Male per­form­ers bring unique ap­proach to age old art of bur­lesque

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY LAU­REN LA ROSE

Shed­ding skin took on a whole new mean­ing as bur­lesque per­former Dew Lily peered through the red cur­tains.

He emerged on stage as a tow­er­ing gi­raffe, com­plete with a pa­pier-mache head and spot­ted coat. The high-heel-wear­ing Lily teetered on all fours, with elon­gated, fabric-adorned arms serv­ing as makeshift front legs.

As the crowd cheered, he grace­fully peeled away the lay­ers to re­veal a barely-there ze­braprint leo­tard and leop­ard-print fin­ger­less gloves.

“We’ve all seen can-can girls and we’ve all seen the old western movies with the girls in the corsets danc­ing on­stage, but I didn’t re­ally re­al­ize what bur­lesque was un­til I got in­volved with it,’’ Lily said be­fore per­form­ing at a pre­view of the Toronto Bur­lesque Fes­ti­val, which runs Thurs­day through Sun­day.

For the past decade, Lily (real name: Wil­lard Gil­lard) has been part of the emerg­ing group of male per­form­ers who have em­braced the art of strip­tease un­der their own dis­tinct moniker: boy­lesque.

The ori­gins of bur­lesque stretch back to the 1800s. The the­atri­cal show­case saw a re­vival in the 1990s, with per­form­ers like Dita Von Teese bring­ing cheek­i­ness, sex­u­al­ity and body pos­i­tiv­ity to the fore­front.

“I do think that we all should make sure we pay re­spect and homage to the women who cre­ated this art form and trail­blazed for us, so to speak; but I do find that when a male is on­stage do­ing bur­lesque I hope that we’re pro­vid­ing a heav­ier comedic el­e­ment to it,’’ said Lily, a mem­ber of the Toronto-based Boy­lesque TO troupe.

“I do hope that the males on­stage can show re­spect for the art form and also el­e­vate it to some­thing else. In my opin­ion, it should al­ways be hu­mour.’’

Born and raised on an Al­berta cat­tle ranch, Lily moved to New York at age 17 to at­tend a per­form­ing arts school. He un­der­went in­ten­sive train­ing in cul­ti­vat­ing stage pres­ence, singing and danc­ing, but he still found a steep learn­ing curve when he took up bur­lesque.

“It also, strangely enough, fo­cused on the things that I was re­ally ter­ri­ble about, which was my self-con­fi­dence and also my huge fear of im­prov... work­ing off-script or work­ing more closely and in­tensely with an au­di­ence where there is no fourth wall,’’ said Lily. “So, bur­lesque ac­tu­ally has been a huge part of my train­ing as a per­former, as well.’’

The fes­ti­val’s pro­gram­ming and artis­tic di­rec­tor Coco Fram­boise has been per­form­ing since 2003.

Fram­boise said it has been in­ter­est­ing to see men come into the bur­lesque fold, as it brings to the fore­front pre­vail­ing so­cial dis­tinc­tions around men and women’s bod­ies.

“We have a lot more charge and ten­sion around cov­er­ing women’s breasts, but male nip­ples are fine to be seen. So when a woman does a strip­tease and bares her breasts, there’s a ten­sion and a tit­il­la­tion there be­cause there’s a taboo. But for men it isn’t there,’’ said Fram­boise.

“When a man comes out to a strip­tease, there isn’t any part of his body you’re go­ing to see that is that risque. And be­cause they’re not held to the same kind of beauty stan­dards, it’s al­ready au­to­mat­i­cally hi­lar­i­ous that a man is en­ter­ing this space and do­ing this strip­tease that peo­ple con­ven­tion­ally think of be­ing the prov­ince of women.’’

Be­cause men don’t have the same so­cial pres­sures as women to main­tain beauty, “they can be ugly, they can be grotesque, they can be silly more eas­ily,’’ she noted.

“Women also come to that, but it tends to be later in their ca­reers as they kind of dis­man­tle the beauty myth and ques­tion that and set­tle within them­selves.’’

Fram­boise has taught men in her bur­lesque class and says she’s gained fresh per­spec­tive from her stu­dents in the process.


Per­former Dew Lily, left, and Zyra Lee Van­ity pre­pare to per­form at an event kick­ing off the Toronto Bur­lesque Fes­ti­val that in­cludes a num­ber of boy­lesque per­for­mances, which is the male ver­sion of bur­lesque, in Toronto to­day.

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