May 27, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Night of the Ibis

This week's Marvellous, Electrical includes a little bit of swearing and some pictures from a burlesque show. You have been warned!

She’s hunched on the stage in a cloak of white feathers.

Her elbows twitch: tentative motions of the wing.

The lights come up. A voice mimics Richard Attenborough:

The sacred ibis, a creature of religious veneration in the times of ancient Egypt…

She rises slowly to her feet.

… depicted in many hieroglyphs as a representation of Thoth, god of wisdom, knowledge, and writing.

She extends her wings.

The Australian white ibis, with its white feathers and black head, is most commonly found in the north-eastern quadrant of the Australian continent….

She turns from one side of the stage to the other, rolling her head, grooming her feathers with the long black beak jutting out from her headdress.

…considered a disappointing second cousin to its ancient Egyptian counterparts.

The ibis-woman pauses, affronted at the voiceover. She stalks the stage, kicking out her fishnet-clad legs.

The debate continues on whether to consider it a pest or a vulnerable species, often found digging in a bin at your local outdoor cafe. Among locals, they are commonly referred to as the tip turkey, the dump chook, or, most popularly…

She spreads her wings wide, exposing her costume to the audience.

…the shitbird.
 

Greg Elkenhans Photography for Curves and Claws

The ibis-woman begins to flap her wings and shimmy, somewhere between a temptress and Adam West’s 1960s Batman. A rock guitar kicks in and she leaps from the stage into the audience. Their whoops of delight take on a fearful thrill.

On stage, the ibis-woman’s partner, a girl in a pink dress, sets up a chair. She has a sandwich in her hand.

Meanwhile, the ibis delights in the attention of the crowd, teasing them, taunting them, flirting, Queensland’s much-maligned pest enjoying her moment in the limelight.

She casts off her feathered cloak - the “wings” - and slips back her headpiece, revealing her face. The crowd cheer louder.

She eyes the girl and then winks at the audience. Squats down. With the wings gone now, you see her form in all its voluptuousness. She bounces on her haunches sidelong towards her intended victim. The girl shimmies her chair across the stage, still holding her sandwich, but she’s not fast enough. The ibis-woman catches up and reaches for the snack, but is denied.

 

Photo by Joel Devereux for Vanguard Burlesque

Ibis struts away like a child on the edge of a tantrum. The girl on the chair is wary.

The ibis-woman peels off another layer of feathers, baring her full, round belly.

The music continues to pulse.

The crowd holler.

“Spread your wings and dive, dive,” screeches the singer as the ibis woman lies on stage and parts her legs in front of her partner. Still the girl on the chair clings to the sandwich.

It’s time to get serious. The ibis stomps away, pouts, strips off yet more feathers, her breasts bare but for a pair of pasties, her butt exposed to the audience’s yelps of approval, and now she flings herself onto the girl in the chair in a great embrace, leg hooked over the girl’s shoulder, the sandwich in her hand, prize claimed.

She backs away and, while her victim is still reeling, raises the sandwich to the skies like a prize before cramming the whole thing into her mouth, flicking Vs at the audience, and stalking off stage with a crust still hanging from her lips.

*

“This wasn’t what I was aiming for,” Darryl Jones tells me over coffee on the South Bank of the Brisbane River. “I was a straight down the line scientist, studying the sex lives of brush turkeys. You know, that old attitude that getting a PhD means you’re the world expert in something no-one cares about.”

Darryl’s a behavioural ecologist at Griffith University, working in the fields of urban ecology and wildlife management. While we talk, a couple of ibis are patrolling around the cafe’s outdoor tables, bobbing their heads as they inspect the scene for scraps and leavings.

“A ranger called looking for someone to help deal with a invasion of suburban brush turkeys. And, you know, I’m Doctor Brush Turkey.”

“So the attitude was: ‘You’ve got a PhD, go and talk to Mrs Smith about how to deal with that nest in her back garden.’”

“What we’re looking at is actually the interaction of nature and humans in the city. There’s a conflict between people and nature, and the question becomes how you talk to people about that.”

“From the layman’s perspective, cities are devoid of nature. My job is opening people’s eyes. Thirty years ago urban ecology didn’t exist. When I was being trained, the attitude was, you’ve got to get away from the influence of people to see how animals actually behave. I’m a behavioural ecologist - I study behaviour in a given environment, looking at why animals did certain things - and I was part of the generation that brought that approach into towns and cities.”

Darryl found himself taking on new challenges in urban wildlife: after turkeys came magpies and even possums.

And then there was the white ibis breeding colony in the Botanic Gardens.

The birds are common on the coast: “farmer’s friends” whose appetite for insects makes them useful when locusts descend on fields of crops. They only began to appear in Brisbane city centre at the tail end of last century.

“Every animal with an urban success story has gotten used to the presence of humanity,” says Darryl. “To take advantage of all the good stuff going on in a city centre, they need to lose their fear of human beings. That’s a pretty fundamental change, and nobody entirely knows how that habituation occurs.”

“The ibis is a pretty unfairly maligned bird. They don’t attack people, unlike Aussie magpies which are pretty aggressive. It’ s just that they don’t look pretty to our eyes. They smell bad. People assume they must be pests, they must have diseases. No! They smell like their environment is all: they’ve spent their sunrise poking around for insects in the mud of mangrove swamps and the dirty old river, so what do you expect?”

Darryl’s work is pretty far removed from the world of burlesque, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for colour and play in the life of a behavioural ecologist. When trying to tag and track the large population of ibis in the city centre, his team came up with the idea of loading water pistols with food colouring and using this to dye the birds’ white bodies.

“The real issue with the ibis is our behaviour, not theirs. The only reason they’re wandering around our parks and our city is because we leave our trash and food waste lying around. Don’t blame the birds for their natural behaviour.”

“If someone asks, ‘Why did that ugly bird climb on my table?’, the answer is: ‘Because you put food in front of it!’”

*

“I’m sick of how pretty things can get - I want the performance to be hideous as well as fun. Nothing makes people more uncomfortable than someone who’s not a size 6 literally deep throating a sandwich.”

Off-stage, Lenore Noire - the burlesque performer responsible for the “Shitbird” act - is young, enthusiastic, self-mocking.

“I was trying to be a bit like Batman. You know how he’s scared of bats as a child, and then uses the bat as his emblem to frighten criminals? I despise ibises. Hate them. I mean, they smell like death. We had a little colony of them near a house where I used to live. I’d walk under their tree and have to hold my breath. “

Lenore’s fear of the ibis began in her youth. Her parents played cricket up and down the Gold Coast.

“Us kids got bored and so we’d roam around playing and doing our own thing. I thought for a while there was a gang of ibises always following me wherever I went.”

“Then it got worse: I realised it wasn’t the same gang of ten ibises - there were millions of them all over coastal Australia! Gross.”

Lenore’s plan to conquer her fears like a burlesque Bruce Wayne wasn’t well received at first.

“Everyone thought ‘sexy ibis’ was an odd idea. Even I didn’t feel totally comfortable in it at first, until my mentor told me if I was going on stage as this creature, I really had to own it. There’s nothing more rebellious than someone who refuses to fit the norm being provocative and sexy.”

Lenore tells me that the Brisbane performance scene is welcoming and comradely - much as the Kransky Sisters said last week. But when she does encounter the rare difficult audience, the ibis is the perfect character to deal with them.

“I remember one gig at Harvey Bay. The crowd were disrespectful. They were filming on their phones, which many of us really dislike because the point of the show is the performance and the relationship. You want to tell them, ‘Look through your eyes, not an iPhone.’”

“Burlesque is an interactive experience, so I used that to my advantage. The ibis waded in and knocked over one girl’s champagne, pecked a man with Donald Trump hair, and then stuck her beak down the front of another woman’s cleavage.”

The Brisbane ibis might not have much in common with its revered relatives in ancient Egypt, but perhaps it is a different kind of deity: an urban avatar of the misunderstood. Lenore’s act stretches to Pac-Man impersonation, devils, and even a forthcoming Big Pineapple, but you can see that the ibis act, reclaiming the birds which terrorised her childhood, is especially close to her heart. She already has plans to upgrade the costume, painting flashes of red under her armpits and constructing a pair of ibis feet to wear on stage.

“Of course, my plan to conquer my fears didn’t work. So much for the Batman approach: people send me ibis pictures all the time. I hate them but every time I open my inbox or Facebook, there’ll be ibises there. A thing went round online where someone had taken Disney princesses and given them ibis heads. I got it sent to me twelve times in twenty-four hours…”

Photo by Joel Devereux for Vanguard Burlesque

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