Minotaurs, Medusas and monsters made their way to the historic Capitale Ballroom this past weekend to engage in All Hallows’ Eve traditions both ancient and modern. In its Celtic origins, Halloween was a night of delicate paradox—mortals masqueraded as the monstrous in hopes of warding off malevolent forces in the coming bitter winter.
The significance of the venue, erected in 1893, might have added a ghostly tang to the atmosphere as guests entered the Venetian glass and marble space filled to the rafters with past lives, but on this particular evening, the Capitale was transformed, through the machinations of Taipei-born fantasy architect Shien Lee, Creative Director of fetishistic performance group Dances of Vice, into the Temple of Medusa.
Medusa was the perfect apotropaic symbol for the occasion—a portrait of evil intended to rebuke evil. However, the night of “beastly bacchanal” designed by Lee and executed by Dances of Vice felt more like ritual than revelry.
Ancient Greek symbols were projected onto walls as erotic performers in elaborate disguises moved through their routines under a blanket of blue light. Some descended from the ceiling, wearing little but the ropes that bound them, while ghostly yet statuesque creatures, in the nude and painted, emerged from the corners of the stage. The performance included a surprisingly elegant display of Shibari, the Japanese art of erotic rope bondage, and Lee’s exquisite creative vision was evident throughout.
The crowd had come prepared; I, on the other hand, was underdressed for what turned out to be an adult party in the most earnest and elaborate sense of the term. “This is like the Met Gala of Halloween,” remarked one partier, gawking at the phantasmagorical regalia of the audience. There were minotaurs, with the bodies of men and the heads of bulls, and satyrs—lusty woodland gods wearing horned masks that covered their faces. Others came in the guise of Medusa, with serpentine headdresses.
This was an underworld populated by beautiful people disguised as slightly terrifying creatures and a company of highly talented performers. As the audience absorbed the artful display on stage and in mid-air, eerie and dissonant music rang in the background. All in all, the party in the main ballroom was only slightly Hadean and mostly harmless.
The “Pantheon of Pleasure” that waited upstairs for VIP ticket holders was the most otherworldly aspect of the event. The red-lit BDSM dungeon was advertised as being “fit for Aphrodite herself”—with a reassuring emphasis on respect for the limits, consent and agency of all involved.
As I ascended the stairs, I was nervous, unsure if seeing aggressive sexuality up close would make me uncomfortable. Upon entering the dungeon, there were two cages standing guard before a bar with leather couches. In the center stood a classic St. Andrews Cross, used for bondage in the BDSM tradition. A man wearing nothing but underwear was bound to the cross, getting whipped by two latex-clad dominatrixes. In the other room, a woman tied up a friend or perhaps a lover while an audience watched from the seats surrounding them.
In contrast to my initial misgivings, what I found was, for the most part, gentle and playful eroticism. While I was ostensibly in a sex dungeon, there was no nudity; the experience seemed more oriented toward exhibitionism and voyeurism. Some were there to participate, but many more were clearly there to have their elaborate and time-consuming costumes be observed, taking spots at the front of the room to peacock or pose like statues. Still others perched quietly in lounge chairs, observing the spectacle around them.
The entirety of the Temple of Medusa experience is a testament to Lee’s status as one of the preeminent nightlife impresarios in the New York club scene. It’s worth noting that this level of erotic immersion is not for everyone, but Dances of Vice has accrued a dedicated following in New York for good reason. For those searching for Dionysian frenzy in its most echt form—particularly experiences designed for the female gaze—Shien Lee’s highly curated productions are a must-see.