The Boys Behind Boylesque

| 16 Feb 2015 | 11:42

The New York Burlesque Festival showcased the growing number of male performers taking on the art form

Chelsea The burlesque performer Little Brooklyn had just received a standing ovation for taking off her clothes, virtually, with an iPad slowly revealing her skin underneath her gown, even though on stage she still had her dress on. The virtual stripping managed to get the crowd going more than any of the actual bared breasts had so far.

And then the crowd erupted again, for a performer who sashayed to a Latin rhythm, undulated a series of hula-hoops around the body and ripped off ruffled sleeves while lying prostrate.

"It was our first man meat of the night," growled the emcee into the microphone after Ben Franklin IV, a former theater actor from a conservative family in Virginia, finished his first ever performance at the New York Burlesque Festival.

There were lots of long lashes, busty bras and silk stockings at the 12th annual burlesque festival, which ended on Sunday night at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea. But each of the four nights also featured its share of chiseled chests, thick thighs and balding brows.

The presence of male burlesque performers, like Franklin, is unremarkable these days and yet still novel enough to get the crowd thumping.

The top 50 burlesque performers in the country included just three male performers back in 2009, but that number doubled by 2013, according to 21st Century Burlesque Magazine. It has spawned sub genres, such as nerdlesque and circ-esque, for science fiction and circus themed acts. They even have their exclusive "boylesque" festival in the spring, which has increased from 30 to 40 performers in just two years.

"Back when I started there was one really long-running weekly in New York called Star Shine," said Jonny Porkpie, one of the only male performers in 2004, who performed on Friday. "Now any night that you wanted you could find a show, probably three."

This has meant more work and attention for performers. Mr. Gorgeous, who had just won the top title of Mr. Exotic World in Las Vegas at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, said that a few years ago he was doing 75 percent circus work and 25 percent burlesque. Now those numbers are reversed, and he rotates between 10 different performance spaces, including the Slipper Room on the Lower East Side and Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo. Now, instead of paying his own way, burlesque festivals fly him around the country to different venues.

Some say its popularity is just part of the general rise of burlesque since the late 1990s. Other performers say that men make the shows more dynamic, by giving straight women and gay men in the audience more to hoot for.

"Couples want to come and not feel guilty. They want to celebrate and get excited together," said Nicole Rizzo, director of the Gypsy Lane Cabaret in New Hampshire, which has four male performers and six female performers, and will be attending the festival for the first time this year. "We're animalistic. It's in our nature."

Producers tend to prefer that women perform classic acts that mimic the performances of female icons from the past, such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Dixie Evans, according to Darlinda Just Darlinda. She creates edgy neo-burlesque in Bushwick, but performs and teaches classic burlesque in Manhattan to make money.

But male performers say they have more freedom to experiment.

"As a man we don't have as many archetypes or legends to pull from so there isn't really a set away in how we do a classic male burlesque act," said Matt Knife who dressed in steam-punk clothing for his performance Thursday night. "We're defining what a classic male burlesque act is."

Burlesque regained prominence around 15 years ago in part by embracing all kinds of female body types: the same has been true for the more recent rise of boylesque. Performers use burlesque to feel in control of their bodies.

"You're taking off your clothes in a room full of people who are either going to love or hate you," Knife said. "Even if the audience isn't liking what you are doing, you can turn it around, you can maybe make them laugh, freak them out a bit, turn them on, then scare them. It's a vulnerable power."

Mr. Gorgeous, who won the Beefcake award at last year's festival for his six-foot five, muscular stature, said burlesque is less about body physique than artistic form.

"When I view another act, I'm really not judging or thinking about the way their body looks," Mr. Gorgeous said. "If I wanted to see a ripped body and a huge dick I would just go to a strip club. I'm more interested in the concept."

The boylesque performers usually come from avant garde theater and circus acts that overlap with burlesque, and frequently identify as gay. They say that taking off their clothes has added a different dimension to their previous performances and brought them more attention.

"The thing I love about burlesque is it's a performer-driven art form," said Jonny Porkpie, who just turned 40. "The person doing the act is the same person who choreographed it, conceived it and made the costumes."

Porkpie doesn't think boylesque is fundamentally different than the comedy and theater work he used to do. "I got an email from a high school friend who said 'You know, of all the careers I've seen yours is the most unexpected.'" Porkpie said. "Actually it's the same thing I always did, I just take off my clothes now."