culture festivals

Manchester Burlesque Festival 2019: diversity, prohibition and breaking the fourth wall

Written by Kate Relton

Manchester is set to play host to a new festival celebrating the art of Burlesque. Brainchild of the city’s own Burlesque performer Bella Besame, Manchester Burlesque Festival will run from 31st October – 3rd November and showcases the best of Burlesque and cabaret performers in a range of venues.
Launching with a dark and decadent Halloween themed party, the four-day festival offers the chance to experience Burlesque from every angle; from performances and parties, to workshops and competitions.

Kettle stole a few minutes with organiser Bella Besame to talk diversity, prohibition and breaking the fourth wall.

How did you get into burlesque/cabaret?

“Since being quite young, I’ve always being fascinated with the Golden-age musicals and movies, but it properly started when I was at university and working part-time in a bar. They had a booking for a private party – the couple hosting the party had requested some kind of performance that was a bit different from the norm and something to get their attendees talking. As they knew I had a background in dance and theatre, the bar owners asked me if I’d mind sorting something out for it. Fast forward a month, I still hadn’t found anything that would work for their needs and was starting to panic! I made a throwaway comment about being able to do a burlesque routine as we were out of options and they loved the idea! Two weeks after that conversation I stepped on stage for my first burlesque routine and, despite it not going completely according to plan, I absolutely loved it. The party bookers did too! It was a very happy coincidence and I can’t even begin to imagine what my life would be like if it weren’t for that one conversation.”

How did the festival come about?

“Since my first year of producing burlesque and cabaret shows in Manchester, it has been my dream to create a festival celebrating the art forms. Every year that has passed has thrown various challenges at me and 2019 just felt like the perfect time to finally do it!”

Tell us about the workshops. What are you hoping to offer people who attend?

“There are 7 different workshops to choose from, which take place on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd November. All the teachers are experts in their fields and it’s a great opportunity to learn some new skills – whether you’re a burlesque performer or not!

There’s Titsalina Bumsquash who is one of the best comedic performers in the UK scene – she’s running ‘Bumsquash Boost’ and ‘Titsalina’s Techniques’ which are both focused on different comedy styles, story telling, resilience and developing characters.


Cleopantha is teaching ‘Striphop!’ which is undoubtedly the most physical of all the workshops! Attendees will learn how to bump, grind, strut and twerk to everyone’s favourite R&B tunes.

‘Beginner’s Guide To Burlesque’ is for those who want to learn some of the basic moves, poses and walks in burlesque. This really is the perfect introduction for newcomers to the art form or those who wish to get in touch with their inner burlesque queen!

‘Vintage Hair and Make-Up Masterclass’ is a 2 hour workshop focusing on learning the secrets of creating vintage hair and retro make up using modern tools.

Sarina Del Fuego’s ‘Fabulous Feather Fans’ looks at basic fan technique including holds, poses, reveals and all in a way that will make the feathers appear a part of you. At the end of the workshop, all the moves will be put in one routine, to make you feel like a showgirl from the golden age of burlesque.

Bella BesameOur last workshop is ‘Stage Presence!’ This will be taught by John Celestus – Greece’s first ever boylesque performer – a drag superstar, contortionist extraordinaire and circus performance master. He will work through body language tips and tricks, non-verbal communication with an audience, the best way to occupy a stage and much more!”

Why choose Manchester?

“Manchester was where I produced my first show and have continued to produce shows ever since. I absolutely love the city and, regardless of where I will end up living in life, my heart belongs in Manchester and always will.”

How did you choose the venues?

“I have good working relationships with quite a few venues in the city, so it was always going to be hard to narrow it down! Availability on the weekend I proposed for the festival helped and I couldn’t be happier with the first year’s venues. 235 Casino is such a decadent space and having James Martin on board for the catering is a no-brainer! The Lowry is such a landmark venue plus their stage is enormous, so lots of space for the performers to really WOW the audience! Tribeca is a really fun, cool place to go and I was ecstatic when they wanted to be part of the festival for one of our biggest shows (Ecdysiast Encounters Grand Final on Saturday night, which sees upcoming performers competing to win a whole host of incredible prizes). The Fitzgerald is unique in its style and atmosphere and I fell in love with the prohibition/speak-easy feel of it the second I stepped through the door!”

What do you think is unique about burlesque, for the performers and the audience?

“Burlesque doesn’t really have that ‘fourth wall’ that most other art forms have. The audience are just as much a part of the show as the performers and I think this is one of the reasons it is so popular. Obviously, audience members are not getting on stage and performing themselves, but it has the feeling that a show is one giant creative party!

I also think that it’s unique in its aesthetics, and by that I don’t mean the ‘vintage’ or ‘glamorous’ image so many associate with Burlesque. It welcomes – no, adores! – all bodies and is very much an inclusive branch of performance. If I had a penny for every time an audience member has said that they felt empowered to see a woman (or man) performing that wasn’t the media’s portrayal of ‘perfection’, for every person who has said how refreshing it is to see the variety of body shapes and sizes, or for every comment on how body positive Burlesque is, I’d be a very rich woman!”

Why do you think we are still so fascinated with the jazz age/prohibition period?

“The Prohibition/Jazz era was such a fascinating time generally; major political changes took place including women finally being able to vote, the music industry in the 20s was the start of the modern music era, huge technological advances, more freedom (especially for women) and not to mention the financial recovery from war. Sadly, it wasn’t all good – organised crime rocketed, tension and violence increased, as did corruption and racism.

Manchester Burlesque festival

It was a time of not only great change but great hope for many, something I personally think we like to look back on fondly and sometimes forget about the darker side.

Also shows such as Peaky Blinders, Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire, and heading into the ‘new 20s’ after the stroke of midnight on 31st December, the popularity of the 1920s seems to be having a huge resurgence.”

Do you hope to bring the festival back next year?

“Absolutely 100%!”

Which event are you personally looking forward to?

“I genuinely am excited about it all as every event is so very different! If I had to narrow it down, I would probably say the Exclusive Closing/After Party on Sunday 3rd November ‘Speakeasy Soiree’. Not only because I love a good party but also I know I’ll be able to look back lovingly on the weekend just gone….and finally sleep! ”

For more information and to book tickets for the Manchester Burlesque Festival, visit their Facebook page here.

All images courtesy of Manchester Burlesque Festival