I don’t dance. In college, I was known for a vodka-fuelled move my friends liked to call “hot lava,” a sort of quick feet routine featuring sweeping arm movements for flair, and I haven’t improved much since. My self-consciousness has really only ballooned: Don’t ask me to go to Zumba. I think line dancing is discriminatory. If you try to two-step with me, I’ll just lead. And at weddings, I’m usually the one on the periphery, white-knuckling a cocktail, hoping to God no one pulls me in for an impromptu spin.
But even I had a good time at Nick Cave’s Freedom Ball, a one-night event the contemporary artist held at the Park Armory in Manhattan last week in conjunction with his larger performance project, The Let Go. As its name suggests, the whole idea is to get everyday people (who may or may not share my dancing abilities) to groove alongside professional dancers, community members, and costumed attendees in an attempt to forget the outside world for just a little while.
At 59, Cave, a contemporary artist and trained dancer, is best known for his Soundsuits—towering, wearable costumes made with sequins, buttons, old chairs, or human hair, which he first created in response to the Rodney King riots. Often worn by dancers, the sculptures are magnificent to watch in motion, but Cave doesn’t consider them “fun.” He’s instead called them “secondary skins” or “suits of armor” that can mask race, gender, and class, and has used them to explore everything from public transportation to Trayvon Martin’s death.
Elements of these suits can be found in his latest project, The Let Go, which explores race and police violence in a performance called “Up Right.” Dancers, choreographed by Francesca Harper, move in the suits alongside the youth gospel singers of the Sing Harlem Choir. Later the mood shifts as attendees are invited to dance beneath a massive, multi-colored Mylar curtain Cave calls the “chase.” As it snakes around the Armory’s Drill Hall, you might find yourself next to one of the 90 community groups Cave invited to view the performance, or hear music from a local New York DJ.
"I think it's really me sort of responding to what may be going on politically. And the other half is me being sort of blessed and grateful for the life that I have, and how I can use it to help inform, to help unify, to help bring opportunities and expression to the forefront through these various ways of working,” Cave tells me over the phone. “It's really important that through these performances there's a reflection, there's a moment of hope and optimism. That you feel empowered in some form or another."
But last Thursday, the more somber elements of Cave’s Armory residence fell away for his Freedom Ball, a fashion-forward ball-style competition. Under the strands of his iridescent disco curtain, the public was invited to get into their most outrageous costumes and onto the dance floor. For those who wanted to compete for cash prizes, contestants could walk in three different ball categories: State of the World, Unlike Anything Else, and Dare-Flare.
“Nick Cave is one of my favorite artists because he manages to combine really painful, difficult subjects from our culture, but then regurgitates it in a way that’s colorful and uplifting,” Mizz Hunty, a faceless high-heeled cone of rainbow Mylar, told me at the ball. Hunty said she spent a week on her costume, tying each colored strand (left over from Drag Race watch parties) onto a fishnet suit one by one. She called it “a giant fucking pride flag,” combining everything that makes some people “not want to bake a cake” into one, fabulous outfit.
“Tonight is about exuberance and celebration,” she said through the hundreds of strands. “We are giving a massive finger to all this bullshit that says you can’t be different.”
Along with Mizz Hunty, who was basically a Soundsuit version of Cave’s towering curtain, I met a man dressed as cauliflower, who told me he had a rough time getting the white balloons he brought on the train with him past security. There was a pigtailed robot head atop a billowing pink and white dress. Vegan Marie Antoinette was there with Our Lady of Consistent Fabulousness, both Burning Man regulars. There were pink and green dancing monsters wearing sunglasses, an Ice Prince slowly strutting across the floor in an elaborate mirrored ensemble, and something I can only describe as a rainbow-colored, slightly vaginal-looking oyster with legs.
One by one, the MC walked the night’s most extravagant costumed guests down the illuminated runway, while legendary Chicago DJ Marshall Jefferson spun house music. Marquale Ashley, a.k.a. Lilgayboy Ladosha, won the State of the World category, throwing coins and dollar bills out of a Bible while wearing a gorgeous, custom-made American flag gown. A tiara sat snug atop his shaved head as the striped and starred train swept the ground behind him.
“People always speak about the power and the weight that a flag holds, and I never felt it until tonight,” Ladosha tells me, grasping one of those oversize checks for $5,000. “Tonight the flag felt like mine. Tonight the flag felt like something I was a part of.”
Like his Soundsuits, gender, class, race, sexuality, politics, and even maybe a little self-consciousness melted away into something Cave later described as fluid and respectful. By the end of the night, everyone at the Freedom Ball—the professional dancers, the costumed contestants, the shy attendees, even Cave himself in a glittery silver shoulder harness—got their moment to let go. And as the strands of the Mylar curtains made their final sweep across the floor, it was nearly impossible to tell who was a performer, and who was just there to have a good time.
Nick Cave’s The Let Go is on view at the Park Armory through July 1. Check out more photos from his Freedom Ball below: