In Pictures: London’s Young Cabaret Vaudeville Performers

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Ghosts of the Stage
Heather. Ghosts of the StagePhotography by Katie Eleanor

Photographer Katie Eleanor presents a series of portraits of the performance collective Mama Jinx, who reflect on Covid-19’s impact on the performing arts

For the first time in London’s gritty, glamorous history, every pub and club is quiet. In the evenings and at the weekends, the streets are no longer filled with the sound of revellers; people talking, laughing, dropping glasses, and shouting at strangers. Not even the Blitz bombings of the Second World War put a stop to this; nor to the singers, dancers and vaudeville performers who faithfully put on their gladrags and found a low-lit stage on which to perform. But Covid-19 has brought London’s nightlife to its knees. For the performance collective Mama Jinx, who are photographed here, this has proved fatal.

Originally a collaboration between Ellie Walker, the group’s founder and creative director, and the photographer Katie Eleanor, this series of portraits was intended to be celebratory. But as pandemic continued to take its toll, and as the series’ title suggests, Ghosts of the Stage has become something of a theatrical in memoriam. “A funeral of our past lives,” as Walker puts it. Eleanor’s last project, The Sialia Marbles, explored the idea of the tableaux vivant by bringing human bodies as marble sculptures, performative and ephemeral, into a monumental space. “It was a study of sculptures in their own fictional isolation as well as interacting in our shared reality,” she says. For this project, she felt that the photograph could offer a similar performative frame. “I wanted the images to become an ode to these artists and the spaces they can no longer inhabit.”

So, the band gathered in an east London studio and did what they do best: perform, albeit in front of a camera. At the time, there had been a sense of optimism in the air, but the third national lockdown dissolved much of their remaining hope. “Now it feels like everyone is on the dole in diamanté,” Walker says.

The group itself is diverse – comprising acts such as clowning, burlesque, belly dancing, costume designers, and gymnasts – but is united in a shared feeling of precarity. The UK government’s response has been dismal for the performing arts, with funding, if any, more likely granted to institutions and venues as opposed to individual performers. Here, a year into endless lockdowns and empty stages, these young vaudeville stars reflect, in their own words on the ways in which they have adapted to this new reality.

Ellie Walker, Creative Director and Stylist

“My love for performing comes from wanting to bring a sprinkle of fantasy into the real world. I do yearn for when humans will be able to touch bodies, hold hands, and laugh in each other’s faces again. Yet it makes sense for us all to grow into URL worlds, and become more online-based. It feels permanent and solid, but surreal, all at the same time. And I welcome these changes.

“We rely on performers now more than ever for entertainment. We need shows, comedy, sparkle. I will always live for those moments: the ones that transport you, make you question, and those that present you a new possibility and way of being.”

ARKEM, Storyteller and Cabaret Performer

“I miss the instant collaboration, surprise experiences, and easy friending that the festival season gifts me.

“The limitations of the pandemic have pushed me into a greater appreciation of home, for instance baking a cherry pie from homegrown fruit which I am usually too busy to harvest properly. Different ways of working together, like the photoshoot, or storytelling online, have allowed me to keep my creative muscles toned. But there’s nothing like cramming into a grimy venue for a saucy and challenging cabaret followed by sweat-soaked dancing into the early hours of the morning.”

Rosy Pendlebaby (Rosy the Revolter), Performer and Artists’ Model

“I wanted to be many things when I was younger. In a way, being a performer meant I could still play at being anything I want to. I’ve been a dancing crab on the steps of the Natural History Museum, crowd-surfed in an inflatable dinghy while wearing a chicken suit, performed in a bloody orgiastic Halloween ritual at legendary London nightclub The Box, and spent four months with a divine cast as an ancient Grecian party priestess on Mount Olympus.

“Now, I’m doing more copywriting, online event production, and online workshops. I’m trying to slow down and pay close attention to the small, everyday sort of things: more being, less doing. The change of pace has been good in other ways, I think as a performer it’s easy to just keep working, even when you’ve run your battery so flat you don’t even feel how tired you are any more.

“I hope we all learn the lessons that we need to from this slowing down and pausing of the unsustainable flurry of our pre-pandemic lives, myself included.”

Rebecca Jo Lesley, Multidisciplinary Artist

“I’m part of Pearl Boheme’s fusion belly dance troupe A Conspiracy of Ravens. I miss the buzz of performing. Comparatively, painting is quite a lonely experience so dance helped to balance it. We stopped meeting as a group because of Covid. Pearl’s classes had always been a therapy session to me, helping with my self-esteem. I kept dancing to stay sane, taking zoom classes with my favourite performer Zoe Jakes from Beats Antique. 

“I’ve continued painting. I’ve decided to invest this slow time into focusing on what I really love and learning to adapt to exhibiting work without a physical space. It’s pointless things like art that make life worth living.”

Cordi The Nawty Shawty, Performer

“Before the pandemic I was queen of the odd jobs, and I still am, even through the pandemonium. Nowadays, I’m doing a whole lot of extra work (thank fuck the film industry hasn’t died on us!) – I feel like a professional Covid test subject at this point. I’ve taken up teaching hula, more for adults, but I now teach kids too which is a nice bit of light relief for parents who’ve been working and schooling the littl’ans. I also do weekly Indian takeaway deliveries on my Bikeael Jackson. I’ve given, let’s call them ‘niche distanced massages’ for dear lonely pervs, helped healers upload their guided meditations, online life modelling – the list goes on!

“I’m getting creative in every aspect of life, by tuning in with the moon, the seasons, the stars! And by giggling, creasing and cackling all day, loudly to the sky, with no fucks given for how many men I scare, or babies that cry.”

Lusus Naturae, Costume and Jewellery Designer

“I am a student again which would not have happened, at this stage in my life, had it not been for lockdown. I’m studying for an undergraduate degree in environmental sciences, and I’ve taken up wildflower and butterfly identification, alongside an online evening class in herbal medicine. I go on plenty of walks and engross myself in learning about the world around me which in turn inspires my creative work.”

Camilla Mason, Performer 

“Life as a performance artist prior to the pandemic was full steam. One day I was flapping around Liverpool as a lizard granny, the next I was a dancing goddess bathed in blood and milk. The excitement took me to new venues, cities, countries ... I met my real family in these beautiful crazy environments. I lived for the new creative force that it would give me being able to interact with an audience, and play so openly. But the constant moving around and not knowing when the next gig might come became tiring. 

“Before the pandemic hit I was thinking about away from performance and more into theatre production. But the pandemic forced me to straighten up and look deeper within. I am beginning training as a sound and movement therapist this year and want to explore everything I can about this method of healing. I am evolving and adapting.”

Binti Red, Performance Artist and Musician

“I had worked as a dancer and hostess at The Box, Soho. My bones miss performing and dressing up.

“I am now enrolled on a three-year course training as a homoeopath, and I plan to finish my EP by early 2021 and continue to release music. I’m keeping the magic alive by staying connected to my blessed community in north London, and focusing on music, but the homoeopathy is magic enough to be fair.”