Mention burlesque and most people picture bedazzled showgirls twirling pasties affixed to their nipples. Mention boylesque to the average Torontonian and there's a moment of confusion.
Enter Boylesque TO, the first all-male burlesque troupe in Toronto and one of a very few in the world.
"There's a real curiosity factor," says Christopher Hayden aka Boylesquer Bruin Pounder. "Men in the burlesque world are not all that known. We get a lot of people who come to check it out and see just what it is that we're doing."
"We are lucky that we are the only [local all-male troupe] doing it and don't have competition in that respect," says Boylesque TO cofounder Ben Paley aka James and the Giant Pasty, "but we get to hang out with a lot of the burlesque girls in the city."
True to the roots of burlesque Boylesque TO combines satire with striptease to comic effect.
"We try and blend humour and sex," says cofounder Johnnie Walker aka Ginger Darling. "We never want to get away from sexy, we never want to look unattractive, but sexy can turn into slapstick and something that starts dorky can actually be sexy."
"It's as much about how hilarious we are as how much you can see of our bums," says Hayden.
"Often in our acts we're taking shots at traditional male stereotypes," he says. In one act, titled "Cowboy Whipped Cream Apocalypse," Hayden plays "a rough-and-tumble cowboy but I'm wearing Daisy Duke shorts and dancing around the stage."
Relative newcomer Connor Freisen aka Dick Dubois says he's itching to send up the über-jocks he sees while working out at the University of Toronto's Hart House gym.
"You know, they're the ones taking up about eight times as much space as everyone else and they yell and grunt as they're lifting weights," he says. "I think that's perfect for lampooning. So much of that... is about being overly theatrical anyway."
How much each troupe member bares in performance varies and can include stripping down to the traditional nipple pasties, bare chest or even sequined "male pasties" or "cock socks."
"It's all about the tease," says Willard Gillard aka Dew Lily. "You have to keep them waiting for the pay off and then maybe not give it to them.... What you have in your head will always be better than anything you can actually see."
"For us we have different levels of comfort," says Hayden. "We have made our own chest pasties. Of course there's the chest hair issue which makes putting them on a little painful. It also may make them fall off a little more.... I tend to have a lot more wardrobe malfunctions when I use them.
"We also have a few cock socks kicking around. Homemade and very big, of course," he adds with a laugh.
They also adapt the classic burlesque tools and tropes and make them their own. "There is no reason a man can't have a boa," says Paley. "Male sexuality is so different from women's but you can borrow a lot from female burlesque and it still makes sense when you add masculinity to it."
The troupe's current seven-man lineup — which also includes Greg Wong aka Wrong Note Rusty and Kendall Forde aka Mahogany Storm — was formed after an audition process that weeded out dancers that Paley says "were much more suited to Remington's than what we were doing. We look for performances being character driven, good theatre and a good sense of musicality."
Freisen, who cites his "deep and shameful love of attention" and a desire to make local connections after moving to Toronto from Montreal as his motivations for going out for the troupe, remembers his own audition well.
"I went in and was convinced that I looked like a tool in front of the auditioners," says the White Rock, BC native. "They asked if I had performed before and I said, 'Yeah, I was in Annie in high school. Does that count?'"
With every performance each of the Boylesquers is evolving their own larger-than-life onstage personas.
"Madonna has Esther, Christina Aguilera has Xtina," says Freisen. "You have the upright citizen and the downright asshole. It's a Jekyll and Hyde thing."
Gillard, who has a background in dance, loves playing the "everyday kinda dorky guys that aren't commonly thought of as being sexy, like Starbucks baristas." Paley says that he's inspired by classic burlesque and mid-20th-century film and loves playing 1950s working stiffs, while Walker takes his cues from even further back in history, tending toward gentleman rogue or dandy characters. Hayden is the resident cowboy while Wong claims the role of the underdog, playing "the only gay Eskimo in the village" and the typical high-school band geek.
After rave reviews following performances at Pride 2008 and last summer's inaugural Toronto Burlesque Festival the troupe staged two sold-out installments of their first feature show, Boy Oh Boy, in July. They're now gearing up for a second offering with a winter-themed show Baby It's Cold Outside in March.
Can't wait to get a peek at the Boylesque boys in action? The holidays will see them guesting at a New Year's Eve performance at the Gladstone with veteran burlesquers Skin Tight Outta Sight.
Boylesque TO performs on Wed, Dec 31 in Skin Tight Outta Sights' sixth-annual Knockout New Year at the Gladstone (1214 Queen St W). Tickets cost $30 in advance at Totix.ca and $40 at the door. Boylesque's next feature showing, Baby It's Cold Outside, plays Sun, Mar 1 and 8 at Revival (783 College St). For more info check out Boylesqueto.com.
With files from Julia Garro.