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When an expected 5,000 men gather this weekend for the Black Party—the annual fetish-themed circuit event that marksthe vernal equinox with dancing, sex and a dark, tribal spirit—it will mark the 30th anniversary of the legendarybacchanalia. But revelers shouldn't expect a night of nostalgia.
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"Retrospectives get old quickly," notes Stephen Pevner, owner of the Saint at Large, the company that produces the Black Party and strives to carry on the legacy of the Saint, the gay temple of dance that shut its doors forgood in 1990. The party's theme this year is Eden—with a twist. "It's basically Eden without Eve," he says. "So instead of looking back at 30 years of gay life, this is like the new beginning."
The actual beginning was at the Flamingo club, in the 1970s, which hosted its own early version of the Black Party. When Bruce Mailman opened the Saint, he paid homage to it by offering his own spin on the event, presenting it as two parties in a row, Rites I and Rites II, in one crazy 1981 weekend. That doubleheader featured DJ Roy Thode and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who shot portraits of guests.
"The idea was that there would be a pagan ritual that would always happen on the vernal equinox, and be a time for exorcising demons, shedding skins and entering spring renewed," explains Pevner. "Everybody is encouraged to dance and be as dark as possible." (That includes revelers famously getting down and dirty in any corner they can find—although organizers are understandably coy about the sex-party aspect. "If there's sex there, I don't know about it," Pevner says.)
Though one DJ (usually Michael Fierman) used to conduct the whole shindig, nowadays the 18-hour affair showcasesa series of three main-floor DJs, with Boris, Eddie Elias and Junior Vasquez on deck this year. But the structure of the party's musical journey—the arc, the peak and the eventual "down trip"—has always been the same, Pevner adds. "The acts stop and the vibe changes come morning," he says. "It's extremely tribal."
What's really changed over the years is how elaborate the production has become. "Back then, the leather iconic man had so many artistic references. It was still fresh. Thirty years later, we've more or less theatricalized it," he says. "It's like a five-act opera now!"
Recent themes have included riffs on Mexican wrestling, holy wars and Germany's Black Forest; this year's turns to the original sin.
"Expect a more primitive, dirtier version of Eden," says Vance Garrett, the Saint at Large's resident director,who says he's looked toward the obscure Christian sect of Adamites for inspiration. "They believe in a more pure and satisfying version of paradise, with lots of men and animals running around." Scene-setting elements will include multimedia installations based around images of large cocoons and performances by acrobats. And maybe some reptiles.
"Since every other leather daddy I talk to seems to have an intense fear of snakes, let's just say this will bean excellent opportunity for people to confront their fears," says Garrett, declining to elaborate further.
The snake imagery is seen in high relief on this year's party poster, now part of a long line of edgy, oft-controversial images that have become collectors' items over the years. That serpent is also one piece of this year's event that is nostalgic, harking back to an early Black Party, when an unwitting boa constrictor was used as an onstage prop for the sex-show portion of the evening. Those fetish-themed performances are still a majordraw—and pose a big challenge for the producers, who aim to push the limits more and more to outdo themselves from year to year.
"Pure sex worked at one time," notes Black Party fetish consultant Mike Peyton, also the kink guru behind local parties M8 and Newd. "Now it's got to be something you've never seen before." Recent displays have used props from fists to cue sticks and configurations including lesbian couples and porn star Buck Angel, better known as "the man with a pussy."
And this year? "We've talked about bringing in some trannies, maybe some chicks with dicks fucking themselves. And maybe even some heterosexual activity this time around," Peyton says. "Just because it's not gay doesn't mean it's not hot!"
Eden/Rites XXX: The Black Party is Sat 21 at Roseland Ballroom. Also see saintatlarge.com.