Across the crowded car park of the Riccarton Working Men’s Club, a lone woman totters in 4 inch heels, the purple latex straps of her costume peeking out from under her coat. She’s headed towards the entrance of the 15th Christchurch Fetish Ball, and I follow her in.
Inside the unassuming exterior, neon strobe lights flash and the music is dark and electronic, Germanic. The guests greet each enthusiastically and Alice in Wonderland leads a gimp by the collar while men in latex trench coats mix with horned nymphs. A statuesque duo is dressed as matching dolls, the lines drawn on their skin to mimic the porcelain joints. On the dance floor, couples shuffle and groups form and reform. It could be a school disco – if the participant weren’t wearing red vinyl chaps and nothing else, or horns and hot pants.
‘Excuse me,’ says the polite man sitting beside me. Like me, he’s conservatively dressed in black, but hanging from his belt are lengths of rope. ‘They’re starting a scene over there, some bondage. Perhaps you’d like to watch.’ And since the stage is empty, other than a tin pail and a pair of candles, I do. I’m curious.
In the crowd, a blindfolded woman is being trussed up with a red silken cord. She tugs anxiously at the hem of her shirt as it rides up under the pressure of the ropes, but soon her hands are immobilised and the skin around her midriff is bare. Around her, people mill and laugh, drinks in one hand, the leash to their partner in the other. It could be any drink party, only here the connections, the restrictions and the control are not metaphoric.
Backstage, the green room is chaotic. Men carrying suitcases humph in and out, women strip off to nothing then re-garb in body paint, corsets and suspension hooks. A tall and strikingly beautiful woman is having her makeup applied. When she glances my way, her eyes are other worldly in their green and yellow lens. Her name is Nocturness, a character the woman beneath the act describes as ‘like me, but the extreme me that I want to be. She is me, but I can’t be her all the time.’
And after seeing her act, that’s no surprise. Described as ‘gorelsque’, a horror filled burlesque, Nocturness drips hot wax over her body, paints herself in fake blood and sets fire to parts of her body. A sex show for the demonically inclined. It would be hard to keep it up all the time.
There’s a strong contrast between the act and the audience. The crowd is polite, gentle. No-one pushes, tall people voluntarily sit on the dance floor so others can see, making it even more like a school event, only here the bums are mostly bare. At the bar, the man in a lurex dress beside me orders a raspberry and coke.
This is even more clear in the reverent way they approach the next act. There is a hushed silence and rapt attention as candles, stones and incantations are prepared for Lady Stab. Her performance, Twisted Shadows, involves her ritualistically inserting needles down the length of her arm until her arms bristle with them. She inserts candles into them and then is suspended by the hooks threaded under the skin of her back. Unlike Nocturness, Lady Stab’s characters are not her. They are her dreams, visions and nightmares given life, and she becomes them once inside the gas mask that she inhabits. After she comes off stage, she lets me gets close, to see the needles through her arm. I can’t stop looking.
She’s being helped by Cirque du Sang, who will perform later but for now are helping with rigging up and preparation. When I ask one of the Cirque performers, Lady de Vil, what I can expect in her performance, she smiles. ‘Oh, there will be blood’ If she hadn’t been wearing surgical gloves, I might not have taken her seriously. I’m not sure how I feel about these women who torture their bodies on stage, and the well-behaved crowd who watches them do it.
There’s clearly appreciation. The dark Austen Powers, all black velvet and lace cuffs, who organises the event describes Lady Stab as ‘fucken beautiful’ but acknowledges that ‘maybe 95% of people out there aren’t into this.’
My polite man comes back. Cirque du Sang are due on stage, but ‘Maybe you’d like to try,’ he says gesturing to the loops of rope at his side, and again I’m curious. I nod, and he starts at my ankles, removing my shoes then passes the rope up to my knees. He builds it higher, about my waist, trapping one arm up behind my back as the rope goes higher, over my shoulder, around the back of my neck and about my breasts. ‘My name is Laurence,’ he says. ‘It’s nice to meet you.’
‘Ohhh,’ a hostess whines as she passes us. ‘I wish I was being tied up.’
I watch the Cirque du Sang from the back of the room. The women move powerfully about the stage, claiming it with candles and dance. Laurence tugs and pulls at each join, strengthening it and considering each knot. ‘It’s like a conversation between two people, one without words,’ he says. He has to reach behind my shoulders to pass the rope from one hand to the other and our cheeks touch. I can smell his hair. A man dressed as the Joker walks up to us and nods approvingly. On the stage, Snow, the ‘boss bitch’ of Cirque du Sang spins, swinging wildly on the skin suspensions hooks through her back. Meanwhile the music is building with Snow tethered to the suspension rope, she swings, higher and higher, then spins, her whole body hanging from two 5cm piercing on her shoulder blades. There is a look of ecstasy on her face though and a wild freedom in her movements.
I have a feeling that while Snow swings from the rafter beam, and I have been immobilised in rope, there’s a similar sense of letting go. And finally, as blood trickles down her forehead, and as mine pounds through my body, I realise that here is a place where restraint can make you free.
– Laura Borrowdale of Aotearotica
Vince Clark (Altearoa)