“I’m actually fairly shy,” said Eric Gorsuch last Friday night, just hours before he strutted onto a small stage on the Bowery, flicked off some six-inch heels, and stripped down to a thong that resembled a sparkling sea anemone. “I’m not the best conversation starter,” he said. “I’m very self-conscious.” This is a man who, at six-foot-four in height, regularly does the splits upside down over a tiny stool, with abs painted on before each show.
Burlesque has enjoyed a vibrant renaissance since the 1980s, producing everything from amateur strip nights in dingy Lower East Side bars to international stars like Dita Von Teese. New York has an annual burlesque festival, celebrating its 11th year this week with events like a bazaar at The Slipper Room. The city now offers up-market establishments like Duane Park on the Bowery, dedicated exclusively to jazz and “the art of striptease.” And it increasingly features a growing posse of men who celebrate the strange sub-movement called “boylesque,” which is basically a hallucinatory spectacle involving stocking peels, circus tricks, drag, acrobatics – and, in one act by Gorsuch, the Jolly Green Giant preening on top of a can of creamed corn.
This past Friday night, Calamity Chang, “The Asian Sexsation,” riled up the frisky audience with promises of nudity. It was an important premiere: Duane Park now features a monthly floorshow dedicated to the best of New York boylesque.
Stepping out as the first performer, Chang introduced Gorsuch to the audience as “a tall drink of water.” But he is best known simply as Mr. Gorgeous. Years ago, while working as a school teacher, kindergarten children struggled to pronounce his surname: “Gorsuch” slipped into “Gorgeous,” and the moniker caught on among the faculty. Thus christened in irony, Gorsuch carried the title through circus training and early experiences performing besides the likes of Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey.
“We stripped down to tiny shiny underwear and I thought it was so scandalous,” he said with a smile. Now Mr. Gorgeous is a dependable fixture on the New York dance circuit, renowned for tearing apart his clothes like Clark Kent and dancing on top of a giant ice cream, as he will this week in the burlesque festival.
Though it sounds groundbreaking (and often ridiculous), the idea of boylesque is hardly new. Scott Ewalt is a New York artist and DJ who has embedded himself in the burlesque scene for many years, researching its long history. “I’ve always thought that strippers were kind of the original rockstars,” he told Bedford + Bowery, citing Henry E. Dixey as the first boylesque dancer back in the 1880s. Dixey became legendary for appearing in a full body stocking: the marble statue Pygmalion coming to life. “To see a proper gentlemen in one layer of clothing that was white and showed everything was a big deal for the time.”
Not so much anymore, though. Now, at Duane Park, Mr. Gorgeous was succeeded by Brewster McCall, who tore off aviators and a bomber jacket to reveal a strategically placed and fully functional propeller. Jason Mejias danged from the ceiling for an acrobatics display. And Tigger!, “the Godfather of Boylesque,” slinked out as a priest and ended up finding the Eucharist in – well. These things hinge on surprise.
Ewalt is adamant that burlesque is “an illusion that’s also supposed to be a lure, because you should be attracted to a person by the time they finish their act.” He points to male performers such as Chicago-based Jett Adore as masters of the form.
But the remarkable thing about boylesque is its refusal to fit into any sort of narrow definition. Popular dancers like Chris “Go-Go” Harder, who considers himself an erotic entertainer, embraces boylesque’s potential to be seductive and explode boundaries. “A blessing and also a huge challenge is that there’s not a classic form,” he said, meaning the sort of tropes you often see in female burlesque. Boylesque is a “melting pot,” permitting displays of masculinity that vary from the norm. “There’s more room at the table,” Harder said.
Tigger!, whose real name is James Ferguson, cited influences from theater, performance art, stripping, drag, circus, and nightlife entertainment in his work. He also acknowledged a debt to the female burlesque tradition and makes fan dances and false eyelashes part of his routine. When he started, he said via e-mail, “I was keenly aware that I was doing a woman’s job in a woman’s world, and I liked it like that.”
Gorsuch, by contrast, doesn’t consider Mr. Gorgeous sexy or feminine at all. “I’m going through the formula of the stocking peel but I try to push the proportion of things as much as possible,” he said, latter adding that if you consider the scene collectively, “I see myself as the clown, or the lighthearted moment in the show.”
Perhaps the only common thread connecting all performers is the importance of character, and a cohesive narrative strip deployed with style and intrigue.
For his final act at Duane Park, Mr. Gorgeous stepped out in a flamboyant crab costume, tossed a giant claw across the stage, and lathered himself in suntan lotion to the strains of “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys. “I want to leave people at the end of the day laughing and maybe feeling a little hot and bothered,” he’d said earlier. Now he was pulling off his pants. The last thing the audience saw was a clamshell codpiece that gives a whole new meaning to Botticelli’s Venus.