Is the Circuit Dead, Again?
Written by Steve Weinstein
For a few years now, it has been fashionable to dismiss the international calendar of major gay dance party events as passe or out of touch with younger gay men or a social relic or no longer needed ... or, well, chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve heard them. I take a bit of responsibility for this discussion, since a feature I wrote for Out magazine a few years, on the “death” of the Circuit, received some attention.
Except that that was the editor’s word choice, not mine. The point of my article was that the Circuit is evolving. As with any evolution, it’s difficult to stand back and see the big picture, but two recent parties persuaded me that a new generation of party producers are bringing new energy and remaking old formulas for a new generation.
The first party was Ascension, which wasn’t strictly a party but, rather, a series of parties held over the weekend of August 19 in Fire Island Pines. First of all, it must be said that Eric von Kuersteiner, the main producer of the event, dodged one hell of a bullet: The next weekend, Hurricane Irene necessitated an evacuation of the entire island by early Saturday morning. To say that if Irene had come a week earlier would have been a disaster for Ascension is like walking two feet in back of a piano falling out of a skyscraper. Yes, there was rain, which unfortunately arrived during Tony Moran’s emotional return to play a party at a house where he had lived for several years with his deceased partner. But the rain held off until after the main event, which took place under a gloriously clear sky.
Ascension’s main event take place on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline; when high tide washes up toward the end of the party, it laps the dance floor. All oceanfront dance parties, such as Muscle Beach and the Winter Party in Miami, are special. But Fire Island is a unique place, an isolated gay beach resort reachable only by scheduled ferries from a relatively remote town on eastern Long Island. For anyone who hasn’t experienced such an event (there are now two scheduled such annual events, the daytime Ascension and the nighttime Pines Party), I can only say: Go. The magic that is Fire Island is never more in evidence than when you’re dancing beside several thousand people while the sound of the ocean waves complements the music and the sand fills your shoes.
Eric has steadily guided this party from success to success, until it has reached the point where a significant number of attendees, if not a majority, were not from the immediate area. In the local grocery store, I heard people speaking Italian in back of me and French in front; the Ascension parties and other events of the weekend, such as the Pavilion, the local dance club, and the Tea Dances, were a babel of languages.
What made this weekend so special was the careful “editing” of the parties. The venues; the DJs; the performing talent; the super-hot and super-competent bartenders; friendly security; improvised dance floor, sound systems and lights (all of which have to be brought over from the mainland via boat) were all thoroughly thought out and expertly organized. This is no mean accomplishment on Fire Island, whose isolation lends itself to all sorts of disasters, especially during such a mega-event as this one.
The crowd was a nice mix of Pines dwellers (although many of the homeowners appeared to have chosen to rent their homes for the week, since they were going at a premium), New Yorkers and out-of-towners. Also ages, races and nationalities. The one thing everyone had in common was a fantastic weekend, made even more so by Eric’s decision to charge prices that started below $200 (if purchased early enough) for a weekend pass that included an opening party; pool party; “tea dance” on a dance floor jutting into Great South Bay; the main party; and the after party. Kristine W performed at the local community house and that was, for all intents and purposes, part of the prix fix. (I saw her and she was wonderful crooning out jazz versions of her and others’ disco standards.)
My only complaint about the weekend is a very minor one: The day of the main event was so spectacularly sunny that it was difficult to find shade if you weren’t associated with one of the sponsored pavilions surrounding the dance floor. Eric might consider a chill-out space with an awning. But if that’s the only thing I can find to criticize, you know it was a stellar weekend, because I’ve been doing this for 23 years. I’ve been to parties from Sydney to Amsterdam, Montreal to Miami, Boston to San Francisco. In fact, you could say I’m probably a bit jaded. That’s why attending an event like this is so rejuvenating. Eric has taken the Circuit party weekend and put his own unique, Fire Island-inflected spin on it. And all of the proceeds go toward a charitable foundation that he has founded with his partner and some friends.
The other event was a very different animal. Whereas Ascension continues many of the best traditions of the Circuit (the party itself is the de facto successor to the old Fire Island Morning Parties, ended in 1998), Matinee is a new kind of party. Imported from Sitges and Ibiza, Matinee burst forth in the United States in a highly successful party on an island in New York Harbor last Gay Pride. Since then, the team of promoters have been steadily expanding their franchise to other cities. Over Labor Day Weekend, they had their first party — where else? — in Fire Island Pines. I saw “where else?” because this is by its very nature a party made for a resort island.
I wasn’t able to attend that one, but I did manage to get to District 36, a jewel box of a club in Midtown Manhattan, for a party the night before Labor Day. All I can say is “Wow.” The two DJs I heard were terrific, especially the first, Teresa, Hailing from Brazil, this dynamo somehow managed to layer at least five tracks on top of each other, all the while weaving in and out a few bars of samples of recent hit records. The result was like nothing I have heard since Junior Vasquez was laying it down at New York’s old Sound Factory in the early ‘90s.
The crowd was Alegra-level hotness, but there was a significant minority of women and straight couples. I saw my next-door neighbor in the city, a good-looking man with his latest girlfriend, on the dance floor. This is appropriate, because Matinee in Spain is by no means an exclusively gay party. The American import is being embraced by straight in-the-know partygoers as well as the gay serious dance crowd. The party accentuates its non-gender-exclusive nature by featuring a few female go-go dancers shaking their booty beside the requisite musclemen. Is it just me, or does the music as well represent “post-gay” in its nod to styles more familiar to straight clubs like electro, trance and Latin.
What I especially liked was the vibe. This was a highly serious dance crowd. I didn’t stay past 4 a.m. (that’s early in NYC), but while I was there I witnessed very little dance floor flirting. Most people were concentrating on the music. The other point of the vibe was how upbeat it was. The highly styled gogo dancers, the amazing acrobatic performer ... everything seemed designed to put people in a good mood. I saw none — none! — of that teeth-gritting, hard-bitten attitude so prevalent at some other parties. The upbeat music undoubtedly contributed but so too, I think, was the mixing of people who don’t normally share a dance floor. This, I suspect, is the future of the Circuit: a gay dance party where straight people also feel at home.
OK, because I am that jaded queen mentioned above who’s been going to Circuit parties since Reagan was president, I do have one minor complaint: The second DJ cranked the music up too loud. It’s true that District 36 has one of the best sound systems of any mid-sized club in the country, so loud music modulates much better here than elsewhere. But when every person I talk to on the dance floor mentions it, and it sounds loud through my ear plugs, it’s too loud. Or maybe I’m just ultra-sensitive to the issue, since we published an article in the recent noiZe about problems associated with music played at loud volumes on the dance floor.
Loud or soft, this was music you could dance to — and everyone did. As Matinee continues its conquest of North America, look for an event that may be coming to your area. Or if not, plan on traveling, because it’s worth it.
The Circuit is dead! Long live the Circuit!