By 10:30 p.m., I was ready to collapse on the dance floor. Everyone else was heading to an afterparty at a far-off warehouse. That’s the kind of party New York’s Burlesquerade is.
Now in its 7th year, the annual costumed gala has grown from a birthday party in a tiny apartment to an extravaganza on a 30,000 square-foot “super yacht” featuring an eye-popping lineup of DJs, aerialists, burlesque dancers, and performance artists.
The Burning Man-esque party attracts 1,200 partygoers ranging from bigwigs at Goldman Sachs and Facebook to Brooklyn’s DIY fashion designers and filmmakers. Timothy Phillips, the man whose birthday started it all, says he hopes the event is “inspiring.”
“The idea is really just to set this expectation that everyone should be surrounded by people who inspire and motivate them all the time,” Phillips told Business Insider. “We try to create events that facilitate that.”
Phillips recently invited me to attend this year’s Burlesquerade. Here’s what it was like.
At Phillips’ insistence, I showed up at Pier 40 early so he could show me around the boat, the Hornblower Infinity. I was dressed in my costume gala finest, but in true New York form, no one batted an eye.
As I made my way through the security line, where guards studiously checked the videographers and volunteers’ bags, Phillips spotted me.
He was dressed in a black glistening jacket that evoked a raven’s feathers and was flying back and forth a bit like a mad bird, talking to security or the caterer or picking up a mobile phone for a harried call to an unknown person.
Phillips said that the Burlesquerade started because he had friends from so many different scenes that were often “intimidated by each other” or “stuck in their preconceptions about who the others were.”
By creating a massive party and forcing everyone to costume themselves, he thought he might be able to “break down those barriers.”
Phillips soon handed me off to Joe Che, his business partner and the man most often tasked with turning Phillips’ high-flying ideas into, in Che’s words, “practical realities.”
Dressed in a kind of antique captain’s jacket festooned with ornaments, Che gave me a tour around the boat so I knew where all the performances and activities would be. But as he warned me, there’s too much to do for any one person to see everything.
Che explained that he and Phillips formed Lightning Society three years ago to expand what they had created with the Burlesquerade and to find new ways to “bring people together for meaningful connections.”
So far, that has resulted in the current version of the Burlesquerade and a co-living space in Bushwick.
The co-living space, which houses 16 people ranging from a teacher to tech developer to an astrophysicist, hosts weekly programming, including yoga and dance classes and an ongoing speaker series.
They started boarding the boat early because the security line takes so long.
The event recruits more than 150 volunteers to put on the party, who do everything from set up to production and photography. Volunteering is a way for many who can’t afford the $US75 ticket price to join the festivities.
It takes Che, Phillips, and the team of volunteers seven hours to set up the boat.
I headed out to the line to meet my dance partner for the night, Annie Zheng, and check out the scene. Che told me that one of his and Phillips’ goals is to make the line, usually the worst part of any party, the best part.
When I met Zheng in line, she was already talking to another partygoer by the name of Sharif.
Sharif had, like me, heard about the party through a friend of a friend who “swore that it was the best party in New York.” He had friends that were going, but he told us he planned to spend the night meeting new people.
Since the Burlesquerade started as Phillips’ birthday party, the vast majority of the attendees know either Che or Phillips personally – they have a vast network – or are friends with someone who does.
Volunteers were draping the white parachute over partygoers and asking them to do one of several activities, like learning a dance routine, harmonizing a song, or gazing into each other’s eyes.
“We wanted to make every step of the process interesting, fun, and connecting,” said Che.
The parachute didn’t look like a bad way to break the ice with new friends.
Other volunteers were walking up and down the line offering to perform “party marriages.” The tongue-in-cheek vows included “Do you promise to share whatever drugs you smuggle onto the boat with your partner?”
Not everyone was game for the marriages, but if you were, you got a quick Polaroid.
Circus performers provided some mesmerising entertainment on the line. It was necessary. The line stretched deep into the parking garage and moved at a crawl.
If you wanted to add glitter to your visage, as Zheng did, a Burlesquerader was happy to oblige. The theme and activities for the Burlesquerade change every year.
This year, the theme was “The Dream.” Past themes have included “Royal” and “Celestial.”
Once I got through the security line, we headed for the boat. I quickly learned the partygoers were not a camera-shy bunch.
“Costuming is critical for our events because it requires everyone to be a participant,” said Phillips. “You’re an actor in everyone’s shared experience.”
As attendees walked on the gangplank, volunteers Erika Brown and Daniel Michael cleared away negative energy with smudging sage sticks. Brown kept telling partygoers to “slow down” so she could brush more of the smoke their way.
Michael is a shamanic healer who offers personal energy clearings, life coaching, and shamanic wedding ceremonies through his organisation Love Ripple.
Brown is the founder of upcycling fashion brand Berkshire Bohemian.
Once on the boat, every attendee was asked to choose a character: The Lover, The Healer, The Explorer, and The Artist. They got corresponding bracelets and a scroll with instructions.
Zheng chose “lover” (red). I chose “explorer” (green). The bracelets grant you entry to the corresponding characters’ “sanctuary.”
If you want to go to a different “sanctuary,” you have to “gift” something to someone else. The goal, according to Phillips, is to encourage partygoers to “connect beyond the group you came with.”
Wendy Escobar kicked off the afternoon with a mix of house and techno beats. Che said that they like to confine partygoers to the boat’s solarium to get people mingling until the party hits critical mass.
We found the artists’ sanctuary behind coat check. There, Parisian pop singer and performance artist Cocovan de Bancalis had set up her interactive project, “The World Letter,” where she encourages participants to write love letters to the world.
De Bancalis said the project, which she has taken across the US, Canada, and Europe, will be complete when at least one person from every country in the world has written on it. Currently, it has more than 3,000 love letters from people representing 70 different countries.
In a Facebook video, De Bancalis explained that the goal is to “create a big symbol of peace and unity and bring hope into the world.”
Once it’s complete, she said she plans to make a digital copy of the entire letter and “send it into space.”
There was a GIF photo-booth for everyone to capture their snazzy outfits. Here Marleena Ortiz, the founder of nonprofit Beating Cancer in Heels, and Cheni Yerushalmi, a startup advisor and founder of a business incubator, pose for a photo.
Read more about Ortiz, who started her nonprofit Beating Cancer in Heels after being diagnosed in 2009, here»
We snuck into the grand ballroom before it opened to get a glimpse. Insiders were already getting their dance on while many of the performers, like Aryn Shelander, warmed up. Shelander is the co-founder of iOS app maker Logical Animal.
Che, who is a fixture in New York’s underground arts and performance scenes, handles the performance booking. After more than a decade of being someone who knows just about everybody, he’s close to many of the top performers in the area.
Even so, some of the most in-demand performers aren’t booked until weeks before the party due to their crazy schedules.
One of the biggest name acts of the night was Katherine Crockett, an actress and a principal dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company.
The yacht captain loved taking photos with the partiers. Those intricate headpieces were designed by fashion designer Saida Mouradova, who is at the bottom of the photo next to Che.
Mouradova and Amy Vaninetti, a director at nonprofit Mama Hope, founded Object & Dawn earlier this year.
The company, which came out of Mouradova’s experiences making costumes for Burning Man, sells elaborate headdresses made of metal alloys, shells, and other materials. The handmade pieces are created from materials “sourced ethically and globally,” she told EcoCult.
Things started to heat up when the grand ballroom opened. People were getting down to the music booming from the Funktion One speaker system, which is considered top-of-the-line in the electronic music community.
Actress Emily Shephard kicked off the night’s performances with a steamy burlesque dance in front of the stage. This was the start of the performance. My editors will not allow me to publish the end of it.
Venezuelan DJ Ilich Mujica, who has played at top New York clubs like Output and Le Bain, kicked off the grand ballroom DJ sets.
None of the performers were announced beforehand, according to Phillips, because they couldn’t afford the promotional cost. That made every artist a surprise to the usually in-the-know crowd.
Philips said that in the first iterations of the Burlesquerade, many found the idea of costuming to be intimidating, but each year partygoers’ costumes have become more elaborate.
The theme is broad enough, he said, that those less enthused by costuming can simply come in formal wear and a mask. Phillips said his only goal was to get people to dress “as the best versions of themselves.”
People got creative with their costumes. Product manager Yair Cohen was rocking these customised light-up shoulder-pads.
Cohen was not the first, nor the last person in the tech scene that I would meet.
Over the course of the night I met tech founder after tech founder, as well as people that worked at Facebook, Yelp, and a number of other major tech companies.
In addition, I met a number of attendees working in medicine, as well as people from advertising, media, fashion, and finance.
“I honestly can’t think of a single part of the New York City community that isn’t represented somehow,” said Phillips.
We headed upstairs to find the “Lover’s Sanctuary.” Zheng and I traded wristbands so I could go in, not that anyone was checking.
The Lover’s Sanctuary, according to Che, is a giant “cuddle puddle.” It was set up with lots of couches, bean bags, and pillows to take a break from the music.
Heart-On’s Rachel Santos had set up the space to engage all of the partygoers’ senses with tantric massages, cacao ceremonies, Moroccan tea, whispers in the ear, and other activities to encourage intimacy.
We made fast friends with Dani Klein, who volunteered to serve Moroccan tea in the Lover’s Sanctuary. The guy on the left told me his name was Tommy Walmart. I still have no idea if he was joking.
For the first time, Phillips and Che added private tables to the party, which were arranged around the second-floor balcony.
Che said that they usually avoid table service, but this year they partnered with party organiser Vox Noctem to bring it to the Burlesquerade thanks to partygoer requests.
Che says that most of the tables went to highly-engaged members of the Lightning Society community who would still be open and “participate” in the night’s events.
That held true in my own experience. Zheng and I made friends with Goldman Sachs managing director Sachin Devand and his wife, Shauna Mei, outside the artists’ sanctuary, and were invited to join the festivities at their table. The two co-founded e-commerce company AHALife, in 2009, but left the company earlier this year.
We headed back down to the dance floor where Hils Hinrix, a textile designer who moonlights as a DJ, was spinning a mix of House, Disco, and Funk.
Multiple times, when people heard I was a journalist, they gave me a knowing smile and said some variation of: “The thing you need to understand about this party is that it’s like the 1% of Burning Man.”
When I asked Che about this characterization after the party, he was hesitant. “I don’t know if I agree with that or not. The people that are there are the ones we’ve invested time with,” he said, adding that attendees range from people with “a shit ton of money” to people “who struggle to pay their rent.”
Coincidentally or not, I met far more of the people whose careers blew me away than those scraping by.
From 5 p.m. to the end of the party, there were nearly nonstop performances on the dance floor. Aerialists Marcus Anthony and Françoise Voranger impressed us on an aerial silk rig strung from the boat ceiling.
David Haws and Jenna Marierd put their acrobatic skills on display for the crowd. Haws is a computer science researcher at IBM, while Marierd is a nutritionist. Both moonlight as acrobats.
French electro duo FDVM was one of the biggest names on the lineup. The group has performed at Coachella, Outside Lands, and a handful of other big festivals.
The ethereal dream catcher set at the main dance floor was designed by artist Julia Sinelnikova, who creates light installations and holograms, among other mediums. She also designed the scenery hanging from the ceiling.
Phillips said that many partygoers have told him they met their spouse or business partner at the event. “You get a bunch of really smart, interesting, engaged people together and you introduce this idea of being a performer,” he said, “it brings people out of their shell.”
“This type of event attracts really smart, free thinking people from any kind of walk of life. It’s the fifth estate — the artist, the thinkers, the entrepreneurs,” said Phillips.
People were breaking it down on the dance floor. I have to say, this crowd knew how to dance. Far better than my two left feet.
The Explorer’s Sanctuary was hidden behind the grand ballroom stage. Artist Gene Harrison designed the light installation so that ‘explorers’ could manipulate the lights’ colours. This reflective costume really shined in the sanctuary.
Energy drinks and water seemed to be a popular combination for partygoers.
One of the goals of the event, Phillips told me beforehand, is to surround partygoers with “people who are doing amazing, interesting things,” giving each other access to a “new world of collaborators and inspiration.”
I thought of that when I met a man named whose face was obscured simply by a mask of flames. He told me that he had quit his high-paying job in information technology to help run a health clinic for responders of the 9/11 attacks.
“I’ve never been happier,” he said.
The Acroyoga team put on a number of different performances. Two of the performers are full-time acroyoga instructors, while the others just do it for fun.
The performers wowed the crowd with gravity-defying body contortions.
Blaine Petrovia is a self-taught pole dancer who won the Pole Sport Organisation National Championships earlier this year.
Underground Brooklyn DJ David Hohme capped off the night with his brand of feel-good house music.
The night started winding down around 10 p.m. with some people partied out.
Zheng and I headed outside to find the Healer’s Sanctuary, where we’d heard there were sound meditations offered by an instructor from Manhattan’s Woom Center. When we got there, a woman told us that they had just started the final session of the night. Bummer.
Hopefully, the Woom Center comes back next year, because I’ll be first in line.
When we came back inside the boat, I spotted a harried Phillips flying down a staircase. It was the first time I’d seen him since the party started.
“Great timing, Harrison!” he said, telling me to follow him to the grand ballroom for the night’s finale.
Phillips and Che ended the night by gathering everyone to the center of the dance floor for a speech. “Are you all feeling good?” Phillips asked. The crowd answered with a roar.
“Now who’s ready to take that energy and give it back to the world?” Phillips asked as the crowd pushed closer together and cheered.
The night ended with a group singalong of ‘Stand by Me.’ It sounds a little dorky, but it was a warm way to cap the night.
Daisy Press, the principal singer at Brooklyn’s House of Yes, led the tune by teaching the a capella instrumentation and percussion parts to members of the crowd.
We stuck around to help clean up. It’s hard not to feel like you want to help out after seeing all the work that goes into making the party.
Che sent us on a scavenger hunt around the boat to find missing candles and projectors in the various sanctuaries and dance floors.
While most had long-since jetted to the after-party, a core group of Lightning Society members and friends helped load up this truck, which had been lent by a friend, to send everything back to the group’s co-living space in Bushwick.
As we walked toward our Uber with Che and the rest of the Lightning Society hangers-on still around, Che turned to me with a mischievous smile that I was beginning to see was his trademark.
“So tell it to us straight, Harrison, have you ever been to a party like this?” he asked.
“Well I stole the gold jacket, pants, and shoes I’m wearing from my brother, so what do you think?” I said.
When we got home, we decided to check how we did on the bracelet game.
Zhenge, true to form, had acquired every colour of bracelet by the end of the night. I, on the other hand, had apparently given away two bracelets and gotten nothing in return.
Not that it stopped me from talking to anyone I could find, or making it into most of the “sanctuaries.”