Dames, Drinks & Drawings
Dr Sketchy's Anti-Art School has crossed the Atlantic, bringing New York's legendary burlesque life-drawing class to Northern Ireland's capitalFeatured November 09 Words by James Bartlett
It's Sunday night and all over Belfast people are sharpening their pencils for an unusual, glamorous, and exclusive night out. Well away from the clichéd madness of the city centre is The Menagerie, an eccentric bar part-owned by local legend, DJ and film composer David Holmes and the monthly location for Dr Sketchy's Anti- Art School. "There is always some form of surprise any given night at Dr Sketchy's, from wedding proposals to mystery guests," says Ken Bartley, co-founder of Belfast Unbound with his wife Ann, who brought the show to the city.
Ken and Ann established Belfast Unbound in 2001, putting on the kind of shows they would want to go to. They first helped set up the J2Z Music Festival, which saw luminaries such as Roy Ayers, Jazzanova and Henrik Schwarz coming to Belfast, and also ran one-off events such as Threesome - Modern Dance, Modern Art and Modern Music, and album launch parties.
Originally Dr Sketchy's came kicking and screaming to life in Brooklyn, New York, in 2005 when illustrator and former artist's model Molly Crabapple wondered why drawing naked people was never deemed sexy. She combed the Big Apple to find the most gorgeous burlesque dancers, the most bizarre circus freaks, and the most hunky men, and then let the public loose with its collective sketchpad. Picking up on the internet buzz, Ken and Ann decided they wanted to set up their own version in Belfast, and approached Molly directly. After a few trans- Atlantic emails and a grilling about their backgrounds, they were delighted when she granted them the exclusive licence for Belfast.
There's no need to be Picasso or Pollock here, though. Dr Sketchy's is a unique night of burlesque, electronic music and drawing where cabaret meets art school. With pencils, pens and pads at the ready, participants are sure to be inspired by the sexy burlesque or extraordinary-looking models and performers who are the centre of attention.
"Normally there will be three or four models that will do a couple of poses over the course of the evening," explains Ken. "The models will also perform, so you may get a song, a dance, or some comedy before or after the pose, and there's background music for each five-to-10 minute session, depending on the theme of the night. There's cop show soundtracks and gangster movie music for the Crimewave night and at the Tattoo and Body Art night a couple of audience members entered into the spirit of things by drawing tattoos on one another."
It's still life Jim, but not as we know it, and there are also silly quizzes, drinking games and surreal drawing competitions - the quickest drawing of the bar staff, best drawing of the person at the next table, blind-folded drawing, and so on. There's a real chance the colourful cacophony of fairy wings, feathers, lingerie, guns and velvet will tax all your artistic powers.
And then there are the prizes. "After each pose the model picks her own favourite sketch, and competition winners get to choose from our Alcohol Roulette tray," says Ken. "Basically, the tray has shots of clear alcohol such as gin, vodka, tequila or schnapps, and something less than alcoholic. An unlucky pick and you could be rewarded with a prize of a shot of water. Ugh!"
At the end of the evening all the masterpieces are voted on by the audience themselves, and the lucky winner gets a star prize - vouchers for Art & Hobby supply shop in Belfast, so he or she can carry on creating back home.
After this artistic extravaganza, the lights are dimmed, and Belfast Unbound continues as a club for the rest of the night with mellow sounds from everyone from Nina Simone through to Mr Scruff, with an occasional detour through Neil Young, Dizzee Rascal or Amanda Palmer - all played at a sophisticated, laid-back 1950s volume.
"This mix of dames, drinks and drawing has been a smash hit since day one," says Ken. "It proved so popular that we had to borrow extra tables and chairs to cope with the demand - exactly what you want for an opening! People of all ages and backgrounds come along, and there is no shortage of people asking to pose at our shows, from professional dancers to models, because they enjoy it as much as the audience does.
"Mae West would have been a great Dr Sketchy's star, and as an artist, Tracey Emin would always be welcome to come along to any of our events," says Ken. "But this event has a really relaxed vibe that seems to appeal to everyone - and there have been no walk-outs so far!"
Belfast is a city that's undergone a huge renaissance over the past few years and become a hot weekend destination, so the choice of The Menagerie - a sort of underground local legend that's off the beaten track from the busy club and bar-filled "Golden Mile" - was the perfect venue for Ken and Ann's off-beat, artistic extravaganza.
"We've been running burlesque and music shows in Belfast for a while and had previously brought events here, so it seemed like the logical choice, especially as the Menagerie has just the right ambience for this type of event."
On any day or night you might stumble across old geezers having a Guinness next to punks necking cider, or catch an unannounced gig by major musicians as they often come here to rehearse and relax before concerts. The Menagerie also hosts world music performances, games, films, French rockabilly and fashion shows - all without any velvet rope attitude.
"One week Shane MacGowan from The Pogues was booked as a surprise guest by BP Fallon, the DJ from Death Disco," enthuses Ken, "but then Shane got lost on his way to the gig. He asked a passing local, who turned out to be Alex Higgins (the 1980s world snooker champion), for directions, and the pair of them turned up here just before Peaches, who had been playing at a festival nearby and came in for a post-gig drink."
But as Ken and Ann's licence for Dr Sketchy extends to 160km around Belfast, they plan to take the night beyond The Menagerie and go on tour to festivals that are looking for something slightly different. And thanks to the internet, there are now dozens of similar events happening across four continents with budding artists and their burlesque muses setting up stages and easels from London to Melbourne and Canada to Japan.
Dr Sketchy takes place on the first Sunday of every month, admission £5 (€5.40). 130 University Street, www.drsketchybelfast.co.uk
FOUR OTHER BONKERS NIGHTS OUT IN BELFAST
Duck and Dive
Wheel around town on a Party Piglet, a fire engine mini-club or a "limo" party bus. You can also make a splash in the brand new Duck Tours amphibious coach, due to start rolling out across the River Lagan from November. www.partypiglets.com, www.limobustravel.com, www.belfastducktours.com
Live It Up
Fly high on the Belfast Wheel (the VIP box comes with a bottle of champagne) before arriving at the swish Merchant Hotel for a Mixology Class. Home at one time to the world's most expensive cocktail (a £750/€810 Mai Tai), the hotel was recently awarded the World's Best Cocktail Menu award. www.worldtouristattractions.co.uk www.themerchanthotel.com
Dance the Jive
Music fans will love the Belfast Music Tour, a coach trip around town that looks at the famous venues and stories behind Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, Ash, David Holmes and others. Then strut your stuff in a different direction by taking a lesson in Swing, Lindy Hop or Jive. www.belfastmusic.org, www.swingbelfast.com
A local artist leads the award-winning Late Night Art Tour, which takes in a number of galleries open especially for the occasion, covering all genres and styles. The monthly tour, which costs £5/€5.40, ends at the Black Box, the über-hip arts/café/venue in the Cathedral Quarter. www.belfastgalleries.com
WHERE TO STAY IN BELFAST
TRAVELODGE BELFAST CENTRAL
Save your precious pennies for beers and a brand new sketchpad and stay at this supercentral budget hotel. From €49, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
JURY'S INN BELFAST
This is the perfect place to rest your head if you're planning a night out - it's a short stagger from Dr Sketchy's and Belfast's bar and pub scene. From €65, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
Combine your burlesque sketching experience with the glamour of Belfast's new boutique hotel, with its modern interior and glitzy bar. From €110, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com