Black Is Back: NYC’s Roseland Becomes a Perverted Playground
Like its original namesake in Coney Island, Berlin's Luna Park has long been abandoned. The only visitors to what was once Europe's largest amusement park are the punks, drug addicts groups of teenagers out for a cheap thrill that constitute the disaffected street people, the detritus left over from the former East Berlin.
The Berlin Wall might have come down, but the abandoned rides and forlorn midway stand as a decaying symbol of the stark contrast between West and East. Closed once by the Nazis and again in 2001, Luna Park also provides the perfect theme for the Black Party, the annual mega-dance party to be held March 23 and 24 at New York's Roseland Ballroom.
I confess that some of the recent themes either went over my head (NASCAR and advertising) or seemed too esoteric (1930s Buenos Aires). But for Rites XXXIV, the Saint at Large got it exactly right. "Rough Trade at Luna Park" refers specifically to yet-another shuttered park of that name, this one in Rome, and the party will borrow heavily from the surrealist films of Italian auteur Frederico Fellini.
Still, however, Berlin just feels so right. And so right-now: Germany's Prussian capital might be booming in the heady air of reunification, but it retains the faintly rancid odor of that country's calamitous modern history.
The city has also emerged as the nexus of nightlife, attracting DJs from around the world, such as Israeli resident Mickey Friedmann. If Luna Park represents Wagner's weirdly Germanic ideal of love-death, Berghain is electronica's Bayreuth. This enormous former warehouse is not only the "world capital of techno," (per Wiki), but also "has a strong reputation for decadence and hedonism," with "people openly indulging in sex acts."
That's just the mixed nights. Several times each year, Berghain plays host to Snaxx, the world's largest and most uninhibited men-only fetish event. Just like at the Black Party, photography is not permitted.
It's easy to see how Stephen Pevner, the impresario responsible for the Black Party, could have been seduced by this city and this club. Berghain, which Pevner calls "the best nightclub in the world," is the model for his own one-man battle against what he sees as a bland sameness that has pervaded the gay Circuit party scene.
"I'm not inspired by Circuit music," Pevner told EDGE. "I'm not feeling that tribal beat right now. Music should be experimental. Circuit parties shuffle the same DJs."
DJ Lineup Reflects New Direction
To that end, Pevner has booked an international roster of DJs. Most will be familiar at least to dance-music connoiseurs and those intrepid seekers who have abandoned gay clubs for the more progressive sounds at mixed club nights.
If you’re expecting diva anthems and hands-in-the-air pop tarts to open the evening, you won’t be getting them from Ryan Smith. The New York-based DJ, who spins from Saturday evening until 2:30 a.m. Sunday, has been quietly making a name for himself in Gotham’s underground gay club scene.
His resume reads like a events listing for the most with-it gay partygoers, beginning with Rocket at Hose in the East Village; various parties at Public Assembly Loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and most recently Wrecked, at National Underground. His blend of classic disco whirls, tribal beats and deep House has brought him gigs throughout Europe. To bring it full circle, he’s been in residency list at Berghain.
Pevner raves that Smith hosts simply "one of the hottest parties in New York right now." He cited recent openers such as Berlin’s Boris and Tokyo’s Satoshi Tomeil as emblematic of the "experimental" (for this crowd, anyway; mainstream to most others) music to open the evening, which usually includes a lot more socializing and schmoozing.
Playing the key 2:30 until 6 a.m. slot for any DJ means the most visibility. It’s when the cavernous dance floor at Roseland, the city’s largest, is most crowded. But it also presents the highest risk. Black Party attendees are notoriously finicky about the music and, post-party, love to discuss -- and frequently diss -- the DJs.
Maybe that’s why Pevner chose these peak hours for booking the one "name" DJ. Even if London’s Tom Stephan isn’t familiar to you, his DJ moniker Superchumbo probably is. Or should be: As a composer, producer and remixer, he stands at the pinnacle of the dance world, on the same plane as a David Guetta, Parul Oakenfold or Amin van Buuren.
Expect from Stephan electronica, but not the droning, soulless dance Muzak that has become to ’10s clubs what disco descended into in the late ’70s. Catch, for example, one of his earliest hits, Victoria Wilson-James’ "The Revoluion."
This is what I want to hear at 4 a.m.: the kind of song that gets the serious dancers out of their conga-line clutches to go deep within themselves; that moment everyone has his eyes closed and has finally let the music take over his body -- that moment the poet Yeats so well described in these lines: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance/How can we know the dancer from the dance?
A New Morning for Morning Music
You probably won’t be hearing "Blue Savannah," "The Visitors," or any of the music associated with the old Saint, when Honey Dijon takes over the DJ booth from 6 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning.
The Saint was the mammoth dance complex ("nightclub" doesn’t do it justice) universally acknowledged by straight and gay nightclub architects, lighting designers and sound engineers as the greatest dance club that ever existed -- or, given the phenomenal cost, ever will exist. The all-gay, members-only East Village superclub opened in 1980 and closed in 1988, a victim of the disease that decimated its rolls.
In its brief, shining moment, the Saint revolutionized the all-night dance "journey" while codifying the romantic longing of groups like Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys that became the musical lingua franca of gay clubs worldwide.
If the Saint represents nightlife past, Dijon points the way toward its future. As well known in the fashion world as the club scene, Dijon has DJed runway shows for New York’s and Paris’ top couturiers, while playing after hours and big room in New York and Europe.
How cool is Honey Dijon? So cool that the gayest man on the planet, Edwina Monsoon, proclaimed that she was "killing it" in a special "Ab Fab" episode.
Unfortunately, there has been rumblings here and there of transphobia. To those who complain that a transgendered woman should not be playing our most macho annual party, Pevner pointed to other once-controversial such as Susan Morabito, and, stretching back to the Saint itself, Sharon White. Besides, genderism is so ’70s.
At the Black Party, it’s all about the music -- or should be. Dijon is hardly a tin-eared novelty act who can’t beat mix but thinks she looks fierce in headphones. Hailing from Chicago, the home of House (originally called Garage, after the club of that name), Dijon combines its deep bass riffs with electronica’s pulsating percussion.
In a New York Times profile, Dijon complained about an Art Basel event in Miami Beach, "You have the top tastemakers in the world coming together under one roof, and at almost every party they’re listening to wedding music. You guys are supposed to be cutting edge, but you’re listening to Madonna’s ’Vogue’? Just like they want to expose the world to new ideas in design, fashion and art, why don’t they want to expose new ideas in music?"
As if to prove that this year, too much is not enough, Pevner has booked another DJ to close the party (usually around 3:30-4 p.m.). The only Black Party veteran in the line-up, Berlin’s Boris opened in 2011 to much acclaim. What he’ll do with what has traditionally been the "Sleaze Music" segment of the party should be interesting.
Stranger Live Acts This Year
If the music will be innovative, the "Strange Live Acts" that have become the party’s most notorious feature will be back -- with a few tweaks to make ensure that they’re more twisted than ever.
This year’s artistic director, Dan Osach, began his nightlife career as a dancer. In 2009, he helped coordinate the party’s props and décor and started booking acts, which last year he directed.
He won’t give out many spoilers. Nor should be; that element of shock and awe has become the party’s signature. He did tell EDGE that an opera singer will help open the party.
Her performance, Pevner revealed, will be set in Rome, but expect a lot more Fellini than Puccini. The inspiration is Saraghina, the over-the-hill prostitute in "8 1/2" who initiates the young narrator into sex and rhumbas for his playmates on the beach.
In the spirit of Montreal’s Back & Blue (which has just announced a co-production partnership with the Saint at Large), there will be suitably mind-blowing performers periodically moving through the dance floor, such as human marionettes, "pit bull people" and "clown thugs in clown-painted gas masks."
Oh yeah: Osach also promises to hang a mime. If you find that in bad taste, you might want to skip the party and rent "The Sound of Music" (or better yet, "Tootsie"). For the rest of us, it doesn’t get any better than this.
A Gathering of the Tribe
It all fits together when Pevner described the vibe as "not so much a circus as the riffraff that hangs around on the grounds." He also mentioned motorcycle gangs, which immediately struck a chord, because whatever the theme, the Black Party will always be associated with fetish leather. (For some fashion suggestions, see here.)
The sight of thousands of hot men in fantasy leather outfits is indeed a glory to behold. But it’s the tribal spirit that pervades the dance floor that has always made this party so special.
That also makes me glad that the Saint at Large has abandoned a VIP lounge and has opened the entire second floor to all. Because we’re all VIPs at the Black Party.
When Bruce Mailman, the mastermind behind the original Saint, envisioned the Black Party, he went back to Europe’s pre-history. Every year, at the Vernal Equinox, male Druids donned animal skins and gathered in the forest to dance to drumbeats until dawn.
The Black Party still takes place on the Saturday closest to the advent of spring, and men still don animal skins and dance through the dark of night into the dawn and beyond.
At such a no-holds-barred event, the taking of photographs is strictly verboten, as they say in Berlin. Security will confiscate any cell phones they find, because what goes on at the Black Party should stay at the Black Party.
I know some people complain about this, as though suffering withdrawal from their electronic toys. But for one night, what a joy not to have to clear a space for someone to be taking a group photo, as though he were at Disney World instead of Roseland. This also means that you can proudly wear those ass-revealing chaps and not having to explain to your boss why you called in sick on Monday after he’s been forwarded some queen’s Facebook page.
I realize that the Black Party is not to everyone’s taste. Some would prefer a lighter, brighter party. That’s perfectly OK. But the Saint was given that name for a reason. We’re all saints, and we’re all sinners, both parts struggling for dominance.
If you’re willing for one night to take a journey into the dark recesses of the human soul you’ll re-emerge refreshed into the bright light of day. Corny? Maybe. But once you’ve been there, you’ll understand why it’s called the Saint.
If it’s not a spiritual experience, this as close to one as a gay event is going to get.
The Black Party goes from Saturday evening, March 23, into the afternoon of Sunday, March 24. For tickets, visit the Saintatlarge.com. Tickets are $125, more at the door.
Note: For those who complain this is excessive, be aware that the Saint at Large overnight transforms a black-box space into one of the best light shows and sound systems anywhere. Pevner also pointed out that the price has remained the same for the past five years, comparable to a ticket to a Broadway musical. Like, say, "Jersey Boys," playing right next door. (Bring sunglasses. You have been warned.)
If you can produce an old Saint membership, you get a discount. Ditto if you’re under 26 and arrive after 4 a.m., but be sure to bring a valid I.D.
A ticket to the party includes entrance to the Black Party Expo, which takes over Roseland on Saturday with an array of booths offering DVDs, fetish wear and assorted goodies and services, as well as performances by porn actors and other great-looking exhibitionists.
The night before the party, the Saint at Large is presenting the one and only Billy Ray Martin, the blue-eyed soul sister responsible for dance classics like "Your Loving Arms" and the more recent ineffably beautiful "Sweet Suburban Disco."