Interview: Suri Sumatra
Andrew F. Giles
Describe the trajectory of your personal transformation from Indonesian-Scottish schoolgirl and Durham University graduate to successful performance artiste.
Being half Indonesian-half Scottish, I got the best of both worlds being born and raised in Jakarta and going on to boarding school in Edinburgh in my early teens. Art and Drama was always my forte, I spent a lot of my extracurricular time working on stage make-up and set design. When I was 16 I was cast as a lead Bond girl, ‘Miss Floozy Galore’, in our school’s spoof play ‘From Fettes With Love’. Perhaps that role gave me the theatrical aplomb to try out burlesque later in life. Growing up in international schools and multicultural environments inspired my decision to study Anthropology at Durham University and I was geared up to carry out PhD research in Papua New Guinea but soon after graduating, my academic bubble popped and I craved for a more creative career pathway. It was in the Lost Vagueness cabaret field at Glastonbury Festival where I first watched a burlesque performance. The performer was so evocative and the audience was so entranced. It was at that moment I decided ‘I want to do that’.
Dita Von Teese takes the roots of burlesque back to Ancient Greece and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, where Athenian wives who deprived “their husbands of sex until the termination of the Peloponnesian War… (were) teasing their husbands, guiding their minds towards sex, then locking it away.” Do you agree with her basic definition of ‘burlesque’ as a tease-deny process?
It’s important to understand that burlesque is an umbrella term under which throughout history has provided a platform for all variety of cabaret show artists, comedians, dance troupes, musicians, acrobats and striptease artists. Placing focus on the ‘exotic dancer’, I would agree there is an element of ‘you can look, but you can’t touch’, but burlesque as a definition has moved beyond traditional striptease and branched out into neo-burlesque genres in which ‘tease’ doesn’t even come into it and erotic thrill is laced in more subtle and innovative ways.
Being a performer who doesn’t conform to traditional tassel-twirling burlesque, I am more interested in being a little more experimental and give the crowd something they didn’t expect.
One of my most popular acts fuses a Pierrot-like tale with Japanese Kabuki in which the tragedy of repeated heartbreak culminates in a finale that reveals a set of melancholic eyes painted on my chest with tears falling down my body. As opposed to ‘raw sexuality’ being the main focus, I enjoy the challenge of moving an audience to deliver a message more poetic and poignant.
Von Teese has done a lot to bring burlesque to the public’s attention in recent years. Has she been successful? Is this what burlesque needs?
Dita has played a big part in reviving today’s interest in vaudeville showgirls and making razzle-dazzle high glamour striptease an accessible staple for modern day entertainment. On the downside we now have a circuit that’s oversaturated with Dita imitators and burlesque has escalated into mainstream commercialisation where it’s becoming a victim of it’s own success. No fault of Dita’s, although I would blame acts like Cher & Christina Aguilera for jumping on the bandwagon with their latest blockbuster flop which falsely presents the industry as a corny army of feathers, fans and fishnets. It’s this tacky stereotyping and lack of originality which can give performers reservations about being associated with it, and getting pigeon-holed as ‘just another naked lady’.
Burlesque has become like punk-rock – anybody can get up there and try it out, but there’s no guarantee it’s going to be any good!
I would encourage performers to be more anti-conformist. Dita has no influence on my work to any extent but I like to think that she would agree that burlesque needs more boundary-breakers who have their own distinctive style and unique personality.
Your use of your body is as intellectual as it is physical – how difficult is it to represent yourself in the public domain as a woman and a performer within this dual context?
Being ‘Suri Sumatra’ gives me the freedom to experiment with multiple skills and performance personas, creating an escape from the oppression of reality for myself and my audience.
Finding ways to convey the intangible through movement, image and sound feel most natural to me, so I feel blessed that I have the creative control to express my ideas, channeling them using my body through my passion for dance.
With more corporate clients using their money and power to project their vision and expectations of the term burlesque on to the mass public, the challenge of surviving as a working artist is finding how to balance satisfying what audiences want to see and retaining your artistic integrity to express your originality.
Performance art’s attitude towards the body recalls some of the radical feminists of the 1970s – how does performance react to a post-feminist world, where the female body seems to return to its objectified state?
I value the lessons we’ve learned from people like Germaine Greer and Yoko Ono, but since the 70’s feminism has branched off into so many conflicting sub-genres, I can’t decide whether I want to embrace it or run a mile from it. The notion of an uprising against burlesque and stripping in order to protect marginalized women is as ridiculous and offensive to me as all men seeing women as objects. Lest we forget there are women objectifying men while women objectify other women.
Within the realms of burlesque, women are exploring their creativity in a fun and confidence-boosting way that makes them feel good in their own skin. I think it’s a triumph of feminism that burlesque provides a platform for performers to be experimental, subversive and ironic, to parody gender or political issues, while others choose to express their sexuality publicly using grace, seduction or comedy. It does nothing for the feminist movement to discourage any of them from doing so. It’s also important to acknowledge that male ‘boylesque’ perfomers are nothing new, all the above mentioned applies to them too.
Like any artform, burlesque is not for everyone, it’s a matter of personal taste. Audiences have their right to feel entertained, inspired, aroused or just plain bored. We can’t all like the same things, that’s the beauty of diversity.
Mistinguett, Gypsy Rose Lee – the past is full of female body pioneers. Could you take NLP through your highlights of burlesque history and reveal your inspirations from the past?
I must confess that I have never looked towards any classic burlesque icons for inspiration. Creative polymaths, such Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and all the groundbreaking dancers, musicians, artists, costumiers and designers that emerged from it inspire me to design my own costumes, edit my own music and try out experimental choreographies.
Silver screen goddesses such as Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker were each iconic in continually re-invented themselves which spur me on to challenge myself and try new things – whether it be acting, singing or dancing.
Cinematic fantasy escapism, whether it’s a Jean Cocteau and Federico Fellini film or Busby Berkely’s kaleidoscopic choreographies all encourage me to visualise my own abstract fantasies and dream sequences and bring them to life.
Isadora Duncan’s free spirit is a huge inspiration in her rejection of traditional ballet steps and encouragement to improvise, allowing true emotional expression guide your form. Like her, I also prefer to dance barefoot.
The relentless dynamism, grace and charm of Cyd Charisse, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly – my ultimate dance heroes! They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore!
Be it Balinese opera, Japanese kabuki or Chinese silks, the mystical allure of traditional Asian dance styles are a constant source of inspiration in my shows – the enigmatic expressions, the elegant movement and the elaborate costumes and headdresses.
Performance art is full of wild, eccentric and colourful characters who tell great stories with their bodies and words. Who are the most interesting people working at the moment?
There are many performers I admire who redefine burlesque as so much more than just striptease, blurring the lines between burlesque and performance art using ambitious dance techniques, pyrotechnics, circus and freak show skills.
For me, Vicky Butterfly sets the highest benchmark with shows I would classify as high art. Her ethereal stage personas capture an essence of the Belle Epoque, the magical mystery of art nouveau nymphs combined with the enchanting allure of a 1910’s femme fatale. Her signature shows incorporate dynamic choreography often using billowing fabric wings harks back to Loie Fuller’s Serpentine dance at the turn of the century. She’s a modern day Ziegfeld girl who makes her own costumes of such superior antique quality you’d expect to find them in a V&A museum exhibit. Whether she’s transforming herself into Stravinsky’s firebird in a flame-like light display, dancing upon water within a giant bubble installation or employing circus acrobatics to power her own kinetic rocking moon, Vicky is the most beautifully captivating and exciting creative innovator who I’m also very proud to call my friend.
Another heroine of mine is fantastical show-woman Marisa Carnesky who’s been on the circuit since the early 1990s when burlesque was more about subversive theatrical parody rather than the feather-clad bump and grind routines that dominate the scene today. Something in her aura brings back the colourful fairground thrill of old Victorian traveling circuses, magic shows and Coney Island side-show attractions. Her productions can only be described as phantasmagorical, using powerful scenography and visual illusions that pull her audiences into obscure and disorientating worlds, exposing insights that might shock and horrify while making one question our interpretations of politics, ethics, identity and belief systems. I love her bizarre personality and her ability to perfectly balance dark heavy themes with abrupt punctuations of Pythonesque black humour. Her last live art spectacle ‘The Quickening of the Wax’ explored the dark histories and ritualistic practices behind Madame Tussauds waxwork bodies. I was delighted to be invited to work with her in the show at the Chelsea Theatre last year, proudly making my debut as a Carnesky corpse and disappearing lady.
Burlesque and the music scene that accompanies it is often described as ‘underground’ yet Von Teese purports: “it seems to me that every great burlesquer was at one point arrested on obscenity charges. Maybe it’s time burlesque renewed the art of the stunt. The world would be a brighter place.” How do feel about this bombastic statement?
I have no problem with rock and roll antics, people who are drawn to the underground naturally tend to have a rebellious nature. The beauty of the underground is that you have the freedom to take things as far as you want to take them.
Personally, I don’t feel the need to trash hotel rooms and throw TVs out of windows whilst wearing a dress made of lamb chops. I think it’s wonderful that we live in a society where we can express ourselves however we like, but it’s more than possible to create a spectacle without ending up behind bars.
What does Suri Sumatra see in her future for the next few years, and in burlesque as an artform?
As theatre becomes more experimental with companies like Shunt and Punchdrunk I have faith that new performers will emerge through the woodwork, surprising audiences and burlesque will become more twisted and complex than ever before. As for Suri, I hope to learn more ambitious choreographies, develop greater depth and creative concepts for my solo shows. Beyond burlesque, I will continue to work with more artists on bigger collaborative projects including photography, film, theatre and performance art installations in the UK and abroad. Upon recently discovering that I have the courage to sing, I started running a monthly music event called ‘Ultralounge’ in Stoke Newington since last October that provides a platform for my new mondo-yeye-garage-lounge inspired band Suri Et Les Copains. It’s a great unpretentious night to meet lovely arty folks and boogie to great 50s & 60s lounge music from around the world.
Check out Suri’s website for her upcoming gigs and Suri shows: www.surisumatra.com