by James Whitely -
SGN Staff Writer
On Friday, March 1, at the Oddfellows building on Capitol Hill, local boylesque artists in partnership with the Academy of Burlesque presented 'Boys! Bois! Boyz!' a showcase of local boylesque talent headlined by the Chicago-based Jett Adore.
When I came across the press release in my inbox, I knew I wanted to do more than just review the show. I've done plenty of those reviews already and I still had questions about boylesque and its place in the burlesque revival. What brings people to boylesque? What of the desire to expose; the zeal to reveal? Where is boylesque going? Where did it come from? I wanted to know, and I wanted to present what I learned to the city of Seattle, which has, whether you know it or not, one of the biggest boylesque scenes in the country.
Before the show, I got in touch with almost all the major players in Seattle's boylesque scene: Waxie Moon, Ernie Von Schmaltz, the Luminous Pariah, EmpeROAR Fabulous!!!, Paris Original, Trojan Original, and, of course, for her unmatched expertise, Miss Indigo Blue, Headmistress of the Academy of Burlesque and Reigning Queen of Burlesque - Miss Exotic World 2011.
I viewed 'Boys! Bois! Boyz!' as a culmination of sorts for all of my discussions and interviews. As the curtain rose to a full house, I sat expectantly waiting for answers.
THE SHOW BEGINS
I'm reintroduced to Ernie, an instructor at the Academy, who I'd interviewed with in plain attire about a week before, alongside Indigo and Waxie. This time, 'The Man, The Myth, The Mustache' has a bit of a beer belly. I hear Ernie's backstory: he worked at a 7-11 for a number of years and drives a Camaro; he is 'definitely not Gay,' he says - except when it comes to Jett Adore.
Ernie's got moves, too - revealed through a wink, a smile, and the raising of a single eyebrow. Ernie tells the audience that he will emcee this 'smorgasbord of peni.'
The debut act is Waxie Moon, Seattle's very own boylesque legend. He wears a mostly sheer black dress and heels, which by now he's probably more comfortable in than sneakers. His song is the Beatles' 'Come Together.' His shadowplay alone is spectacular and I find that if I focus on his silhouette left by the spotlight, it's just as sexy as the action downstage.
Three men in nothing but designer drawers come onstage and Waxie gets down on the floor. The three stand above him with their hands in their underwear and the classic rock song takes on a new meaning. 'Come together, right now, over me,' indeed. Waxie is showered with golden glitter.
Waxie says he took a burlesque class at the Academy of Burlesque years ago, well before the Boylesque 101 class had even been thought of.
'I was drawn to the class to have fun, because I was at a point in my life where I wasn't having fun onstage,' said Waxie. 'I kind of did it just to enliven my creativity and explore something new that I didn't know, and then it of course changed the course of my life completely, because I was so inspired by what happens here.'
Now, Waxie is an instructor at the Academy. He, Ernie, and Indigo have taught three Boylesque 101 classes since 2009.
BEHIND THE GLITTER
Next up is EmpeROAR Fabulous!!!, 'the Exposing Composer' and Mayor of Seattle Burlesque. He's one of Seattle's more advanced boylesque performers. He's performing a number I'm very familiar with to the tune of the old Schoolhouse Rock song, 'Naughty Number Nine.'
To prepare for the show, I wanted to see boylesque without all the glitz, glamour, and perfection. EmpeROAR Fabulous!!! was generous enough to let me watch him rehearse.
His one-bedroom apartment on the north end of Capitol Hill is a testament to how much glitter, glamour, and utter fabulousness can be packed into a single room - it was clear he'd been doing this for a while.
He has an entire wall dedicated to costume racks and bookshelves with all manner of costume materials on them, and suitcases full of costumes. He told me there is another rack in his bedroom. I observed that at least two-thirds of this stuff was blue - probably more - and he told me that turquoise is his favorite color. There was a large white USPS box marked 'sequins,' and sticking off the tops of the clothing racks and on shelves was a collection of blue feather boas and feathered hats.
He often uses the window in his living room for a mirror, and thus rehearses after dark so he can see his reflection. The window is probably seven feet wide, and another apartment building is close by. He wondered what the neighbor's must think, and as he began rehearsing, so did I.
For the 'Naughty Number Nine' act, he wore a sleeveless, sky-blue button-down sequined shirt. It appeared he had cut the sleeves off himself, but it was expertly sewed and there were no frayed edges. He had black pants with a turquoise, sequined streak on each leg, long silver gloves and a large blue feather boa. The costume worked well with his short blond hair and small, styled beard.
As I watched him practice, maybe six feet from me, much closer than I would have been were he onstage, it became even clearer how much effort he puts into planning a routine. I could see the quick sudden movements, the locking and unlocking of joints, the facial gestures. He very much got lost in the performance once he started.
'The worst part is finding the gloves,' he said, after finishing a routine. 'That's why I rehearse with the door to my bedroom closed.'
One of the gloves was strewn in my direction during the routine, so I tossed it back to him. In between two routines, he showed me some of his old boas, ragged from years of use.
He continued to rehearse the same number, both with and without the music, sometimes stopping to repeat one part of the routine again and again until it was just the way he wanted it. The most difficult part of the routine appeared to be after he'd removed his shirt - he manages to string it on his feather boa by the sleeves behind his back, then he snaps it off with a whip of the boa.
As he takes the stage at 'Boys! Bois! Boyz!' I recognize each move at first, but realize he's changed a few things and his movement with the boa is much smoother. The shirt, no problem.
A SPECTRUM OF GENDER
Next up is Trojan Original, another one of Seattle's more advanced performers. He comes onstage for a biker act, wearing a helmet, a leather jacket, and leather pants. Trojan's built, but the audience doesn't know it yet because his costume combination hides his body shape.
Throughout the striptease, Trojan flexes his muscles while demonstrating his grace and flexibility. For his final reveal, he takes off his helmet, revealing long, flowing brown hair. It's novel and creative. Traditionally, final reveals are for the good stuff, but Trojan flips that norm on its head.
No question, all three acts have been really sexy so far, but some of them are more feminine and some are more masculine. This is one area where boylesque would appear to differ from burlesque. It provides male-bodied performers with a chance to embrace their masculinity, their femininity, or both.
The Luminous Pariah, another very advanced performer who attended the Academy of Burlesque in 2009, before the boylesque class existed, said that he finds the spectrum of gender really exiting. For him, it's not about the macho man or the drag queen, but everything in between.
'As soon as we start to talk about gender and sexuality it gets real individual,' said Indigo. 'People who come to take these classes are coming from a lot of different backgrounds, orientations, politics, various degrees of outness - not only about their sexuality, but about their willingness to even take the class.'
'It's hard to generalize,' adds Ernie.
'You can't really tell from what they present onstage if that has actually anything to do with who they are in real life,' said Indigo.
'I took the Burlesque 101 [class] in the fall of 2004 & I did not at all expect it to hook me in the way that it did. I had such a good experience of having an avenue for my vision, my choreography, my costume, my sense of sexuality, all in a nicely encapsulated, yet edgy expression,' said Ernie. 'And then I took the 202, and that's where Ernie came from and it just snowballed from there.'
The three told me that some of the students who come to both the Burlesque and Boylesque 101 classes are quite shy.
'One of the wonderful things about doing character-based art is that we can create an alter-ego that doesn't have to be the real truth of ourselves. Like, I'm actually kind of a homebody. I like to, you know, garden and cook and compost,' said Indigo. 'But Indigo, in her glory, is like this big peacocky type 1940s brassy babe who will say anything.'
'It really frees up folks who are nervous or shy to know that they don't have to be themselves - their naked, little soft white underbellies - onstage,' said Indigo. 'Instead, they can embody a creature that they build and create and they can dress it up and adorn it and disguise it in any way they wish, so it's tremendously freeing.'
'Boylesque gives me an opportunity to direct my own path, whereas since I don't go full-on with gender illusion I don't fit completely into the drag scene & it's a combination of all the things that I love to do,' said Fabulous. 'I love the whole range of being silly and goofy, to sultry to intense to artsy-fartsy, and it gives me a place to express all of these things and be comfortable with my sexuality as it is to myself and as I present it.'
'By exposing myself, I'm exposing new audiences to the art form. I get a huge kick when people are confused by me or scared of me,' said Fabulous. 'A lot of straight guys are like 'Noooo!' Then, when I'm finished, they're like 'Yo, dude, that was cool. I wasn't afraid to see you naked at all.'
Next up is a duo, Black and Tan, who present a story about a relationship. A male performer, playing a girl, is dressed in a black lace slip, and a female performer plays a man, wearing jeans and a white 'wife-beater' shirt. As the act progresses, the 'man' gives the 'woman' gifts, they fight a little, and they make up. They finish with a kiss, but they don't strip. Not a single article of clothing comes off.
While discussing masculine and feminine roles in boylesque, Indigo explained how she defined boylesque and burlesque.
'I think when we talk about 'what is this' and 'what is that,' are they different? And what defines them? We have to sort of define our terms to begin with, which is what is this idea?' said Indigo. 'My definition of it is, you walk onstage with some clothing, magic happens, and you leave stage with less clothing, and that's the formula. You can invert it, but that's the formula.'
For Indigo, 'if there's not stripping, then it's not burlesque or striptease,' but she recognizes that not everyone sees it that way.
'Tiger [an early boylesque pioneer] has a broad definition, which is 'Burlesque is wit plus personality plus sex,' which doesn't necessarily involve stripping, but involves presentation of cleverness, individuality, and sex. There are performance artists who are burlesque or boylesque or whatnot, who do completely irreverent, provocative, difficult, challenging things onstage that aren't necessarily stripping, but they're 'burlesquing' our perspectives. They're burlesquing ideas,' said Indigo. 'And in doing so, they're work is just as valid.'
'I think that it [exposing] is thrilling because it's symbolic. We're removing this protective layer that we have. We protect ourselves from being viewed by wearing clothing and when you literally strip yourself of your clothing, you're removing this face, you're removing that guard & you're letting people see you for who you really are, and not just your physical body, but for myself, again, telling these stories up onstage, sharing my personality and my thoughts and ideas,' said Luminous. 'I've performed where I'm not strip teasing and I have done just strictly striptease. I have to say when it's just a striptease without a story, it does not feel as good for me - it doesn't feel fun; it just feels cheap. I just feel like a number. Like I'm working at some dirty nightclub somewhere. When I'm performing without stripping, it's OK, but I think that this element of eroticism is so fun to bring into it & It's also thrilling to be able to take your clothes off in front of hundreds of strangers. It's a unique experience.'
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Next up is Paris Original doing a ballet act. He is professionally trained in ballet. Added to the classical track are sound effects of children laughing in a mocking tone, to which he times his intentional breaks in form. Presumably, the act is about training as a male ballet dancer; being made fun of and teased by other children and transcending it.
I always struggle to come up with adjectives to describe Paris whenever I see him. He's an astounding dancer, but I've said that before. He's in perfect sync. He can stand on point as well as any working ballerina. I've referred to his grace in the past, but as I watch him now and think of that word, I'm not referring to just his body movements and dance training - it's in the way he manipulates his costume, the way the extra fabric that hangs from his sleeves flows as he moves. Put simply, he makes it look easy, but he's naturally graceful and he's had a lot of practice. With it, he's taking boylesque - or rather, burlesque - in a direction it hasn't gone before.
'There's freedom in burlesque and boylesque, but I feel like the term 'boylesque,' because it's a newer term and it's an unknown word, there's freedom within that of what can be,' said Waxie. 'Whatever people might expect from boylesque, I don't think people would ever go to a boylesque show and say, 'Well, that's not boylesque.' Right? 'Cause it's so new. Burlesque, I also think has that same sense of freedom, of exploration and an expansive definition, but I do think there's sometimes an expectation from an audience about what a burlesque act looks like. There's also a more known history, so I feel like burlesque artists are more beholden to that history. Boylesque artists can carve a slightly different path. That's why I like the term 'boylesque.' It's because I feel like I could do a tap dance, I can do a monologue, I can do whatever - I'm choosing to strip.'
Luminous, who performed with Paris and Trojan in the troupe Mod Carousel, at the first-ever New York Boylesque Festival last year, has also thought about the meaning of the word.
'It was also interesting having conversations with the other boys about whether or not it is OK for men to come into burlesque. Whether or not we are taking over one of the only industries and art forms that is dominated by women,' said Luminous of his time in New York last year. 'Personally, I used to fight the term 'boylesque' because I didn't like the way that it separates what I do from what a female-bodied performer does. That being said, if we perform the art in a respectful way, and respect everyone in the art form no matter their sex or gender, we should all be able to get along. Right?'
'It kind of goes back to the lineage, not just the word difference,' said Ernie. 'The [exponential growth] for neo-burlesque and burlesque right now is several years ahead culturally of boylesque. And so I think because of that young age on the time scale, the freedom still exists a little more in the boylesque category, because the expectation maybe isn't as out there in the general audience world.'
Fabulous uses the words 'boylesque' and 'burlesque' interchangeably.
'I've stopped using the term 'boylesque' exclusively,' said Fabulous. 'Saying I'm a burlesque performer, honoring the women I work with, I still accept the niche that boylesque provides.'
The next performer is Fosse Jack. He comes onstage dressed as a cowboy and begins to move. It's not until he pulls out lipstick and applies it that we get an idea of what's happening. Up comes his shirt; he ties it around his stomach and he's gone from a Marlboro man to a Gay cowboy. His jeans reveal high-cut jean shorts then up from the cowboy boots come black fishnets that he's been hiding away.
The masculine and feminine range is what makes the act fun, but it's not over yet. He doffs his cowboy boots and slips on a pair of heels. Like Waxie, he's tall and lean, so he wears the heels very, very well.
'I think there's some regional differences happening with boylesque,' said Waxie.
'In New York, there's a kind of independent drive, a fearless dirtiness and sexuality put forth. In Chicago, there's a group called the Stage Door Johnnies and a wonderful performer named Hot Toddy. And there, they don't even like the term 'boylesque.' They're like, 'We're male burlesque. Why would we call ourselves boys?' said Waxie. 'It's highly choreographed, really kind of glorifying the male form in many ways, although they have strong personality. And then I feel like here, because Seattle's so wonderfully Queer, there is a lot of gender play within the boylesque scene.'
'That's how come I'm here,' said Ernie laughing. 'That's how I'm still performing.'
'I would totally echo that. I would say New York would be filthy, Chicago would be refined, and Seattle would be super-Queer,' said Indigo.
'I was in New York last summer and a tarp was rolled out onto the floor and I thought 'OK, here we go,' and sure enough, performers proceeded to pee into champagne glasses and feed each other their urine,' said Luminous.
'Miss Indigo Blue's Academy of Burlesque here in Seattle was the first to offer boylesque classes and in so doing, offered men interested in the art form a clear path to becoming part of the scene,' said Paris. 'In effect, during this new burlesque revival, the boylesque scene in Seattle was given a way of expanding sooner than New York, but now they have classes too and their scene has grown as well.
'As far as having surpassed Seattle's scene, that depends on how you think of it. In sheer numbers, definitely. As a percentage of male to female burlesque performers, or percentage of shows including male performers, I don't think so. As far as caliber, I think both scenes produce and support some amazing talent.'
'It's wonderful to have such a mix of sexual preference,' said Luminous. 'Because it's really sad when it's just 'Oh, well you're doing the Gay art form.'
Next up is Chicago's Jett Adore, a member of the Stage Door Johnnies. The 'No-Pantser Romancer' comes onstage with a white tailcoat, a top hat, black pants partly adorned in white sequins, and a cane. He certainly looks refined. And he is, just as Indigo told me, 'bewilderingly hot.'
Jett, like Waxie, is very good at flirting with his eyes, probably because he's been doing it for a while. The tail of his coat is on a sort of pull-string system, so he can face away from the audience and raise his tailcoat only briefly to expose his bare ass in a sort of quasi-reveal before he completely strips. By the end, he is almost completely nude, with a long piece of costume draped in front of his naughty bits. Jett is funny and very, very sexy - everything burlesque should be.
Boylesque. Burlesque. Masculine. Feminine. Lots of terms. What's the difference? Is there or should there be one?
'For as long as there have been ladies taking off their clothes, there's been men taking off their clothes, or there's been women presenting as men or men presenting as women, and there's been complicated variations all the way through history,' said Indigo. 'So I think for me to say that there is something inherently different, I don't know. I don't know what we're measuring. You know? Chromosomes? What?'
'As a topic of discussion, is that the kind of conversation that we want to be having too? Do you know what I mean? Because that's something that people ask a lot about burlesque - you know, how is burlesque different from stripping?' said Indigo.
It's intermission. The show has flown by, probably because it's so titillating. Unfortunately, you are going to have to wait until next week for part two. Blue balls sure is painful, isn't it?
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