Burlesque!

Release on the stage.


Hello! Please tell a bit about yourself.

I’m Olga Kemppinen, a Helsinki girl from Länsi Pasila. I’ve been living in Malmi for eleven years or so.

What’s your every day like?

I’m a practical nurse, and I’m the mom of a two year-old toddler. And by night I’m a burlesque artist. (she laughs)

We’ll get into that. But what’s a practical nurse?

It’s a lähihoitaja in Finnish. It’s not like a hospital nurse, but a health care worker that looks after senior citizens and people with special needs. Currently I’m working in a group home with mentally-deficient seniors.

A high-stress profession, I understand.

I’ve had a couple of breakdowns at work, so yes it is. I recently went back from my maternity leave, and my stress levels went up again.

It must be tough to tend to people who get worse and worse, instead of better and better.

Usually they get worse, and then they pass away. Our job is to try our best to make their life comfortable, to satisfy their needs for the time they have left. We also take care of their affairs afterwards.

What led you to pick such line of work?

I’ve always been interested in people. As a kid I thought I wanted to act. I was fascinated by the expressions people make when they’re hurting, what a face looks like when the person is aching somewhere. It’s funny to me, why would I focus on something like that as a child, and then as a teenager. So I studied acting for a while, and then focused on being a practical nurse, which is not too different. (laughs) I think I have a really good pair of antennas sticking out of my head, I can clearly read how people feel, through micro-expressions on the face, which is something good for a nurse.

Any reason why you switched from acting to nursing?

I was studying theater at the Ylioppilasteatteri, and the idea was to continue into Theater School, but it didn’t happen. It started to become pushy, because there is a certain narcissism in the world of acting; you need to compete to get roles. I love to express myself, but I’m not a competitive person. I just can’t elbow myself to the front of the line. And this amazing actor and teacher, Ilmo Ranne, said to me once “you could be an actress, I can see you on the stage. But for that you need to work a lot more, and it will be difficult to get roles, because nowadays all the good actors are employed. If you want to act go ahead, but do something else besides, like nursing. There’s lots of work and you can also explore human nature, which will help you with your acting.” So I became a nurse. (laughs)

I studied and graduated at the School of Social & Health Care in Malmi, and my first assignment was mentally-deficient clients. We had done practices at old people’s nursing homes and with children, but these clients were very aggressive and there was a lot of wrestling. But I enjoyed it because it was a new experience, and all the adrenaline. (laughs) Also the esprit de corps of the nurses was great.

Okay, let’s talk burlesque. What was your very first experience?

We have to go way back for that! It was when I saw the movie Flashdance —I was like eight or nine years old. The main character is a welder chick, and my father is a welder too, and I wanted to be like my father. But in the evenings she was also performing these cool dance routines at a night club! And she was not stripping, she was doing something different, creative and exciting! So I was like “THAT’S what I want to do!” At the time I had no idea what I was seeing was called “burlesque”. Then, in 2011, I saw an ad about “Burlesque Newcomers’ Night” at Helsinki Burlesque. Even though I had absolutely no idea what it was about, I was totally into it and I wanted to take part. And of course I was a little bit scared so… I involved a good friend of mine! (laughs) We have danced together, done theater together, have the same sense of dark humor. So we created a duo called “Lucy & Vivian” for our act “The Nurses” (my friend’s not a real nurse, though).

The contact person for Newcomers’ Night was Bettie Blackheart, the founder of Helsinki Burlesque. I contacted her and said “I really want to come to the event, what do I need to do?” She gave me a couple of pointers and then I asked if it’d be okay to show her what we had. She said “yeah, come to my studio.” So we went and were goofing around, strutting our stuff, really nervous! And she said “Alright, that’s not bad…” (laughs)

But before all this, had you seen anything live, or in YouTube videos?

I hadn’t seen anything at all. And the word “burlesque” I heard first at a class reunion we had. One of the girls, when we were chatting about what we have done with our lives, said to me “I thought you were some kind of burlesque artist!” And I was like “BURLESQUE?! Oooh!” One year after that I saw the ad for the Newcomers’ Night!

A self-fulfilling prophecy!

Yeah! (laughs) After that I did some research and looked for videos. Today there’s tons of them, but back then there weren’t many. Especially from Finland. Local burlesque is close to me, I enjoy it more. Because it has this dark humor thing going on. It’s really popular in Europe because of this.

Finnish burlesque is popular in Europe?

Yes, people know about it. And it’s thanks to Bettie Blackheart and Frank Doggenstein, who have worked so much for that —they have been organizing international festivals for ten years now. Guest artists from all over Europe want to come to Finland to perform, because Bettie and Frank have built a good reputation by taking good care of the artists.

I’d like to hear your definition of “burlesque”.

Oh, I was afraid you would ask that… (laughs) Well, it’s an art form. A performing art that can contain all kinds of influences from all the other art forms. Like circus, dress-making, dancing, theater, mime, singing, and any other thing you can think of. My art usually includes something related to food, somehow. (laughs) I have two or three performances related to food, and I don’t know why. But I enjoy playing with food, crushing it and smearing it.

And burlesque also involves teasing, which doesn’t necessarily mean to undress yourself. It can be emotional teasing, in some way. To try to provoke your audience and make them think. It’s easy to tease with nudity, but it’s more complex and interesting to do it in a clever way.

What happened after Newcomers’ Night?

I loved it and I wanted to study more! So I joined Bettie Blackheart’s dance group (we were “Bettie’s Angels”). So I learned more, and then one day I did my first solo as “Ansa Ikoni” (Icon Trap). That was also my nickname in Roller Derby, which I was playing at the time.

Roller Derby?

Yeah, I started Burlesque and Roller Derby at the same time. (laughs) I liked it so much because it’s a team sport, which I hadn’t done before. I like to dance, I’m a solo performer, so playing together as a team was new for me. I played for three years, then I got a neck injury and that was it for Roller Derby.

But Ansa Ikoni, my stage name, is a reference to the Finnish actress Ansa Ikonen, who was a big star of the screen in Finland (I love old Finnish movies, by the way). She’s an idol of mine, and she was a great actress. But having read her biography, I suspect she wouldn’t appreciate my homage. (laughs) Because I know she didn’t understand Ylioppilas Teatteri, and she didn’t approve of modern actors including politics in their performances. She thought actors had to be just performers, making the audience feel, and that was that. But for me, I want to perform, but I also want to remind the audience that everything is NOT okay. I want to make them think.

Does the nursing affect the burlesque, and vice-versa?

Well… After a five-minute performance I’m in a cloud for a week. (laughs) It’s so important for me, it’s my power. If I don’t get it, a lot of the joy in my life is gone. Of course my kid and my husband are a source of joy, but burlesque is my special place, where I can channel all kinds of things also from the nursing environment. Twisted things one is not allowed to express on the daytime.

For example?

Oh, bureaucracy, for example. People at the top telling us to do all kinds of things that look good on paper but don’t really work for us, they’re not practical. Things that push me and make me angry but I can’t respond to, stuff like that. I can channel those emotions into a performance, and release them on the stage. So it’s like a form of therapy for me. It took me a while, but now I understand how it works and I use it to my advantage.

Do other performers use burlesque in a similar way?

Yeah. Everybody does their own “therapy” thing. Negative or painful things that are stuck in your head, and with a little push you can kick them out. I have this act that I call the Lady Boss, which comes from my mother’s life when she was an artist in the 60s. I felt I was carrying some of that leftover pressure on me, and I wanted to get rid of it, to exorcise it. So I built my act around that, and I did! Now I’m almost free of that heavy burden.

Do you ever experience a split between the Olga and Ansa personas?

I think a lot about that. When I’m in front of an audience I project this image of me, which is me in a way, but not really. After performing, when the audience goes “OMG! You were so great!” I’m a little high, so I don’t fully know how to be me, or who am I. How do I go back to the reality-Olga and not be Ansa anymore? What is Ansa Ikoni? Where is she when she’s not up there? It’s difficult to find a healthy balance, but nowadays I just think that I’m just a performer creating Ansa on the stage. It’s an illusion that happens on stage only.

How does your family react to your performances?

My mom is really proud of me. My dad is like “Hmm… oookay…”

How was the first time your father saw you?

He didn’t get it. He was like “what is that? I don’t understand…”I tried to explain and he was like (deep male voice): “Well, if you really like that, then… you need to do it.” and gave me a hug. (laughs) He supports me in his own way. When I was a teenager acting in small plays he would come to see me, not understand much, but be there just to support her daughter. He’d say “I didn’t get it, but… Good job.” (laughs) I’ve always appreciated that my folks support my art things.

Do your ever get, um, requests to become Ansa at home?

(laughs) No. My husband likes me as ME… Usually it’s the other way around; I go “hey, look at this! This looks SO COOL!” (wiggling in front of him) or “what do you think of this? Does it work?” And he helps me by holding stuff while I’m sewing or glueing things. (laughs)

How can one learn to be a burlesque performer?

You go to school! (laughs) I currently teach burlesque at the Studio Shangri-La’s School of Showgirls, which is the first burlesque school in Finland. We start with basic stuff, awareness of your body, how to love it. How to accept the image that you see reflected in the mirror. And you have to tolerate that your body is wiggling around, which is a good thing. And from there you go step by step, learning the “bumps and grinds”, shimmies, dancing, teasing, and so on. But that’s another good thing about burlesque, you come as you are, you are your own boss, which is a feminist aspect of it.

Can guys do burlesque too?

Yeah! You can call it Man-lesque or Boy-lesque. Just like women have tassels in their boobs, guys can have “ass-els” in their butt cheeks. (laughs) Every artist does his own thing, focus on their own power, their masculinity (and femininity too). Here in Finland, Frank Doggenstein is the pioneer of man-lesque. If you haven’t seen him yet I totally recommend it. He’s got this Finnish-man energy, and he’s very tall. He’s awesome on the stage.

How often do you perform?

It’s not a regular thing. Sometimes I don’t perform in half a year, then I have three gigs in a month. And that’s really exhausting, to have something every weekend. My family is like “Aaargh, not AGAIN?!”

And do you get paid for your performances?

Yeah. Usually there’s a producer arranging things with the clubs. And also when I do private gigs. For example my hairdresser’s husband was having his 40th birthday party, and she said “please come and I will prepare anything you want! Can you do two shows?” I said sure, so I was performing in their living room and it was really cool, everyone enjoyed it. To perform like that is even more intense, because you don’t have any stage or lights to help you, and the audience is right there, two meters away from you!

Where are you going from here?

Until now, my first job has been nursing and my second job the burlesque. But I’m planning to be more an artist and less a nurse. To tip the balance the other way. (gasps) Now that I’ve said it I’ll have to do it!


Here you can follow Ansa Ikoni’s Instagram. Roller Derby photo by Marko Niemelä. Lady Boss act photos by Jari Flinck.

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