Burlesque dancer Angie Sylvia plays with fire.
Her Fire Burlesque act involves naked flames, and if you sit in the front row of the Spiegeltent during her performance in Absinthe, you will feel the heat.
You might even feel puffs of air as she pops balloons in the Balloon Strip act she learned from burlesque legend Julie A. Muz.
The current Australian tour is Angie Sylvia’s first appearance with Absinthe, promoted as “an adult-themed cocktail of circus, comedy, burlesque and vaudeville for a 21st century audience.”
From Sweden, she is one of three new international acts in the show, brought to Australia by the same team who previously presented Empire.
Burlesque, as understood today, involves a glamorous spectacle of female performers removing their clothes in a way that is both sexy and playful.
Sylvia’s two acts are very different to each other, she says, “which is very fun for me as a performer, and also the audience gets to see two completely different sides of me.” But even though the two acts contrast, Sylvia says they share the element of surprise: “I think what’s similar is that they definitely take you on a journey.”
She describes the Balloon Strip as “beautiful, elegant and classy, but halfway through it has a switch and it ends in a completely different way—with humour.”
Julie A. Muz performed this act in the original Absinthe lineup, handpicking Sylvia to perform it on the Australian tour—“which I’m thrilled about,” says Sylvia.
As for the Fire Burlesque, the dancer says, “it’s very high energy, rock ’n’ roll—like ‘I don’t give a shit, I’m just here to have fun and shock people’.”
Sylvia confesses that working with fire scares her—and emphasizes that she is serious about safety—but says taking chances is essential to becoming a good performer.
That, and being stubborn.
She grew up in a place she describes as “a very small little beach town on the west coast of southern Sweden.” Her family moved around because her father was a musician, which means “there’s a lot of music” in her background. “I like good music,” she says. “Whatever makes me move, I’m down with that.”
Childhood ballet classes didn’t really thrill her, but horse riding did—to the extent that she considered a career as “professional horse jumper.” Then, in her teens she tried dance again—a randomly chosen jazz class—and again felt it “just wasn’t for me.”
But right then, right there, she accidentally discovered what was for her: “As I walked down the stairs, I saw a couple of B-boys training, and that’s how it all started. I became friends with them and started training with them. From then I just became totally interested in different sorts of hip-hop dancing.”
“I’ve always been very goal-minded,” she adds, “so I started training five, six days a week, and ate, lived, and breathed dance.” From the beginning, she also choreographed: “I just wanted to do everything at once.”
When she finished high school, she studied at two different Stockholm dance schools, then completed a year’s study at Broadway Dance Centre in New York City. By that stage she had trained in hip-hop, house dance, waacking, Latin Jazz, and vogue.
Burlesque entered the mix when she moved to London, where she now lives with her boyfriend when not touring. She worked as a backup dancer for a cabaret club and “that’s how I got introduced to all these amazing burlesque performers. One of them, Laurie Hagen, became one of my best friends. We worked together in Vegas and she introduced me to the biggest burlesque troupe in the UK, called the Folly Mixtures. I started working and running the company with them for three years.”
Even though her freelance work had included backup dancing and film clips for high-profile performers like Lady Gaga and Imelda May, burlesque appealed because it offered a rare level of creative control. “Burlesque gives you all of the power to do whatever you want,” Sylvia says. “It gives you complete control over your own craft. It’s not like going to a dance studio and training—five, six, seven, eight.”
She’s not saying it’s easy: “There’s a lot of work behind it. You put so much of your own time and energy to make everything—choosing your own music, putting your own costumes together, doing the choreography.”
And with total control comes total responsibility. “I feel like it’s on me,” she says. “If people don’t like it, I can’t blame anyone else. I’m like, ‘Okay, then, I need to change that.’ Or, if they like it, ‘Oh, I did a good job.’”
Sylvia explains that burlesque performers’ control extends to their level of nudity. “You don’t have to get completely naked,” she says. “With the Folly Mixtures, sometimes we did shows that were like a dance routine in very cute little outfits. We’d all be very flirty and happy. There are so many ways to do burlesque. It’s up to you how much you want to show and how you want to show it.”
One of the secrets to burlesque success is “having a gimmick in it—you know, what fun stuff you can do while taking your clothes off.” And cheekiness, too, is important: “You don’t take yourself too seriously.”
Although Sylvia’s YouTube clips show a powerful, seemingly fearless stage persona, she says she was nervous before her first burlesque appearance. She soon got over that: “the audience are not thinking, ‘She’s not perfect’. If you’re having fun, then they’re having fun. So I think the more different-looking you are, the more comfortable the audience will be. You don’t have to be a perfect little silicone babe. And I love seeing the women enjoying the act.”
Burlesque has enjoyed a renaissance since the 1990s, along with other turn-of-last-century popular entertainments like vaudeville, circus and even stage magic. New performers “keep the artform growing,” Sylvia says. And in an impersonal world that’s increasingly experienced through a tiny screen, the immediacy of live performance is compelling. “Anything can happen and that’s what makes it exciting,” she says. “We can’t put a filter on it. Real talent and raw performance are always going to win through.”
Absinthe is “my favourite show I’ve ever watched, and I’m not saying that because I’m part of it.” She mentions the cast’s “talent, and the way the talent and the humour are combined.”
And then there’s the intimacy. As well as feeling the heat from Angie Sylvia’s flames and the “pop” of her balloons, she says, “you can feel the breeze as an acrobat flips in front of you. You just feel so close to it. You’re a part of it because you’re right there.”