Ruth Ivo

The former burlesque dancer discusses her fictionalised memoir of Soho life in Performance, the exhilarating freedom of club nights in her youth and “hatching” from an egg on stage
Ruth Ivo as her showgirl persona, Ruby. PHOTO: ANNICK WOLFERS

“Sex and politics” shrugs Ruth Ivo with a bewildered shake of her head. The showgirl-turned-novelist is talking to me on the morning after Eurovision 2024 and her head is still spinning. “I just found out that Israel changed the lyrics of their song from October Rain [in reference to the terrorist attack of 7 October] to Hurricane at the last moment. You’re only given what feels like moments to process the geopolitics before the Finnish contestant is bursting out of a denim egg with his cock out…”.

Back in the 1990s, when Ivo was a burlesque dancer, she also emerged from a fibreglass egg as part of her act. “After all, who would not want to see a real girl hatch?” she asks in her fictionalised memoir, Performance. Describing her stage appearances, she writes:

“You stretch and expand inside your skin, pushing your ribs to the sky. Your body is the shape of an S, every curve dipped, but this is not about sex. You are the reflected fragments of every story you were ever told, of creatures half-woman, half-bird; blood-red shells and faces launching ships across the world.”

Readers meet “Ruby” – the heroine of Ivo’s novel – after she’s graduated from her own showgirl days. On the brink of 30 and leaving on a decaying barge, Ruby takes a job as assistant director at a swanky Soho club. The show is run by a petulant bully called Gabriel Grosse, obsessed with getting his performers to engage in sado-masochistic acts or simulate urination for the titillation of mostly male audiences. His trademark show ends with a woman firing a gun into her vagina, fake blood splattering against perspex under the spotlights.

“When you see extremely violent sexual stuff on stage you always need to ask: who’s creating it for who and why?” says Ivo. “The male boss in my book is creating those shows to entertain his male audience. He’s trying to turn them on and gross them out. His motivation is to make the show more notorious. But the show looks and feels very different if the performers have agency then they’re more like [Italian performance artist] Franko B acting on his own volition, walking down a catwalk slitting his wrists.” She wrinkles her nose and bites her lip. “The only difference between much burlesque and what gets classed as performance art is the location and time of day.”

“When you see extremely violent sexual stuff on stage you always need to ask: who’s creating it for who and why?”

The eldest daughter of a GP mother and neurosurgeon father, Ivo grew up in northwest London “very much in my own dream world”. She didn’t learn to read or write until she was seven years old, at which point she “took off like a rocket”, devouring books by Roald Dahl and drawing her own detailed maps of fantasy worlds at the end of the garden. On the flip side of this hazy introversion lay “a total show pony, a singer and dancer who baffled my parents… although actually I realise my dad is a massive show-off, in his own way.”

As an “atypical learner”, Ivo didn’t find school easy. She truanted and failed to get the A-level results that would have led to an English degree. At the same time she felt the lure of the rave scene and fell in with creatives in that world [including the Mutoid Waste Company] just as the burlesque scene was taking off. Soon she was offered a job dancing at Glastonbury’s bohemian “Lost Vagueness” area, despite a total lack of dance training. As the daughter of professionals, did she ever feel she was free to “play” in a world where others had no choice but to graft and grift?

“Yeah, totally, yeah,” nods Ivo. “It’s a situation that means you end up asking what creates class. Money, confidence, education?” Her mother was educated at a grammar school and her father at a military boarding school. “But they met as communist party members at Oxford, she explains, “so we had a very different style of education. We went to the crowded comprehensive school in Kensal Rise which is now super-bougie, but was an absolutely madhouse in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I remember when they raided the crack house on the hill there and everybody came out to watch!”

But she notes that, unlike many of her classmates, she was taken to the theatre and went on foreign holidays. By the time she got to art school – where she lasted three months on a conceptual course where “they taught you to talk out of your arse and I could do that already” – she’d already taken two gap years. “I’d travelled the world, been a mental teenager off the leash. That gives you a layer of cultural confidence that you can’t get in school,” she notes. “At another level I once dated an Old Etonian and he was an incredible public speaker. I realised he’d been TAUGHT that.” It wasn’t until I visited Eton myself that I realised the school’s ‘debate chamber’ is a reproduction of the House of Commons. No wonder Old Etonians walk into parliament like they own it, they grew up yawning on a simulacrum of its benches.

There’s a character in Performance – a working actor – who is based on the godfather of Ivo’s three-year-old son. “His family emigrated to New Zealand because of what happened to the mining community in the ’80s. We met when we were both living in a squat in London. But I’m more reckless, more brakes-off. He’s more sensible. He has savings. We talk about that often and I think the reason is not innate. It’s because I’ve been brought up with a financial safety net. When I wanted to buy a boat to live on, having been naive enough to think a 24-year-old showgirl might get a mortgage for that, my parents helped me out with the deposit.”

Boat life, like night life, Ivo believes, is “for the misfits who don’t fit into the structures of normal society. Those scenes are attached to the mainstream only by a rope, the way the gay Polari language is to normal speech.”

Much of Performance documents Soho’s shift from wild pirate neighbourhood to glossy corporate tourist-milker

Ivo looks back on her showgirl years as “a wild, exciting time”. She recalls the golden glitter and individual sexual drama of burlesque as a refreshing shift on from “the concealing hoodies and collectivism of the rave scene. It was a moment when ‘performance’ re-entered our nightlife. It felt super feminine and queer, muddled up with drag. I’ve always been a bit queer. Now I’d maybe have been labelling myself differently but back then it was more a case of [she quotes Blur’s lyrics]: ‘[Girls] Who like boys to be girls/ Who do boys like they’re girls/ Who do girls like they’re boys…’.” She smiles. “It was all just quite fluid and fun and there was a place for all of it.”

As a teenager, Ivo was “obsessed” with the gleefully fabulist, feminist author Angela Carter. “Being at Glastonbury was like being in her novel Nights at the Circus,” she grins. “You could be a trash bag at a festival living out a literary nineteenth-century fantasy. The scene felt very open to offering power to women and queer people. That had an effect on London night life. Suddenly there were club nights like ‘Cash Point’ where performances were welcomed. It was an exhilarating era to be young, in some ways.”

But alongside this freedom ran a 1990s ladette culture which Ivo believes was “pretty toxic for feminism. Girls were meant to be like dudes. That was the idea of emancipation. Drink the pints, go to the strip clubs, keep up, keep up!” So while giddy, theatrical, burlesque nights celebrated women’s bodies in all their forms, so a parallel scene – dominated by corporate strip clubs like Spearmint Rhino – marketed just one constrictive, submissive version of female sexuality. Much of Performance documents Soho’s shift from wild “pirate” neighbourhood to glossy corporate tourist-milker. But Ivo suspects that “Soho survives in cycles. I think its true nature will burst back through the Cafe Neros!”

Ivo would like her readers to understand that many of the burlesque scene’s greatest stars are “performance artists, expressing who they are, commenting on the society around them. I knew many terrific performers who put their whole selves into their shows. I spent hours interviewing the fascinating transgender artists I call ‘Rose’ – who’s a more masochistic performer – and ‘Yozmit’ – who offers something more spiritual and ritualistic.”

Ivo admits she “worried massively” at the time about the risks of assault and exploitation borne by her fellow performers, but she’s glad the scene is still going. “I quit at 30 because I was done, the night life was an adventure but never my first love.” But many of her contemporaries are still dancing into their 40s and 50s, she says. “A performer called Vicky Butterfly now owns my old fibreglass egg,” she says. “You can google her – she’s a very successful showgirl and uses the egg better than I ever did – she’s made a Fabergé of it!”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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