Back in December 1999, when The Edwardian Ball first launched, the small underground party had a purpose: To celebrate the work of macabre American illustrator and storybook author Edward Gorey. Published in the '50s and '60s, Gorey's ghoulishly humorous books, one of which is re-enacted every year at the ball, have been a tremendous influence on the modern-day goth aesthetic, and especially local children's author Lemony Snicket and filmmaker Tim Burton.
Usually set in Victorian and Edwardian eras, with lettering that resembles silent film title cards, Gorey's line drawings often depict children in harrowing situations or dying horrible deaths, like his popular sing-song alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which lists 26 peculiar ways to go. Odds are, such books would not fly in today's hypersensitive culture -- but somehow setting these tales in the era of memento mori and perpetual mourning made his dark comedy more palatable to the public. Gorey found the humor and absurdity in the fact that death is an inescapable part of life.
Even Edwardian Ball co-founder and co-host Justin Katz says he believes Gorey saw his tales as more whimsical than morbid, citing one of his favorite quotes from the author, "Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that's what makes it so boring."
The Edwardian Ball has made an opening in the floor leading to an anachronistic alternative universe that's anything but boring. More than 11 years later, and 10 years after Gorey's passing, the 11th annual Edwardian Ball has become so much more than a small party for an eccentric illustrator. The costumers and actors in the Period Events and Entertainments Re-Creation Society (PEERS) come decked out in full Edwardian-period garb, with corsets and petticoats, and dance the Viennese waltz. Steampunk inventors like Kinetic Steam Works show off their creations, while circus troupes like party co-hosts Vau de Vire Society perform breath-taking acrobatics and flying trapeze acts.
What started out as a small event at SoMa's tiny Cat Club has expanded to two nights at the Regency Ballroom and a whole other event in Los Angeles (March 5 at the Music Box). Endorsed by the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, the festival draws attendees from as far as Japan, South Africa, and Australia, and party goers wear everything from goth eyeliner and stripey tights to Victorian and Edwardian getups to elaborate insect costumes and colorful wigs, channeling Tim Burton, Dr. Seuss and even Gorey predecessor Charles Addams. The visual effect is something akin to Day of the Dead -- or a classier take on Halloween.
"For some people, this event becomes so big in their yearly planning that they begin working on their costumes before I'm getting my production organized," Katz says. "But there's no right way to dress for this event. The important thing is that you find a way to dress up that is fun for you that allows you to step out of your ordinary life and step into an imaginary, whimsical world."
As usual, this year's festival promises a smorgasbord of art in every medium imaginable -- live music, dancing, trapeze, visual arts, theater, and even large-scale monster puppetry from Shadow Circus Creature Theatre, to name a few. Friday night's World's Faire will be a distinct event from Saturday's Ball, even though both will feature a Victorian/Edwardian gaming parlor. The first night will be set up like a carnival midway -- featuring a bicycle powered-Ferris wheel, a shooting gallery, kissing booth, fortune telling, a mini-golf course, sideshows, and a steam-powered Tesla coil -- plus live cabaret and rock by the likes of by the Eric McFadden Trio, retro DJ music by Delachaux, a Gorey-themed fashion show, and circus and burlesque performers.
The second evening will set up more like a traditional ball with ballroom dancing, Edwardian portraits, and marching band music by The Gomorran Social Aid & Pleasure Club. "Belle of the Ball" gothic chanteuse Jill Tracy and her Malcontents will debut her annual grand waltz, DJ Miz Margo will spin goth club music, and Fou Fou Ha! will stage a feisty combination of clowning and burlesque. The highlight of the night will be the Vau de Vire Society and Katz's "pagan lounge music" house band Rosin Coven putting on their annual interactive performance of a Gorey story.
This piece is particularly fun for party founders Rosin Coven, as Gorey's tales are so often about the dark shadows lurking beneath buttoned-up society -- and so much of the horror happens off the edges of the page. This leaves plenty of room for wildly imaginative theatrical interpretation.
"Gorey's characters are buttoned up, but they're coming apart at the seams," Katz says. "And his work, it's so brilliant and yet it's almost frustratingly simple. I love it because everything in his stories happens in-between his drawings, and we take great liberties in filling in what he never said. We get to play with it and create back stories, shadow characters and side plots and have fun with what might have happened."
The adaptation of the event to "Edwardian" re-creation is particularly serendipitous: Coming out of the gloomy cloud of Queen Victoria's reign, the brief turn-of-the-century Edwardian era, also known as the Belle Epoque, was a time of opulence and great optimism for the future, when the sensual Art Nouveau movement was in fashion, before World War I brought the decadence crashing down. The Regency was erected at this time (1909), rising from the ashes of the Great Earthquake and Fire.
"We're living in a pretty difficult, desperate time -- an age of anxiety," Katz says. "When we look back, first we have the luxury of romanticizing the past. You can dress up as the Artful Dodger and be a street urchin from the turn of the century, but that was actually a pretty hard life. But things were much simpler; the Edwardian period was an era of hope and exploration, and I think people are really craving that optimistic lens where the world could be new and exciting and perhaps dangerous, but in a romantic way -- not in the anxious way it is now."
The Edwardian World's Faire opens at 8pm, Friday, January 21, and the 11th Annual Edwardian Ball is at 8pm, Saturday, January 22, 2011 at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. The free Edwardian Vendor Bazaar will be open for browsing 12-6pm, Saturday at the Ballroom. For more information, visit edwardianball.com.
All photos courtesy theblight.net.