At Brooklyn’s House of Yes, Weird Is WonderfulHow two circus-loving artists jumped through hoops to build a unique showcase for the mysterious in Bushwick
During a summer-solstice ceremony at House of Yes, singer Daisy Press, clad in a multi-colored maxidress and a majestic headdress, instructed the audience to drone the note E, associated with the color yellow. So, while we all did that (or at least attempted to), she started singing O nobilissima viriditas, composed by Hildegard von Bingen, one of the few celebrated women composers of the middle ages. Soon, though, the heavenly melody turned into a dionysian shriek, and there was a clear purpose behind that. In this solstice ritual, we would celebrate the dark side of the sun. Nearby, two aerialists performed a dance meant to symbolize the encounter between light and darkness. A pet snake was passed between performers and audience.
On another night, House of Yes became a freaky kind of circus. After acts of aerial acrobatics performed under a waterfall, lasso-and-whip artistry and sword swallowing, artist Lara Jacobs appeared on stage illuminated by an indigo light. Resembling a more spiritual version of Daenerys Targaryen, she masterfully performed a “palm-leaf-rib-performance,” carefully balancing one palm on top of the other in herringbone-like pattern, picking up each one with her foot. Daisy Press sang Spiritui sancto honor sit, another von Bingen composition, while the audience was encouraged to breathe in synchrony.
These are the kinds of mystical variety shows you can experience at House of Yes, the Bushwick-based nightclub and performance venue that calls itself “a temple of expression.” Now in its third iteration after two major setbacks, the space has finally found a Brooklyn home worthy of its ambitions, a 7,000 sq.ft. stage for this joyfully transgressive circus of performance art. “What separates it from similar spaces [is that] we very organically have grown up in our community,” said co-founder Anya Sapozhnikova, an aerialist. The group draws on the talents of Brooklynites, and at the same time educates budding artists in everything from singing to trapeze performance.
Sapozhnikova co-founded House of Yes in 2007 with her friend Kae Burke, who she met at the age of 16 while growing up in Rochester. They were part of the local hard-core music community, a very DYI culture, and clicked through their mutual interest in underground and experimental shows.
When they launched the first House of Yes in Ridgewood, Queens, the space hosted beginner-level circus skill- sharing. The space had sewing facilities too, where they hosted a weekly craft workshop. That venture was short-lived: a fire caused by a toaster burned everything they had created, including dozens of costumes.
The second House of Yes, situated on Maujer Street in Williamsburg, had an aerial acrobatic facility, where the performers would teach up to 20 classes a week. “It was a pretty busy studio and because at that point we were getting better at performing, we needed that kind of space to work at our own stuff,” said Sapozhnikova. The venture made money from the classes, but the landlord doubled the rent in 2013, so the second incarnation of House of Yes came to a close.
The house went on hiatus until a successful round in 2014 Kickstarter, in which the founders raised more than $90,000 out of a $60,000 goal. They secured the space on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Jefferson Street, which opened its doors to the public on New Year’s Eve 2015. Its aesthetic could be summarized as Baz Luhrmann meets industrial Brooklyn. The entrance room is decorated with curtains and ball-shaped lanterns in colors ranging from turquoise and pink. Laser-cut mirrors are artfully placed behind the bar counter, and the bathrooms look like jewel boxes The performance room has towering, 28-ft. ceilings, ideal for aerial and circus acts. The outdoor space features reproductions of Greek and Roman statues wearing tiaras andcolorful necklaces.
House of Yes typically hosts six events a week, from circus acts to burlesque performances, as well as dance-focused nightlife parties. For the artistic performances, House of Yes usually produces its own work, with Burke and Sapozhnikova as creative directors. “We have a really specific brand that people expect: a little edgy, a little dirty, pretty immersive with with a political bent,” said Sapozhnikova.
To grow the troupe, House of Yes introduces one or two new performers per show, for which Sapozhnikova does a lot of scouting. “I make a point to see a lot of work out and about,” she said. “Some people reach out to me, [with a] really strong concept. A performance piece that I haven’t heard of before, but looks amazing on video, I usually go see it before I reach out to work with them, because we are very much our own thing.”
While their larger-than-life acts get the most attention, House of Yes is equally devoted to teaching performance arts, a mission that eventually outgrew the performance space. “Having classes at the venue wasn’t really working,” Burke said. “We kept having to reschedule people and cancel classes last minute due to production times.” Added Sapozhnikova: “We felt like there was something lacking, because one of the ways we always engaged the community was not only through the shows and the parties, but also through the educational aspect.”
On the corner of Morgan and Johnson Avenue, where House of Yes had their costume workshop, a space became available over the winter. That was the beginning of House of Light, a community space managed by Burke, offering daytime events, classes, and doubling as a rehearsal space. Among the class offerings: Badass Ballet, Lyra (the aerial hoop), and Silks (aerial silks). “It’s a gateway drug. It’s fun to have people who never tried aerial or who think they’re not strong enough,” said Burke. “It doesn’t matter if if you want to perform or just have fun, it’s just a beautiful offering for our community and people who are into circus.” (Update: The organization has temporarily suspended programs while recruiting a new partner for the Johnson Avenue space, which they aim to reopen soon.)
One notable class that happens on the premises at House of Yes is called Voice Cult, described as part vocal technique, part human connection, and part immersive performance art. “I have always struggled with singing, even though I am a pretty seasoned performer. We decided to start a place where other people who were struggling with singing can kind of get past that in a hilarious and playful environment,” said Sapozhnikova. Press, the singer and high priestess of the “cult,” advocates for the healing powers of singing. “I went through a lot with addiction, and singing in this way was a way I made myself feel better,” she said.
Starting this year, Burke and Sapozhnikova extended their educational efforts to local public schools. They started a pilot program at the Evergreen Middle School for Urban Exploration in Bushwick, teaching storytelling, character development and set design. One student who had started off with a rather ordinary story about enjoying fishing while camping sent his story into outer space as soon as Burke and Sapozhnikova integrated art supplies. The end result, featuring a space explorer powering an animatronic fish, became part of the House of Yes repertoire when it was performed as the backdrop of a sword-swallowing act. “The world around them is malleable,” said Sapozhnikova “We wanted to show them that everything is possible, that creativity and magic is there.”