Prague Burlesque brought the revived burlesque art form – a theatrical, glamorous and relatively modest take on striptease – to the Czech capital in 2007, and the troupe have been performing at various venues in the city ever since. The M.C. and mastermind of the show is David N. Jahn, a sometime musician who was born in Zurich to Czech parents but moved to Prague to study.
“I first started as a fine artist. I studied fine art and graphic design. When I was in Prague – my father was a musician – I started playing with several bands, big names. So I didn’t do graphic design any more and started being a professional musician, as a keyboard player and drummer.
“I stopped doing music in around 2000, when I moved back to Switzerland where I again started to do fine arts when I worked at H.R. Giger’s atelier. I was there for three years and then moved back to Prague again.”
Tell us about working with Giger.
“Yes, that was an important part of my life. It was like a high school or college. I was living in his house, at his atelier. I was something like a major domus. I was taking care of pretty much everything: the garden, his cats, the house, and doing small alien statues.
“After I moved back to Prague I organised his exhibition at the National Technical Museum, and made a documentary about him.”
Before we talk about your group Prague Burlesque, could you tell our listeners what burlesque is, in case they don’t know?
“Well, I tend to say that burlesque is a theatre genre, a genre which had a history of more than 100 years but ended some time at the end of the 1950s, when striptease or strippers came up.
“Since then it was forgotten, until 1998 to 2004, when a new group in San Francisco, The Velvet Hammer Burlesque, came up, or Dita Von Teese started…”
But it shares elements with striptease?
“Of course. It’s like the grandma of striptease.”
“Yes, it had quite a big history in Prague. It was called Krása bez závoje, like Beauty Without a Curtain, or something like that [závoj translates as veil].
“That was in 1915, in concrete terms at the club U Nováků, Rokoko, Alhambra, where they had these big variety shows. Big name actors like Oldřich Nový and [Saša] Rašilov performed. There was comedy, singing and burlesque.”
What was your motivation to start up Prague Burlesque?
“Well, I just wanted to do something with girls, do something with cabaret, some theatre thing, a music show. I discovered burlesque and I found out once I started doing it that it was a sector that was missing in Prague. Because strippers and cabaret are quite big in Prague, and the whole porn industry…”
“Cabaret” in Prague essentially means brothel.
“Yes, it seems so. The whole thing has moved to far in the sexual direction and has lost touch with the real meaning…”
The artistic side?
“Yes. So I started doing burlesque, I fell in love with it, and I’ve been producing shows since then.”
Given that it wasn’t known so much before your group was established, I would imagine, was it hard to get across to people what it actually was?
“Yes, definitely. First I had to cut out the name striptease, because when people hear striptease they automatically make a connection with strippers as they know them here. I had to leave this word out and to say burlesque is a theatre thing, a performance thing. It’s a struggle, but we have to do it.”
Glamorous names are part of your show. Your own stage name is Count Koroptieff, and other members of the group are called things like Lina Von Sturm, Angelina Angelic, Divina de la Muerte. What kind of atmosphere are you aiming to create with those names, and that approach?
“In our show I’ve always used props from the National Theatre, costumes from Barrandov film studios. I’d prefer to create a bigger show – it’s not just the individual names or individual stars, but to create the show as a whole. And to give it a darker appearance, with great lighting, projection and props.”
There’s also a musical element.
“There’s a musical element in it, when I sing. The whole thing is a little bit more dramatic than usual burlesque in other cities.”
I saw Prague Burlesque twice before Christmas and I was also checking you guys out online and I noticed that a lot of the performers have changed, that the names are different, the girls are different. Is there a high turnover, and if so, why?
“Frankly, yes. As it’s new here, it’s really hard to find performers. The older generation of women don’t have this kind of humour, or they really don’t know burlesque that well, and have no self-confidence, it seems. Therefore the girls seem to be younger and younger.
“The names change frequently because they get pregnant, they gain weight and lose self-confidence again, they have boyfriends who have problems, and so on. So it’s quite hard to find performers who would take it seriously and would build up their names.”
What kind of girl makes a good burlesque performer?
“Usually, what makes burlesque interesting is the innocence. You have to see innocence in their eyes. You have to see that they’re curious, intelligent girls, rather than…you know, ordinary strippers usually know what they have and they just put it out and know how to sell themselves.
“Burlesque is much more about work with the eyes, the erotic appearance. So a good burlesque performer is a nice…”
“Good-looking of course, or even not. Not good-looking girls are more interesting because they have a certain shyness but they still want to be loved – and this makes this electricity. That’s the moment you feel something is going on on stage. That’s the important moment.”
Are you aware of any other burlesque groups in this region?
“In Prague we’re pretty much alone. And the closest is Berlin.”
What kind of places do you guys play?
“Right now we play regular shows at Bar & Books on Mánesova in Vinohrady. It’s a small beautiful bar with great drinks, everything, the ambience is just perfect. We are there once a month.
“Now we’re trying to build up more venues. I’m going to make a big revue at Goldfingers at Alhambra. My intention this year is to try to make burlesque accessible to a wider range of audience.”
What does the future hold for Prague Burlesque, do you think?
“I’m trying to finally get a group together and make them a little more professional, to make it possible for us to travel more, doing guest appearances. And a big plan is to do a Prague burlesque festival this year…”
I presume that means bringing in other groups from other cities, other countries?
“Exactly, to bring in people from abroad, professional burlesque performers, to show Prague what it’s about.”
My last question is, where can people see you next?
“Our nearest show is in MeetFactory, at the Bizarre Carnival. It’s free entrance, so it’s possible for everybody to see it.”
That’s this coming Saturday?
“This coming Saturday – the 9th.”