The Culture

5,500 Revelers Search for One Life-Changing Experience

In a mansion outside New York City, a nightlife impresario tries to create magic for the Burning Man set

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Alder Manor at night, as the You Are So Lucky party takes shape
Alder Manor at night, as the You Are So Lucky party takes shape

By my fourteenth straight hour at the abandoned-mansion party, I was ready to leave. I’d passed the shirtless man with the polyethylene ram horns at least fifteen times. I’d climbed what felt like forty flights of decrepit staircases, crowded among half-naked performers covered in white body paint. The sound-bath in the emptied swimming pool and the sitar concert in the carriage house were long over. The cybergoth raver wanted to microdose Molly, but I told her it wasn’t that kind of night. At hour twelve, I had been conversing with a person who identified themselves only as “Nuevo” and who told me that they did “vampire spoken-word burlesque.” The party showed no sign of coming down to earth anytime soon.

I wanted to leave, but I didn’t know exactly how. We were 20 miles from the Lower East Side and 2,761 miles from the site of Burning Man, but about equidistant from both spiritually. I was one of 5,500 or so people who filled the four-story neoclassical manor and neighboring properties, but it was hard — navi-gating the small rooms — to get an accurate sense of the event’s scale. One moment I’d glimpse bodies arrayed across a bed, looking NSFW. In the next I’d find myself in the company of men in frosted wigs and jeweled jumpsuits performing hard-rock karaoke. Sonic waves of deep bass beats washed in from all sides.

The party, a three-day-long rave that no one calls a rave (it’s an “experience” or a “journey”), is known as You Are So Lucky. It is the work of William Etundi and his partner Kevin Balktick, along with a team of New York nightlife staples including House of Yes, The Box, Shanghai Mermaid, and Ecstatic Dance NYC. While several groups help produce the party, the ringmaster is Etundi, a promoter who built a reputation in the post–9-11 years as the quiet man behind Brooklyn’s largest illegal warehouse raves.

An old Etundi party bore the sort of fire code–defying magic that was in sparse supply during the early-Bloomberg, post-Giuliani era. He’d rent outer-borough warehouses for a couple thousand dollars and employ artist friends to reimagine the space as a “mixed-media landscape built in the bowels of a former spice factory,” or a “gift of angels and wings from Kataclism” complete with a “big, bouncing floor.” Anya Sapozhnikova, a longtime collaborator of Etundi’s who now runs House of Yes, remembers an early party where Etundi “gave me six hundred bucks and told me to make a ‘holy shit moment.’ So we made these four giant puppets, and we got all these people to strip naked and cover themselves in gesso. People snuck inside the puppets, so you had all these naked people running around inside giant puppets. It was always a feeling of ‘How is this allowed to happen?’ ”

Etundi put in ten-plus years helming a pair of migratory events, known as “Complacent” and “The Danger,” that popped up in industrial buildings around the outer boroughs. In 2010 he threw the party to end all parties, a Halloween bacchanal spanning four different Brooklyn warehouses. He branded it as a “pilgrimage,” and spread the word online. The masses responded. Etundi described the scene in an interview with psychedelic evangelist Daniel Pinchbeck: Eight thousand people showed up, anxiously vying to get inside, where artists had installed “thirteen visions of the afterlife” inspired by the theme “Within the Land of Ash.” When the authorities finally arrived to close it down, Etundi felt relieved. He’d been riddled with anxiety all night. What if something went really wrong, and people were trapped in the overcrowded rooms?

We know the answer to that now. Last year, the Ghost Ship in Oakland, California, a space similar to Etundi’s creations, went up in flames that killed 36 and sparked a national crackdown on illegally occupied art spaces. By the time it burned, Ghost Ship seemed like a remnant from an earlier era, a time when rents were lower and police less antagonistic. Etundi had retired from the warehouse-rave game, not wanting to press his luck. He changed his lifestyle, trading hedonism for meditation. He built a small tech company to showcase artists’ work.

But old party promoters never die, they just start talking to the fire department and ramp up ticket prices accordingly. “I just couldn’t really stop for good,” says Etundi, who speaks in a measured voice only a few registers above a whisper. Etundi has a round, inviting face, close-cropped hair, and a crisp sense of style. He’s unassuming, an understated presence who sometimes disappears from his own parties. Says Etundi, “I came back because doing these events is a part of me.”

That’s how, in July, six years since the final Danger party, he ended up in a mansion in the suburbs, preparing to host the “immersive spectacle” of a gathering. The mansion, built by the turn of the century mining baron William Boyce Thompson and known as Alder Manor, sits on the banks of the Hudson next to the old Yonkers power station, known locally as “The Gates of Hell.” It is a complicated space for an event, with few continuous spaces and no central great-hall-type area where people can congregate. In the backyard is a high school, built after Thompson died and willed the property to the Catholic Church. That building, formerly known as Mary Elizabeth Seton High School, housed another dance venue. Balktick says that when he found the 1960s blueprints for the building, he was shocked to discover “a surprisingly functional nightclub” in the basement of an old Catholic school.

Supplicants traveled to this unusual event space from the city by ferry, train, and cab. They sought not just fun, but, as one party-goer put it, “a mind-altering experience” — something Etundi, Balktick, and the team of 250 or so artists and workers, were practiced at providing. Unlike Etundi’s earlier events, this one would be entirely legal. He hoped it would still be cool.

I attended two days of You Are So Lucky and missed the third (a 5 p.m. lamb roast and “brunch” on Sunday). During those days, I spent time in a sex-positive s/m dungeon, where I saw two people get “buffed” with a “buffer” (look it up). I sat in a room of blindfolded people who recited their worst fears out loud while a performer freestyled, and explored rambling woods full of glowing lights. Other attendees had left their day jobs as marketers, tech gurus, wealth managers, or pirates/DJs. German models rubbed shoulders with all varieties of off-season Burners. The party oscillated between raunchy unspeakability (this is the work of House of Yes and The Box; Etundi described himself as “more conservative than you might imagine”) and New Age brain expansion.

When asked why they’d come to You Are So Lucky, people respond that these parties were just not like other parties. “We’ve waited all year for this,” said a young woman with a day job in fitness and press-on faux-diamonds lining her eyelids. “We go to a lot of parties. These are the best.” I was told more times than I can count that You Are So Lucky is not, in fact, a party but is instead an event with a “trajectory.” People go because they don’t know what they will find, because there is a carefully curated air of discovery and the hope that somehow, in some undefinable way, that discovery might change your life.

Attendees serve as either what Etundi terms “collaborators” (those who labor to push the party to the next level) or “extractors” (those who simply want to see what’s up but are not quite willing to give of themselves). The collaborators usually fit the mold of kinksters and nerds who probably didn’t do well at high school parties, and who are ready to bring their favorite mythological texts to life. Imagine a hardcore Neil Gaiman fan crossed with an immersive theater dork, crossed with a computer-savvy kid who made a lot of money too young, and you gain a rough picture of the You Are So Lucky demographic. (I’ve heard these types of people described, not entirely kindly, as “fraggles.”)

The starting ticket price for You Are So Lucky’s summer event was $88, for a basic pass to the Saturday event. There was no defined high end to the price, but Etundi planned a deluxe ticket that rang in at around $2,500 and would include helicopter transportation and three-day VIP access for a small group of people. Johnnie Walker Blue bottle service costs $1,400. The business model is to have enough young and freewheeling guests to make it work, and enough older and free-spending guests to make it pay. You Are So Lucky has no corporate sponsors, and is entirely supported by ticket sales. The high price is largely a byproduct of its legality — the security, the fire marshals, the ambulances, the porta-potties that now must exist. “We constantly worry that we are losing our base of artists,” says Balktick. “But the crowd from the old days still attends. They just have to get babysitters now.”

Whether or not you think these parties at the Alder Manor really are the best depends on how comfortable you are with being in a room full of shirtless people wearing top hats and dancing to “tribal beats.” Even if you are comfortable with that, success is hard to predict. When things don’t work out, when the rain starts drizzling on the naked woman covered in canapés, the badness is multiplied by the scale.

When things do work, the scale makes it feel like where you’d want to spend the End of Days. At their old space in DUMBO, a loft with forty-foot ceilings and massive views of the Manhattan Bridge, dubbed the “Lunatarium,” Etundi and Balktick threw alternately political and hedonistic nightlife events for years. Says Jeff Stark, a longtime friend of Etundi’s whose newsletter, “Nonsense NYC,” serves as a de facto history of the New York art party scene, “When you went to one of Will’s parties, you’d feel wonder. I remember thinking, ‘What is this? Who could get access to this type of thing? Someone must have fallen asleep on the job for this to happen.’ It was unreal.”

Not all the parties work as well as the others. The last You Are So Lucky Halloween party went off without a hitch (several different people told me it was “the best party I’ve ever been to in my life”), but the subsequent New Year’s party at the manor was underattended and chilly. Etundi has had parties that have started terribly and ended incredibly, others that have spiraled out of control.

Etundi’s role is to be the party’s spiritual weatherman, the person who watches for “the moment when a party will just crack open. There’s always that moment.” He looks for the point of abandon, the point where it doesn’t matter if it rains or the electricity fails or the food runs out because everyone in attendance is in it. Etundi always promises the world — promises a night unlike any other, both to his team of artists and to the crowd willing to pay in the thousands for a mind-altering experience. He delivers on his promise often enough that people keep coming.

The July You Are So Lucky event didn’t change my life. Around 5 a.m., I bought a seat in an overpriced Uber and listened to a financier tell me about the cryptocurrency during the hour-long ride back to the city. (PSA, readers: It’s time to invest.) I went to sleep and woke up feeling the same as I had a few days before, my consciousness decidedly unaltered. But I’m an extractor, a doubting Thomas among true believers. I didn’t stay until 7 a.m., when the Hobo Road Camp lay quiet, the fire spinners dormant, the cyberwave rave denizens finally tired, and the Night Circus emerged from the mansion to watch the sunrise over the Hudson.

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