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BY OMAR SOMEREYNS | May 1, 2012 | Food & Drink
Lighting director Jorge Tellez manning Mansion’s lighting booth
Aerialists Kristin Arrow and Anyell Berty during rehearsal
Mansion owner Eric Milon discusses the evening’s production with creative director Mark Lehmkuhl during a rehearsal earlier in the day
Mim, of DJ duo Nervo, and DJ Konflikt at the DJ booth
Aerialists perform suspended above the raucous crowd during a night in full swing at mega-club Mansion
Dancers perform a cabaret number during the Cirque de Mansion party
Dancer Morgane Vallon gets dressed in Mansion’s Level Six dressing room
A dancer has her makeup done at the start of the evening
Mansion security guard Ivan Milutinovic checks a guest’s wristband to enter Mansion’s VIP section.
VIP director Patrik Slettman speaking at Mansion’s staffing meeting
Just past 1 AM on a Wednesday night, it’s a madcap party at Mansion. The crowd, dancing in unison, is surrounded by arcing showers of colorful light, and people appear as pixilated versions of themselves, extensions of the LED light fantasy. And then, suddenly, an odd display: An oversize creature looms over the partygoers on stilts with a long, black mane and woolly, hot-pink legs. Some sort of deranged Minotaur/rabbit hybrid? It bears a slight, yet still spooky resemblance to that ominous bunny in Donnie Darko, and people twist their necks for a few seconds to get an awed glance, not fully sure what to make of it, before resuming the dance.
When Nervo, the Australian twin sisters/DJ duo and the night’s headliners, come on—fiercely manning the decks, the bass dropping unapologetically— the club explodes, confetti blasts into the air, and the crowd is enraptured, intoxicated. Inside the VIP area, semi-naked dancers in Queen’s Guard-style bearskin caps show off their bodies, female servers pop Champagne and light sparklers, and even more partially nude women are entangled in the net just a few feet overhead—no matter where you go, you’re in the show.
However, this kind of nightlife crescendo doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes a full team, hustle, creativity, custom-made costumes, and sober execution. Mansion was always a mega-club, but following a $2.5 million renovation that embraces a new 360 concept (which means that from all sections in the cavernous main room, viewers are surrounded by lights, music, videos, and performers), its newest incarnation launched at the beginning of this year is more than that: It’s a tantalizing theater-slash-cabaret, a 360-degree sound and LED light-show phantasmagoria.
3 PM—Earlier that day at Mansion. Calvin Harris’s “Feel so Close” plays from the speakers. “One, two, three, four… five, six, seven, eight,” Audrey Mazens-Sanchez, the club’s lithe, 28-year-old choreographer, utters firmly. She directs a group of six lingerie-clad dancers through a sequence of pole-dance moves. “Every Wednesday afternoon, the girls learn a new choreography to perform that night,” says Mazens-Sanchez. “Then there are also the aerialists and contortionists, so overall we try to create a mix between cabaret and the circus—though some funny things can happen, like girls losing their pasties onstage because they’re moving a lot.”
Wednesday nights are now home to Cirque de Mansion, a spectacular bacchanal that puts to complete use the venue’s new 360 concept, especially on the production side, with stage shows, acrobats, dancers, and in-crowd performers popping up all over the space during the course of the night. Inspiration is gleaned from the Crazy Horse in Paris, with 41-year-old Mike Lee, entertainment director at The Opium Group (the umbrella company that owns Mansion), overseeing the productions. He and the club’s general manager, Sushi Seibert, will concoct a theme, and then Lee will book the night’s talent and conceptualize the costumes.
“The theme is all about coming up with a creative thread we can run with, something that differentiates us from other clubs where it’s just go-go dancers,” he says. “Almost all our dancers are professionally trained. We try to make them as naked as possible, but tastefully, so we’ll put elaborate rhinestone arrangements or interesting headpieces on them.”
Through the back and upstairs, Mike Lee’s office/studio is filled with neatly organized garments and accessories: purple Mohawks, white tutus, foamy mermaid tails, metallic pleated wings, and two sewing machines. The fact that everything here is handmade—the attention to craft and detail—is a testament to the venue’s affirmed love of the spectacle. Depending on what he needs, Lee will either create the costumes himself by hand or hire outside contractors, such as seamstresses or dressmakers. Tonight’s theme is “Queen of England.” “We’ll also have performance artists and drag performers, and they’ll be dressed as theme-related as possible, although we give them more creative freedom. And Sushi works with the bar staff so that their uniforms are in line with the theme, too.”
Meanwhile, Mark Lehmkuhl, 40, the creative director who led the renovation for The Opium Group, points to the theatrics and the new lighting system as a major part of the refurbishing. “Two things came about when we started the renovation,” he says. “One, since this place was originally a theater when it was built in 1936, we wanted to bring back that exuberant, theater-like atmosphere. So we moved the DJ booth, which used to be on the stage, to the front of the VIP section so it’s integrated within the VIP and juts out into the crowd itself. Two, it had to be totally different from what it looked like before—that whole sultry, velvet, and quite frankly dated design. We wanted to give it a very clean, modern look, but also emphasize the sound and lighting.”
In a space near the entrance sits GM Sushi Seibert’s office, cluttered with knickknacks, paperwork, Mansion merchandise, and a printout that says, motherhood can be such a drag, a cheeky reference to her staff for calling her “Mama-san.” A nightlife vet, now 46, Seibert is highly meticulous, engaged in her role like a hard-nosed production manager on a film set. She makes sure everything is right in terms of ordering, scheduling, theme layout, who’s coming, and whether there are big spenders.
She captains a 50-person staff on most nights, sometimes more, works with VIP hosts to keep high rollers happy, and with Lee to ensure there’s constant entertainment. And then there are the crazy clubgoer antics—people jumping off the mezzanine into the net above the VIP, or “a girl talking to herself in the mirror and me having to comfort her,” she says.
5:30 PM—It’s still several hours before Mansion opens, and Eric Milon is running around, tending to last-minute details before he can head home for dinner with his family. Milon, 59, his brother Francis, 46, and Roman Jones, 41, are the managing partners at The Opium Group. During the day, before their clubs open, the three sort out the business side, working from their office on Lincoln Road, while still checking in on their venues. The Milons and Jones are hands-on, closely collaborating with their production teams, researching what’s happening with house music in other markets with their talent bookers, and making sure the different nights have their own identities.
Right before 6 PM, Jones arrives in the main room, sunglasses on, and immediately calls out for someone to clean the too-sticky VIP floors. He explains how Mansion is moving away from the hip-hop and urban programming it once had to focus more on house and compelling electronic music, both major and emerging acts. “We’re still going to have the bigger names, like David Guetta and Afrojack, though it’s not just about huge names, but also the pointy ones, the ones making a dent, like Art Department and Style of Eye. That’s why we’re doing a Thursday party called Kontrol, where the focus is really on the music. We’ll be honing in on deep house and more experimental stuff.”
6:30 PM–10 PM—The calm before the storm, as everyone goes home to eat, shower, and relax with family.
10:30 PM—Time for lineup. The staff—bartenders, performers, dancers, doormen, techs, security guards—are all gathered in the main room, and Sushi Seibert presides. She nitpicks their uniforms, mentions a $200 incentive to sell an anti-hangover drink called Mercy, and announces that Nervo are taking over the turntables at 1:30 AM. “Keep that time in mind,” she says. “I want to blow them up.”
Seibert’s job here is to motivate her staff, boost their energies, and push the sales. It’s about music and entertainment, but of course it’s also about money. According to a 2012 survey from Nightclub.com and Technomic, Mansion raked in an estimated $10 to $15 million in total revenues in 2011.
As the night progresses, Level Six, the venue’s theatrical inner sanctum, is getting busy. This used to be the projection room when the place was a theater; it’s now a small yet glamorous dressing area for dancers and performers, many with thin layers of taut body tape for the night’s theme, along with long leather boots and bedazzled football pads. Supervising it all is Mike Lee, who seems calm and composed, though he says, “It’s exciting, but once it really starts, there’s something happening every 15 minutes, so it can get stressful.”
Downstairs, by the club’s back door, Najib Elmasri, 41, director of talent buying for The Opium Group, awaits Nervo’s arrival. When the cheery blonde pair walk in, exuding an enthused rock star aura, they go up to the green room for a quick chat before their set time. Elmasri gets them drinks (Diet Coke, water, vodka, and whiskey). Liv, Nervo’s long-haired half, says, “We’ve been coming here to support our DJ friends, and we also played the Dim Mak party during WMC this year. Mansion has that bougie, upscale side to it, but it hasn’t lost its dirty, warehouse vibe, which we love.”
1:15 AM—The dance floor is packed. All eyes are on the dancers onstage, looking good and fantastically absurd in their body tape and tall bearskin fur caps while they perform a short, choreographed show. “There you go,” says Lee. “Two hours of rehearsal for a three-minute performance.” Amid the multitude of people, drag queen Adora is perched on a table, in massive turquoise hair and voluptuously drawn lips, blowing kisses. There’s zaniness all around. Girls in peacock headdresses spray fiery grinders, and spunky aerialists swing, do splits, or hang upside down. Everything has come together, and now the crowd is hyped and ready for Nervo on the decks—the promised apex of the night.
“We want to do something that’s more than just a discothèque,” says Eric Milon as Nervo work into their set. “We may have more performers on a Wednesday than on other nights, but every night here is a show. I mean, we’re happy to have an economy that’s rebounding, but people still remember the harder times, so what they want is real value for their money, and we give them that, whether they’re VIP or not.”
Photography by World Red Eye