TORONTO — 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 zebra-print 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.
“What I have learned from my male students is the element of surprise — setting things up a certain way so people have a certain expectation and then flipping that expectation on its head,” she said. “A lot of the men I’ve worked with do that phenomenally, and I admire them for that.”