Not all is revealed in Mongolian nightclub: A formerly closed society is revelling in a new freedom to flirt with erotica, but local tastes remain modest

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The Independent Online
AS THE lights dim, a lissom Mongolian woman slinks down a catwalk in a converted gymnasium and doffs her black fur coat. She's naked save for a small loincloth, high-heeled shoes and dark glasses.

A few more steps and the loincloth comes off too. The woman pirouettes for the small crowd before nonchalantly togging up and exiting stage left. 'Isn't it too direct?' whispers a Mongolian man who, like most in this Ulan Bator basketball court, is getting his first taste of striptease.

The two-and-a-half-hour show, Variete, is tame by Western standards, featuring one stripper, some bikini-clad dancers and dull skits and songs by ageing crooners who compete with screeching feedback from the ancient sound system. Yet it is utterly unlike a traditional night out in Mongolia's capital.

In 70 years of Stalinist rule, audiences swallowed a strict diet of classical ballet and opera. Now, three years after democratic changes swept Mongolia, artistic groups are free to experiment with any kind of expression - including erotica. 'With democracy, it's our own choice whether to make such performances,' says Osorbazaryn Bulgan, 33, Variete's manager. 'Our people are satisfied with the show,' she said. 'They can be entertained. And it's not like passing out in some drinking place.'

Organisers have made concessions to modest local tastes. 'We're determined to keep the art side higher than the strip side,' said Variete's art director, Gunsengiyn Donid. 'Our understanding and spirituality differs from that of foreigners.' Mr Donid points out that the lights were turned low for the sometimes reluctant stripper, who did not have to sit in anyone's lap.

Mongolia's first strip show reflects a surge of interest in erotica. Pornographic newspapers such as Hot Blanket and Night Greetings, filled with photographs lifted from Western and Japanese magazines, are hawked on the street. Two such magazines are said to be the work of army officers. Youth groups are getting in on the act. One, 'New Art Union', plans to stage an erotic show this month in Ulan Bator's circus. Only imported pornography is banned.

Variete's sponsors are the culture ministry and Ulan Bator city council and it receives state subsidies - something foreign aid agencies say Mongolia's empty treasury can ill afford. 'My God] What are their priorities?' an aid official gasped after learning the government was subsidising the show.

Ticket sales are limited to 24 per show. For the equivalent of pounds 6 - two weeks' average wage - patrons are served a two-course meal, beer, soda and vodka poured from a dragon-shaped jug. 'I won't forget this day,' L Lkhagsuren wrote in the visitors' book. 'You gave me strength in my life struggle.'

Some people complain that Variete is hardly a nightclub act, since the latest shows start at 6pm. The main obstacle to more risque performances comes from the performers themselves. 'The women are not very happy,' Mr Donid said. 'We have to soften them up to make them undress in front of patrons.' But, he promised, 'by December or January, Variete will be mainly striptease or naked women.'