Women sometimes say it was sexy - and scary."

The costumes alone are terrifying. Moss says it is all about display and the body and she has created an entire skin for Carr with rampant tattoos and enormous breasts. There is a pair of vagina briefs with Jagger-esque lips attached. There is a heavily tattooed mask. "Every time I wear that skin, I lose half a stone I sweat so much. If there is a hole in it, the water just pours out," says Carr.

Marissa Carr is the main performer in this fantastical fairy-tale involving sex, death and Bluebeard. She dances (burlesque, strip and en pointe, too). She emotes (passion, death, cannibalism). She dies three times, kills endlessly, loses her legs once and wears some really rather fine showgirl-type headgear. She tells me she is into melodrama, but I had already figured that out. Adrian Jones provides a soundtrack that mixes "warped fairy-tale carnival music" with a few upbeat burlesque numbers. They have received a lottery grant of pounds 5,000 through the Arts Council to put on this show and are hoping to attract more funding and an agent.

There is a knock at the front door and the Nightmare Chorus Line starts to arrive. The Nightmares are opening the show with what Carr calls a twisted burlesque parade. By now I am ready to believe anything. Amanda Moss has made latex torsos for each of the Nightmares and the skins hang in the hallway, ridiculous breasts sparkling with spangly pasties. "Oh, these are my tits! They are lovely, darling," says dancer Heidi James. She says the show is fantastic. "Very sexy, but not sexy in a media-friendly kind of way," she says. "You know, exaggerated femininity." The other three dancers arrive. Each has brought a pair of heels that most people could not stand up in. This is not exaggerated, I think, it is insane.

"It's like a warped sexy walk," says Marissa Carr as the four mince forward in rehearsal. "But not a goosestep?" asks another dancer, who call herself Otter. She is wearing a pair of six-inchers. She explains to me that the sexy part of this is the unbroken line from knee to toe. She also notes that this makes it hard to walk, much less dance, much less spin round and bend over backwards until her hands touch the floor as she has to do.

"We are playing on tradition," says Carr. "We are fetishising these objects, stilettos and breasts. It's sort of a satire of the sexual parade."

In the dressing room, the Nightmares get into their new skins and drape themselves in various bits of underwear. "I don't know about that baby- doll look," says Carr, casting a critical eye over Otter, whose huge latex breasts are covered in see-through nylon. There is general concern that the baby doll might obscure the flame tattoo that covers Otter's abdomen and lower back. "But I like the nylon because it is really cheap and nasty," says Carr. Heidi James gets into her torso and accidentally whacks me with a breast as she squeezes past. "This is fantastic!" she says. "This is escapism for me!"

The Nightmares put on their masks and start to dance again. The costumes make a huge difference, turning something rather cheesy into a scene that is otherworldly and frightening. Moss and Carr say the idea is to play on notions of stripping off clothes and skin, titillation and deception. Carr knows something of this herself though she doesn't like to talk about it. "My experiences as a stripper - and we won't go any further on the subject - have given me a certain ferocity and attitude and way of performing that I would never have had if I hadn't done it." Amanda Moss puts it more succinctly: "Marissa gets out there and does it. She has balls, basically. I like that."

Moss loves the idea of deception, of masks, of surprise. One day, she says, they were all in their grotesque gear and being filmed for an upcoming Channel 4 guide to Soho. "We were walking around Soho with these masks with these great big bosoms and the big vaginas, in alleyways because we like alleyways, swinging our pearls like prostitutes. People were just stopping and watching us. It was like street theatre. We were getting some very, very disgusted comments." Carr interrupts: "But there were other people, the young ones, who were saying how fabulous it was and that the skin was beautiful."

It is in this place - the world between beauty and beast - that the Grotesque Burlesque Revue inhabits. "Sexuality can be full of nightmares, dreams and images. It's full of panic and strange and twisted emotions," says Carr, tying her hands up in knots. "I don't think it's something you can switch on and off. It's not one minute, I'm sexy, and the next I'm not. Sexuality is much deeper and darker than we ever imagined. It is not about taking control, it is about losing control. Yet the symbols are repressive. Like shoes, say. But they are part of what we think of as sexy. To me, very high heels and underwear is sexual. Really, what we are doing is contorting that."

And getting the hankies out while they are at it. "The big word for me is melodrama," she says. "Everybody looks down on it. They think art is about minimalism. They think it has to be classy. But art can be dirty, sexual and real. It's melodrama, burlesque with too much going on. Trashy, tacky and overdressed. We do that."

She beams. Moss's parents and hers will be coming to Soho to see the show together. So what do they think? "Well, they like it if it is thought of as art and not pornography," says Marissa. In addition, the audience is bound to include a few radical anthropologists. A class of them have become Dragon Lady fans. But what about the dirty raincoat brigade? "There won't be any because it's not sexy," says Marissa. "It is sexy," says Amanda. "Yes," Marissa says, "but it is bizarre sexy." Or perhaps just sexy bizarre The Dragon Ladies appear tomorrow and later in the year at the Raymond Revue Bar, Brewer Street, London W1. Tickets are pounds 10. Box Office: 0171- 734 1593