Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"Center Stage: Boylesque" (Block Magazine; January 31, 2006)

Center Stage: Boylesque
Male Burlesque Artists Roam (Twirl, Trapeze and Strip) through Williamsburg
By A. Dakota Kim

Galapagos on a Monday night is packed, with standing room only for most of the devoted audience. They know what to expect, as burlesque has become the pain quotidian for our urban generation: a voluptuous Marilyn Monroe or Bettie Page look-alike, of course, touting glittery pasties, feathered fans - and maybe a sex toy or fake pistol, if the number ventures on the edgy side.

The red velvet curtain opens to reveal ... a man. An attractive man, clad in a black leather jacket and tight jeans, flashing us a mischievous smile, but, nonetheless - a man. I thought this was supposed to be a burlesque night, a boy says jeeringly to his pals in a thick Jersey accent.
Little does he know.

The man's name is Mario Queen of the Circus, and he's about to knock those Jersey boys off their Dockers. In a thick Italian accent, Mario charms the audience with slapstick one-liners while juggling five balls in dizzyingly different directions. The crowd cheers enthusiastically, and by the end of the night this Williamsburg native has become a local burlesque star.

A Brief History of the Art

Contrary to our modern perception of burlesque as simply striptease, the original definition in the 1800s was much broader, combining musical theater that mocked upper class conventions by showcasing women and men in drag with variety acts by male comedians. By its heyday in the early 1900s, the success of commercialization had made scantily-clad women the central lure of burlesque, and many of the male comedians who had worked the burlesque circuits had graduated to the higher-class ranks of vaudeville.

Neo-burlesque is moving back toward its original definition as traditional striptease acts are hosted by old-fashioned vaudevillian hosts like Murray Hill and The Don and accompanied by talented variety acts like the sword swallowing of Keith Bindlestiff and the fire eating of Tyler Fyre.

Local Lore

Williamsburg has become a reliable destination for new burlesque, with a free weekly show at Galapagos, Bindlestiff Cirkus revues at Union Pool, special burlesque performances at venues like Northsix, the Lucky Cat and the Tainted Lady Lounge, and vibrant street performances and loft parties such as those sponsored by Rubulad.

“Boylesque,” as burlesque veteran and boylesque coach Dirty Martini calls male burlesque, has a long tradition of queer and transgender performance. From legendary stars like Tigger and Scotty the Blue Bunny, to new burlesque favorites Bradford Scobie, Roky Roulette and Seth the Zog, boylesque plays host to a wide spectrum of fluid gender and sexual identities and exposes audiences to realistic male forms in a live context.

“At first, there were no male burlesque performers,” said Galapagos Artistic Director Travis Chamberlain. “Pretty soon, Scotty and Tigger came to our attention, and once they paved the way, others soon followed. The men who are really serious about pursuing burlesque as an art have now taken center stage.”

Tricks of the Trade

On a burlesque night, besides watching female performers like Miss Saturn spin a dozen hula hoops simultaneously or the Wau Wau Sisters twirl around one another on the trapeze, lucky audiences may be treated to the likes of a deadpan Magic Brian doing card tricks and biting the head off a rubber chicken; Scotty, a 7-foot tall gay blue bunny, teasing the audience about being too straight; AJ Silver, a lassoing cowboy, stripping it all off except for chaps and a cowboy hat strategically placed; or Tigger, a professional movement actor, performing acrobatic feats in drag.

“Burlesque has more gender fluidity in it than almost any other performance art,” said Rose Wood, a transgender performer whose avant-garde burlesque acts challenge static gender identities. “These audiences are being exposed to a raw, personal transgender and queer experience.”

While more mainstream audiences might not be ready to see such unconventional displays of sexuality and gender performed by male bodies that are hardly picture-perfect, relatively young and liberal Williamsburg residents have embraced this highly comedic and challenging form where bodily perfection is not necessary for an electrifyingly entertaining performance.

“Burlesque in general is a very body-positive industry no matter what size or shape you are,” said burlesque host The Don. “In my case, it’s short, fat, hairy and male, and I’m still cheered and appreciated for what I do.”

No comments: