B'klyn is the New Black: Fetish Fest Returns with the Kink In and the Kinks Out

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 18, 2016

When the Black Party moved from its longtime home at Roseland Ballroom in midtown Manhattan to a warehouse deep in Brooklyn last year, many wondered whether it could survive the transition.

The thousands of men from New York and as far away as Australia breathed a collective sigh of relief: the oldest and largest gay fetish dance event in North America not only kept its mojo, but the move brought the party back to its original underground origins. The party actually began at another downtown Manhattan gay club, the Flamingo, and the next year it moved to the Saint, the legendary East Village '80s megaclub still considered the finest ever built by nightclub aficionados, straight and gay.

The Saint had an annual calendar of special events, but the highlight was the Black Party, which quickly established itself as the supreme expression of post-Stonewall gay sexual freedom, the pervading macho ethos and a fierce dedication to an 18-hour musical "journey" in the years before the AIDS crisis, which took the lives of so many of the Saint's members that the club had to close.

Envisioned as a tribal rite heralding the advent of spring, with origins in Celtic ritual, the Black Party is always held on the Saturday nearest to the spring equinox. This year, that falls on March 19, when "Rites XXXVIII" will continue well into Sunday afternoon and early evening at a warehouse in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

No one was more pleased at the success of last year's party than Stephen Pevner, head of producing organization the Saint At Large. Despite the naysayers, he remained confident that the move across the East River would invest the party with a new energy and spirit.

"Last year, a lot of people were saying, 'What the hell -- this will never happen,'" he told EDGE. "They couldn't separate the Black Party from Roseland. But I thought it needed a change of venue to reinvent itself."

Part of the problem was Roseland's location in the center of the Broadway Theater District. Leather-clad men would emerge from the party in broad daylight to face hordes of families rushing to Sunday matinees -- quite a disconnect from the all-encompassing phantasmagoria of communing with thousands of men in fantasy fetish wear in an erotic environment of dancing and erotica.

"You're dealing with people's safety zones," he told EDGE in a recent interview. "The party is supposed to feel dangerous, out of your comfort zone. I would not underestimate how much the creative and spiritual freedom that New York City is in danger of losing has migrated to Brooklyn. If you want a sense of energy, it's in Brooklyn. There's not the same kind of pretension that Manhattan clubs have."

That's not to say that there weren't glitches.

Pevner readily admits that last year was a learning curve, which is one reason he is tremendously relieved that it will be held at the same venue. "We only had two weeks to plan last year. We only got the venue on March 5, and the party was March 20. This year, everything will fall into place better."

When event producers like the Saint At Large contract for a warehouse, what they get is exactly that and nothing more: a warehouse. Light and sound systems, coat check, plumbing and even the dance floor must be specially installed. "Everything," Pevner exclaimed, "has to be brought in. Roseland was a fully complete package -- carpeting, bar, bar wells, sinks, empty parking garage."

Last year, the ad hoc plumbing for a network of sinks proved to be particularly troublesome. Unlike other giant dance parties that have migrated in recent years to Brooklyn warehouses -- such as the weekend-long Time Warp, a techno festival from Germany -- the Black Party installed a network of sinks so that people could actually wash up after using the porta-potties (as well as other activities).

"We were very ambitious about trying to install sinks," Pevner said. "The fact is that the drainage was poor, which caused a backup, which caused a small flood. The logistics of sinks is that you have to have a space for all the spinoff water. Last year, we tried to drain into an existing drain, but there was no place for 1,100 gallons of water."

To alleviate the problem, this year the entire bathroom area is being moved to what had been the coat check at the other end of the space -- part of an entire restructuring of the party's footprint.

There will be a different entrance at the opposite end, in the adjunct space that last year served as a giant ticket window. Night-of ticket purchases or pickups will use this vast area, which will also contain an ancillary coat check to avoid overcrowding. Those with tickets will use another entrance, which will improve crowd flow during peak hours.

The main coat check will include a changing area, necessary for the transformation from street clothes into elaborate fetish outfits.

Pevner's background includes theater impresario, so it's not surprising that he would have noticed that "sight lines for the live acts were not great." Like everything else, the stage has to be approved in advance by city agencies. Last year, the Saint At Large couldn't obtain a permit for a scissor lift, which would have provided better lighting for the "Strange Live Acts" that have become part of Black Party folklore.

In addition, Pevner promises that the DJ booth will be in a better spot, and the wooden "footprint" of the dance floor has been expanded. "The whole floor plan will be completely reorganized," he said.

The venue itself has "cleaned itself up tremendously since last year," Pevner added. It's been soundproofed, and the windows are blacked out, among other improvements.

The warehouse is a few blocks from a subway line, through a neighborhood that is experiencing rapid gentrification. Even so, to reassure skittish Manhattanites and other strangers to Crown Heights, the Saint At Large has arranged for a police presence (don't worry, completely unobtrusive and nonchalant) between the subway stop and the warehouse. To make it even more convenient, there are shuttle buses to and from Barclays Center, which sits atop Brooklyn's major subway hub.

Unlike other warehouse events, in addition to the essentials the Saint At Large adds something unique: an immersive theme. "Immersive" could be taken literally this year, as the theme -- "SUBmerged" -- is meant to evoke, according to the party's creative director, Rob Roth, "a submarine, sailors, an octopus, modern pirates, fish people."

Fish people? "The premise," Roth explained, "is that in the future, people are living on oil rigs in the open water." Think a gay-porn Waterworld.

There's nothing fishy about the DJ lineup, which continues the Saint At Large's presentation of cutting-edge international talent (Berlin's Tama Sumo), a leather-scene veteran (Eagle resident Rob Sperte), a Black Party returnee (Chicago electronica DJ Jason Kendig) alongside a crowd favorite (circuit queen Alyson Calagna) and one bona fide superstar (Danny Tenaglia).

The music may set the mood for the party, and the performers on the side stage certainly bump up its darkly erotic atmosphere. But the "stars" are the thousands of hot men (and hot women!) bumping and grinding on the dance floor. The real secret to the Black Party's continuing success is the communal feeling of -- for one night, at least -- being part of a secret society: a tribe celebrating not only the return of spring, but life itself.

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 on Facebook