Nightlife

Black Party Returns to NY’s Roseland With Rites XXXII

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Mar 1, 2011

Out of the darkness, light. Simply put, that is the theme of the Black Party, the annual springtime ritual that takes place this year at New York's Roseland Ballroom from Saturday night, March 19, into mid-afternoon of the next day. The creative team at producing organization the Saint-at-Large skillfully blends light, d├ęcor and music to create an 18-hour journey that encapsulates the Spring Equinox's cosmic triumph of renewal.

That sounds like a lot for a gay dance party to handle, but anyone fortunate enough to have attended the Black Party knows that it eclipses any other event on the Circuit calendar. "A sense of danger is an essential part of the party," says Adam Koch, a talented young (26 years old) theater designer whose creative vision will transform Roseland a second year in a row.

Koch compares his work to another mega-dance event, Montreal's Black & Blue, which he attended last October: "There, it's about the music and lights. The mystique and magic of the Black Party is making someone feel transported. As he walks into Roseland, it should be like walking into a movie." For a full report on what Koch is planning, see Edge Nightlife Editor J.C. Alvarez's article.

In this film, the stars are the attendees. One of the mystical (really!) aspects of the Black Party is the tribal feeling that suffuses Roseland's sprawling dance floor (the largest in the city). The Black Party is a celebration of sexuality, music and freedom.

The party traces its roots to the Saint, the legendary gay disco that thrived in New York's East Village in the 1980s. Now universally regarded as the world's most spectacular dance space, the gay members-only club's centerpiece was the Black Party. Impresario Bruce Mailman grandly conceived of the Black Party as a recreation of a Celtic cult ritual in which the men sent the night of the Equinox wearing animal skins and dancing ecstatically to drumbeats to guarantee a good planting season. Hence, the naming of the Black Party - this year, "Rites XXXII."

After the Saint closed in 1988, a victim of the AIDS epidemic that took away so many of its members, the Saint-at-Large produced parties around the city before finally settling at Roseland, a former dance hall turned rock venue. The grand, decayed space presents the perfect opportunity for Koch, who describes Roseland as "a big component - a crumbling dance hall."

A Theme You Can Dance To
The party's theme has always been as eagerly anticipated as the DJ line-up. They've varied from "The Dangerous Party for Boys," a twisted take on Boy Scout-style enthusiasms, to "Lucha Libre," a tribute to those crazy Mexican wrestlers. (Decorations that year included a live donkey, chickens and Mariachi player.) One of the most talked about had to be 2006's "Schwarzwald," based on "Grimm's Fairy Tales and which featured a three-story castle full of cavorting porn stars, including female-to-male transsexual Buck Angel. The Saint-at-Large simultaneously produced a fanciful film, also called "Schwarzwald." Billed as "the movie you can dance to," it has not only been making the festival rounds but has been screened at clubs, with DJs providing background music.

Koch hopes this year's theme, which samples cloning in all its manifestations, including incorporating genetic cloning in a post-industrial society, will live up to last year's sly tribute to the tango and neo-Fascist style of 1930s Buenos Aires. The theme only hints at the layers and textures Koch has in the works.

Koch describes it as "futuristic, neon, atomic, nuclear," but his biggest inspiration may have been a trip he took in December with Stephen Pevner, who runs the Saint-at-Large, to Berlin. There, they experienced Berghain, an enormous high-tech club in a converted 1920s power plant.

Pevner, who took over the management of the Saint-at-Large in 1996, is looking at Roseland as a massive "clone factory. It's looking back to 30 years of the Saint," he says. "Clones are a part of gay life, and genetic engineering gives us the chance to reproduce ourselves. 'Clone' was once a derogatory expression, but for gay men it was a code."

The evening as a giant "story arc" is made necessary by ever-more demanding demands for spectacle, Pevner adds. The Black Party has responded to the sophisticated taste of its patrons moving from a generic leather-themed event to one that allows more of a sense of play and the escapism of fetishes. "We made a conscious decision to give it some context, because the leather scene was important in its time but doesn't relate to a new generation," he says. "Fetishes can be sexy. Fetishes evolve. It's not your uncle's Black Party."

'Strange Live Acts' -- On and Off the Stage
That carries over into the party's most notorious aspect, its "strange live acts." On a side stage, partygoers have witnessed everything from a live adult circumcision to an erotic coupling with a boa constrictor. Pool balls, firecrackers, food, hot wax and body fluids are only some of the props that performers have used to act out all manner of role playing. Mike Peyton, Pevner's right-hand man and a well-known advocate for New York's fetish scene, also sees the party moving away from simple leather - although many, if not most, of the attendees adhere to dress (or undress) in leather gear. "We're returning to stranger live acts," Pevner asserts, "not go-go boys, no costumed nuns. We're getting a major porn producer to coordinate it."

The live acts have moved around Roseland in accordance with the New York City Fire Department, which has regulated some of the party's layout. For the past few years, they were moved from the second floor to a stage off to the side of the dance floor. Last year, the huge balcony overlooking the dance floor was turned into a VIP space - a result of concerns from Roseland's management.

This year, a large part of the balcony will return to general use. "Such a huge party has a lot of behind-the-scenes safety restrictions," Peyton says. "We worked out a situation where we can keep it safe without making it restrictive." This also means a likely return to spontaneous upstairs hijinks that have become as much a part of the party's legend as the lights, music and live acts themselves.

The complex lighting system, which is installed for that one night only, is a major contributing factor to the Black Party's ongoing success. The Saint itself was famous for its lights, including a state-of-the-art planetary dome that was considered the best in the world - as attested to by astronomers at the Museum of Natural History. A chance phone call led Pevner to a search for the now-legendary dome, which was reportedly broken down and shipped in nine separate crates to a warehouse, destination unknown. (Its status is still pending as of press time.)

Getting the best- quality sound system is another major project. The Saint-at-Large spares no expense constructing a complex of speakers that rivals that of any permanent nightclub installation anywhere. And that's only appropriate, because this is probably the most discerning - and critical - dance crowd of any party, gay or straight. The choice of DJs to spin the Black Party has become an integral part of its mystique. Ever year, men all over the world anticipate the announcement made a month before the party of who will spin and when.

3 DJs, 3 Distinct Styles
This year, the choices reflect an appreciation of the revered traditions of the old Saint and a look forward. Taking the peak hours of 3 to 10 a.m. will be Manny Lehman. The Bronx-born, L.A.-based DJ learned his craft at the feet of the man many consider the master of contemporary dance music, Larry Levan. Lehman has played nearly every major gay party in the world, but this will be his first Black Party, and he is expected to pull out all the stops, including several original production numbers. "Count on him to deliver a peak tribal experience," Pevner says. "He's someone who has the equivalent sense of musical history."

For the crucial hours from 10 a.m. until the lights go up around 6 p.m., the Saint-at-Large has managed to snag Danny Tenaglia. Perhaps the best-known gay DJ in the world, Tenaglia has made his name in the larger club world and has never played a major gay party before.

Tenaglia's set will encompass the Morning Music, prettier, more tuneful songs that bring the crowd gently down after the explosive energy earlier. The party traditionally closes with a "Sleaze" set, when the music gets slow and sensual. As for the opening DJ, this year, it's Berlin-based Boris, who has never played a U.S. party.

All of this costs a great deal of money, but the Saint-at-Large has managed to keep the price down. This year, it is offering a reduced price after 9 a.m. for those who want to experience the Morning Music (and get a good night's sleep). For those traveling from out of town, there is also a partnership with the Hudson, New York's chicest boutique hotel, only a 10-minute walk to Roseland.

Don't Miss the Expo!
The Black Party has always stood alone as a one-night-only event - no corporate sponsorship, no party passes, no tea dance. The underground vibe is part of what makes it so special. But for the second year, the Black Party Expo extends the concept into Saturday afternoon - and, new this year, Friday evening as well.

"Besides Pride, this is New York's biggest weekend," Peyton says. "It's not an official holiday weekend, but it has taken that shape in the gay community. The Expo reinforces that weekend and makes it even bigger." Exhibitors include purveyors of lubricants, sex toys and clothes; porn producers; book publishers; erotic art and jewelry makers; and relevant organizations. The event benefits New York's LGBT Center.

Last year's Expo was such a success that not only are most of the exhibitors returning, but "many who initially held back are rushing to jump on board," says Matt Humphrey, who ran the Erotic Expo for now-defunct party magazine HX and is producing the Black Party Expo. He promises even more porn stars, continuous live acts, more giveaways and raffles, and more general craziness. Rentboy.com, for example, will be setting up a bed populated by some of its most prized commodities, the rent boys themselves.

New this year will be the addition of the Hookies. Traditionally held on the Friday night before this Black Party, this year it is being held at the Expo. Produced by Rentboy.com, it's a perfect marriage of themes, with the Expo providing the perfect backdrop for the male escorts who will be awarded prizes in categories like Best Ass, Best Daddy 40+ and Best Fetish Escort. The top prize will be awarded to one of the winners of regional contests from around the world who are being flown to New York for the occasion.

The Expo itself takes place inside Roseland, which gives attendees the chance to experience what it's like to put an event as complex as the Black Party together in two days. Best of all, the price is a small addition to a Black Party ticket - or you can buy a separate admission.

"It's a lot of fun to put together," Humphrey says. "It takes the focus off the Black Party for a fair and a marketplace - and extends the party into a full-out weekend."

For more information on the party, the Expo, the hookies, tickets and to sample the utter, sheer, sybaritic insanity that is in store for you, go to the party's website or the expo's website. Vote for your favorite gentlemen of the evening at and cheer them on at the Hookies. Eat your heart out, Natalie Portman! Put these marbles in your mouth, Colin Firth!

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


Comments

  • , 2011-03-05 00:32:50

    Steve, Steve, Steve -- Great article, but one quibble, and it’s with the word "centerpiece." Yes, the Black Party always had an elaborate production, from decorations downstairs and the acts above and behind the bar (Jack Wrangler swinging on a trapeze one year being one of the tamer bits). But the club went all out for the White Party too, with stunning decorations downstairs and acts focused upstairs at the dome stage from the hottest dance stars. White Party attendance was bigger than that at Black from the opening of The Saint until a couple of years into the Saint-at-Large tenure at Roseland, when mid-90s fashion and music tastes combined to make the Black Party the hotter ticket. It wasn’t long after that the White Party stopped. Yes, the Black Party was always on the calendar at The Saint, but arguably it was the centerpiece of the year only for the leather/Levis community. See you on the 19th! -- Charlie Carson


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