In her 30-year career, Imogen Kelly – known as Australia’s Queen of Burlesque – has built up a repertoire of truly innovative acts. But just as fascinating as her sumptuous performances are the personal stories that have shaped them. La Grande Folie, making its world premiere at this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival, brings together a selection of Kelly’s greatest hits. While it’s as glamorous and feather-filled as one would expect, it also makes space for quieter moments of storytelling as Kelly reflects on the significance of these career-defining moments.
Speaking to the audience, Kelly is relaxed and charmingly conversational, and viewers come away with a more nuanced appreciation for each piece and for the complexities of the industry. In the lead-up to her popular act, ‘Let Them Eat Cake’, she describes her early years as a stripper in Kings Cross, and how she used this routine as part of her successful campaign to secure better rights and protections for the women working in these clubs. She also shares her story of overcoming breast cancer and the ways in which she uses burlesque to celebrate bodies of all shapes and sizes, culminating in the ethereal piece, ‘Clare De Lune’.
The costumes, naturally, are dazzling, whether Kelly is encrusted in crystals and hanging from a chandelier or morphing into an astounding array of sea creatures in an act exploring the threat posed by climate change to the Great Barrier Reef. For her showstopper of the evening, ‘Flamingo’, she is resplendent in a froth of pink feathers. It comes as no surprise that with this routine Kelly won the top prize at the 2012 Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, bringing international attention to Australia’s burlesque scene.
She is assisted throughout the show by fellow Sydney performers Memphis Mae and Bunni Lambada. The two enable seamless transitions between Kelly’s costume changes by helping her dress (sometimes on stage while Kelly continues chatting with the crowd), providing comedic moments, and performing a couple of their own burlesque numbers.
As Kelly explains towards the end of the evening, the power of burlesque lies in the opportunity it provides for dressing up, putting on a sparkly persona, and celebrating beauty. But it is also, crucially, about shedding the layers and the baggage, in order to reach a place of vulnerability and inner strength. This highly personal show achieves both aims, combining joyful theatricality and unashamed authenticity from a performer with a lifetime of experience.
La Grande Folie was performed for one night only on 17 June as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival