It was just a year ago that Jacquelyn Feliciano and Jonathan McDonald were swinging upside down through the sticky, neon-colored air at House of Yes.
Years of performing together as Queen Ravenden and Jon Joñi had made the gig almost ordinary for the aerial duo — covered in glitter and dancing with their limbs intertwined above hundreds of enthralled partygoers.
But when the city shut down in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus, so did House of Yes. The club, set on a formerly industrial stretch of Bushwick, had grown from a self-described “hippie-punk squat” in 2007 to a vital part of New York City’s queer nightlife scene, with about 100 employees on the payroll.
As quarantine set in, everyone from the bartenders to the bouncers to the event producers had to be let go. The co-founders and owners, Kae Burke and Anya Sapozhnikova, also had to furlough the resident troupe of pole dancers, aerialists, go-go dancers, fire breathers, stilt walkers and clowns.
It’s unclear when the club will be able to operate at full capacity again, and whether aerialists or fire breathers will be able to translate their art for a new era, whatever that may be. So the question lingers: How will live performances even fit in?
“Performers typically need a stage, they need a place that presents their art form and that audiences can come to,” Ms. Burke said. “To save venues is to save the entire ecosystem of nightlife, including our performance artists.”
Mr. McDonald, Ms. Feliciano and Scott Dennis, who performs in drag as Madame Vivien V, were just a few of the House of Yes regulars who were deeply disoriented as businesses in New York City shuttered. In the years before the pandemic, all three were hired off the club’s dance floor: Mr. Dennis, a frequent attendee who stood out in the crowd, would work the door in drag, while Ms. Feliciano and Mr. McDonald got their starts spinning in go-go cages that dangle above the dance floor.
Many of the House of Yes resident performers were used to doing shows several nights a week, as the club hosted multiple events each night on almost every night of the year. Yet once March 13 hit, there was nothing to do there, and no one to perform for.
“I was really mourning my performance career,” Mr. McDonald said. “I miss my friends, and performing, and the live stage and having the energy of the audience there.”
Other troupe members — Blaine Petrovia, Allegra Meshuggah and Pixel — were touring with House of Yes’s Blunderland Variety Show. It was in Australia that they performed their last shows at nearly empty clubs.
“It was really weird,” Mr. Petrovia said, “because the main thing about performing is the energy of the audience and the people in the space with you.”
Peter Mercury, a nonbinary aerialist and go-go dancer at the club, was also out of the city, producing a House of Yes-inspired party on a cruise ship. The ship was sailing through the Bermuda Triangle, of all places, when quarantine set in, and on the same night that House of Yes shut down, the cruise ship had one last hurrah.
“We still threw this party, and did aerial, and had all the bells and whistles,” Mx. Mercury said. “It was kind of like the last party on earth.”
As soon as House of Yes shut down in March, Ms. Burke and Ms. Sapozhnikova started a GoFundMe campaign to support their staff, and the club eventually reopened in July with food and an outdoor bar.
But in August, House of Yes closed again when its liquor license was suspended over violations relating to the state’s mandates that food be served with each drink order. Ms. Burke and Ms. Sapozhnikova have since created a Patreon account for the club, which offers playlists, virtual dance parties and remote classes taught by the resident performers. But it is a pale imitation of the chaotic, blissful queer energy of House of Yes at its peak.
Last fall, costumed partygoers entering House of Yes would be overwhelmed by glitter and neon and booming disco — or house, hip-hop or whatever music fit that night’s theme. But the 20 or so members of the club’s performance troupe were what made each party something different. Every night, attendees were treated to celebratory performances of queerness that carried an emotional weight not often found in dance clubs the size of an airplane hangar.
“Here I’m able to do the more artistic performances that I wouldn’t be able to do in a club in Manhattan,” Mr. Petrovia, the resident pole dancer, said last November.
“What Blaine is trying to say is that he gets to be sad here, and he can’t do that anywhere else,” said Ms. Meshuggah, who works as House of Yes’s neocabaret clown. “He wants to put on a sad song, dance to FKA Twigs and cry on a pole. And you can’t do that everywhere, but you can do that here.”
Joshua Oates, who is known onstage as Pixel, performed at House of Yes for nearly four years as an aerialist drag queen.
“We’ve grown to this point, to 2019, hearing primarily straight white stories,” Mr. Oates said last fall. “You know: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, happily ever after. But I want to tell my story as a queer person, and a lot of people haven’t had the privilege to do that.”
Today, the performers are keeping the club’s energy alive as they paint their faces and spin on poles from home, hoping to bridge the gap until they can swing from the balconies and rafters of the venue once more.
“That’s what we’re asking our policymakers to do,” Ms. Burke said. “If they care about culture, they will make moves and figure out how to, at least, let these places hibernate until it’s safe for them to operate again.”
Now in their seventh month of exile, House of Yes residents have become accustomed to looking for new ways to perform.
Ms. Sapozhnikova did say there was a benefit to taking a break: “The slowing down of everything got everyone to be way more thoughtful about their own work.”
Mr. Dennis has taken this time to stretch his creative boundaries.
“Even though I’ve been doing this for eight years, I didn’t really know the kind of artist that I was,” Mr. Dennis said. “We were all becoming very individually focused, and we were all — I felt — maybe becoming too comfortable, too settled into the work. What this time has forced us to do, as creatives, is find alternative routes to entertain.”
Madame Vivien V is now doing delivery performances on people’s streets and driveways; Queen Ravenden and Jon Joñi are still recording aerial routines (and Queen is using her extra free time to create homeopathic herbal blends); Blaine Petrovia teaches twerking and pole dancing via his Instagram page; Pixel does makeup and dance tutorials on a new Patreon account; Allegra Meshuggah is planning a cross-country road trip; and Peter Mercury, who returned to New York this summer after being quarantined on a remote island in Thailand — has been recharging.
“I’ve been focusing on listening, and incubating and dreaming up a really optimistic future,” Mx. Mercury said. “As an artist, it’s so important to put forward a really optimistic worldview and hope other people join in.”
Though the future is hazy at best, both owners have full faith that Brooklyn’s club scene will prevail.
“Nightlife will survive,” Ms. Burke said, “but not all venues will, unfortunately, and that’s what hurts and feels very unfair.”
This pandemic isn’t the first catastrophe that the venue has faced. Ms. Burke and Ms. Sapozhnikova started House of Yes in 2007 as a collaborative living and work space in the original location on Troutman Street, but in 2008, a blue corn tortilla caught fire and set a monster puppet ablaze, burning the building down.
Operating in a rapidly gentrifying part of Bushwick meant that the political at the club was never far from the hedonistic, and long before this year, the staff routinely organized food drives, drug safety trainings and other forms of community support. Most recently, in response to the protests this summer against police brutality, House of Yes performers and regulars have been fund-raising for Black trans people.
“You’re not just here to get onstage and sell booze,” Mr. Dennis said last fall. “Two and a half years ago I was gay-bashed in the neighborhood, and I was able to create a performance around it and able to talk about it onstage.”
But until the club is safe again, its spirit will have to live offstage.
“The symbol of House of Yes as a place of radical expression and acceptance is going to endure,” Mr. Dennis said. “It’s still a space where everyone is accepted, and it’s still a space where creativity is the most valuable form of currency.”