CATHERINE TURNBULL meets the York academic who is also a burlesque aerial dance performer and stars in a lavish fine art steampunk book

BY day Hannah Spring is a lecturer at York St John University in health information science. But catch her outside work and if you are lucky, she’ll be shimmying up a pole and performing an aerial dance as the exotic Scarlet Butterfly or perhaps the evil green Absinthe Faery. It’s a unique form of acrobatic, theatrical, cirque-style pole dance which sees her perform in elaborate faery, fantasy and burlesque-inspired costumes.

It was at The Asylum, the Lincoln steampunk festival, that Scarlet Butterfly caught the eye of fine art photographer Gary Nicholls who cast Hannah in his epic steampunk book, The Imaginarium.

But how did Hannah’s second career as a dancer begin? “I wanted to make some changes to my life and get fitter, so I went to pole dancing fitness classes in Leeds. I discovered that I was good at it and it completely changed my life,” says Hannah from Huddersfield.

“It was five years ago but I still go every week and train. I discovered the world of burlesque and cabaret and created Scarlet Butterfly, my alter ego – she’s a much more exaggerated version of me. I now have a whole range of characters, including Faery Absinthe.

“It was so massively creative to make the costumes, get the technicalities of pole dancing right, weave in circus skills and fire; it’s telling stories and offers me great freedom to express myself. I don’t think anyone else is performing like me.

“I used to be a goth and it was at the Whitby Goth Weekend that I discovered steampunk, through some friends, and I became interested in the whole concept of steampunk, the Victorian-style fashion and the corsetry that are made by the wearers, the theatricality, the stories and the idea that you can take old things and make them new. There are no rules like those of historical re-enactors. This became my hobby and my passion. I am now a dancer, choreographer, an actor and a seamstress too, as I make my own costumes.

“I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie – I used to be a skydiver."

This world is so different from her lecturing life at the university, but she has gained fans there too. “The students who have seen my show love it. They think it is crazy and cool. It’s been an immense privilege to be involved with the book."

When Gary Nicholls saw her show in Lincoln he was impressed. “I instantly knew she would play Adella Daw, the female Artful Dodger character in the story of The Imaginarium and also Chrisalisia,” he says.

Gary is a photographic conceptual artist, and his first book of his neo-gothic fairy story is based on the Victorian fairground attractions of The Imaginarium. It tells an intricate, fantastical, dark but ultimately beautiful story through the unique medium of fine art images.

The influence of old masters’ techniques such as Caravaggio, Hogarth and Rembrandt, are apparent throughout his work as he builds layers from multiple photographs (8,500 in the first book) taken personally in locations as diverse as New York, London, Cambodia and across Europe. In Yorkshire he has photographed scenes in Bradford including the City Hall clock tower. "If I cannot find the exact location, I build one in photoshop from different elements of the places I have visited and photographed… the street scene is made up of buildings all over the UK, from Leamington to London and Bradford,” he explains. He photographs his cast in the studio and then adds them to the layers of location scenes. His scene of the witches places his characters in Fountains Abbey, near Ripon. Hannah is also photographed at Dargate Dykes ancient earthworks in Dalby Forest, and Bowling Hall in Bradford and Doncaster also feature.

He describes himself as a storyteller, and artist with a camera, creating images that have that wow factor. He is inspired by, among others, Joel Grimes, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter and Sting.

The Imaginarium is a dystopian Dickens-style story with thousands of words about one woman’s journey from ruination to salvation, saving the steampunk world from a powerful nemesis, a place of wickedness, betrayal, murder and greed where one lost soul stands out as her saviour.

As you might expect there are gadgets and goggles, airships and corsets.

He describes steampunk as a dystopian world that takes a theme and blends it with echoes of the industrial revolution. As a movement, it is often influenced by the scientific romances of Jules Verne and HG Wells.

Three of Gary’s original composite images were chosen for an exhibition in New York and Miami and he has had an iconic image in an exhibition in the Louvre in Paris. He has now released the first volume of The Imaginarium and limited-edition metal prints and is currently working on the second, entitled Robbie Pertwee.

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