Two Decades of Black & Blues

by Mark Thompson and Robert Doyle

NoiZe Magazine

Sunday August 8, 2010

"People in Montreal are very open minded. People love being together - and they love meeting people from around the world." So says Caroline Rousse, spokesperson for the BBCM Foundation. Certainly Montreal's benevolent spirit has gone a long way toward the ongoing success of the Black & Blue Festival, now celebrating its 20th year of philanthropic revelry.

The recipient of numerous international awards and prizes for its exemplary production values, technical innovation, and artistic direction, Black & Blue has been the benchmark against which other cultural festivals and dance events around the planet are measured. Black & Blue began as the brainchild of a group of altruistic and well-connected Québécoises who sought to create an event that would celebrate life even as it addressed the burgeoning global AIDS epidemic. Twenty years on, Black & Blue is the world's largest event of its kind, a seven-day cultural festival attracting thousands of people from dozens of countries as well as the gargantuan central dance party.

The first Black & Blue in 1991 was "a private event, by invitation only, in a beautiful former Bank of Montreal building never used for an event before, and the first ever all-night gay dance event approved by the authorities in Montreal," according to Robert J. Vezina, who heads Festival Black & Blue and the parent BBCM Foundation. With the all-night template established, Black & Blue went "public" in 1992. In collaboration with New York's Saint-at-Large, BBCM's second event was held at Club Metropolis in Montreal's central gayborhood, Le Village. "Over 3,500 showed up," recalls Vezina. "The police closed the street in front of the club because too many people were trying to get in."

So successful was Black & Blue that for the first three years the event tripled its attendance. By 1994, it reached 20,000 people. But attendance at various events just kept growing until, by the year 2000, more than 75,000 people were participating in the Black & Blue Festival.

By then, not only was BBCM a highly regarded, non-profit foundation, BBCM was also big news: Black & Blue was being reported on local newscasts. Some of Rousse's students would tell her, "I just saw you on TV" or on the BBCM website. She would invariably ask them to work with her at the main event. "The best experience of their lives," she says. "They got to be professional and to see the real world."

Not only that, but they were working for a good cause. During the course of its 20-year history, BBCM has donated more than $1.4 million to Montreal's HIV and AIDS service organizations and LGBT community groups, all while generating more than $300 million in tourism revenues. "As a gay-based organization, BBCM has been a leader in generating funds to fight AIDS in Canada," says Vezina. Perhaps equally important to the revenues raised, "We have raised the awareness on AIDS prevention and partying safely with our innovative programs. But the focus remains solidly on raising funds for direct care for people living with HIV/AIDS."

The entire city of Montreal has rallied around Black & Blue. Every year, Vezina says, "There's always a really cute 'straight' guy who volunteers for the first time, and it's really refreshing to see how people become excited about being a part of it."

One of the many hallmarks of Black & Blue's main event has been the diversity of party people - in terms of age and sexual identity. "It's funny to think that some people weren't even born when the first Black and Blue happened," says Rousse, "and other people I know have been coming since the very first Black & Blue. All these 18-year-olds-partying with all these people in their 40s, all at the same party. I know some people that come with their moms. And we have youngsters coming to Black & Blue with their parents."

The party is also unique as being a Circuit event that attracts a healthy number of straight partygoers. In recent years, the percentage has hovered near half - which still means many, many thousands of gay men. And the straight men who attend are at least as good looking as their gay counterparts.

The Big-Big-Room Main Event

The setting for the main event is perhaps the most spectacular for any Circuit party in the world. Built in 1976 for the Summer Olympics, the Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium) had been a beloved setting for 10 Black & Blue main event. Unfortunately, the Stade, home of Quebec's largest main room, has been undergoing reconstructive surgery, off and on, for the past decade. So BBCM decided to return to Palais des congrès, the city's convention center - which had already hosted five main events - for its 20th anniversary celebration.

"The main event would have been great at the Stade," says Rousse. "But first, it is so expensive. Secondly, they changed the rules and regulations this year, so that everything needed to be paid in advance. Also the Stade wanted to make us sign a paper that says if the renovations occur during Black and Blue week, we have to cancel the event and take it elsewhere. And the question was, What if they pull the plug on us two weeks before Main Event? So we could not take the risk." For now, there are only two events happening at le Stade: motocross and monster trucks.

Few parties are as celebrated for their daring and innovative artistic conceptions as the main event of Black & Blue Festival-and each year has seen the complete realization of themes as varied as Humanité, Louis XIV, Nu, X-treme, Power Trip, and Supersonic.

Who can forget the immense chocolate-flowing fountains at Louis XIV's Palais des congrès? Or the massive Buddha floating overhead for Humanité? Or the full-scale jet airliner for Supersonic? The gargantuan mirror ball? The Michelangelo décor? The angels rising from Centre Field all the way to the roof of the Stade? The powder-wigged courtesans from Versailles? The acrobat on a pole parallel to the ground? The 9/11 memorial? Girlina landing into the crowd in a spaceship? The giant skateboard ramp? Performances by Human League and Seal? The red ribbon of AIDS formed by 25,000 candles glowing on the Stade's center floor? All these theatrical effects and events, as well as so many others, have become indelibly stamped on the memory of participants, thereby insuring that Black & Blue lingers long after the party has ended.

In celebration of the 20th anniversary this year, with the support of the Quebec Tourism Ministry, BCCM is planning special features, including a live concert during the main event. BBCM's press office has confirmed the appearances of Australian singer Emma Hewitt, and Omar El Gamal of Montreal, as well as a blockbuster segment. For the past couple years, there's been a renewed focus on the collaboration between artistic direction and lighting design. "We found that what people remembered was the lights," says Rousse. "So now we start first with the lights." Translation: lighting design expert François Roupinian of Lightemotion, one of the foremost innovators in lighting technology.

Also returning are Sylvain Tessier in the role of technical director, and sound expert Éric Tourangeau, the man who has orchestrated nearly every Black & Blue for 20 years. Proof of how well a sound system can work at the Palais is evidenced by the fact that Bal en Blanc is also held at the Palais.

As in years past, in order to better serve an increasingly diverse and international clientele of music aficionados, there will be two rooms at the Palais. "All the young people listen to trance," Vezina says. "The main room will be House." Having two rooms also means opening some of the toilets that were previously unavailable - a welcome change for partygoers who had to trudge a long, long distance through the massive Palais des congrès to get to the bathrooms.

Apart from BBCM's celebrated stage shows, special effects, and décor, there will be, according to Vezina, "a wide range of renowned deejays," including, in the trance room, Aly & Fila from Egypt; and in the House room, much-beloved local superstar Mark Anthony. If there's one name most associated with the music behind Black & Blue, that would have to be Anthony, the world-renowned DJ/producer and founder of the celebrated after-hours party Red Lite. Anthony has played 14 of the 19 Black & Blue main events, often as the party's closer. This year's edition marks Anthony's fifteenth time manning the soundboards.

Whoever is spinning, the focus of the party and the entire festival is on "the love of life and its diversity," as Vezina puts it. Invariably, that spirit finds its way to the dance floor. From Oct. 6 through Oct. 12, come and experience for yourself the magnitude of Montreal's generous heart as well as its beat.

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