March 12, 2015, Updated March 14, 2015
Pitts, Barry and a friend on stage. (Photo: Goni Riskin)
Billy Barry and Shamel Pitts. (Photo: Goni Riskin)

Tel Aviv is renowned for its non-stop nightlife, ranking alongside notorious party cities Ibiza and Las Vegas. But beyond the packed beachfront clubs and “bracelet” bars, there’s a growing alternative nightlife scene that focuses more on art, culture and self-expression than booze, beats and escapism.

Inspired by New York City’s “Club Kids” of the late ’80s and early ’90s, native New Yorkers Shamel Pitts and Billy Barry, both dancers in Israel’s famous Batsheva company — along with Tel Aviv local Ronny Chokron, a graphic designer by day and drag performer “Nona Chalant” by night — are creating an artistic party scene of multiculturalism and inclusion.

Nona Chalant (Ronny Chokron) in performance. (Photo: Guy Danieli)
Nona Chalant (Ronny Chokron) in performance. (Photo: Guy Danieli)

“For me, nightlife is not escapism. It’s something that’s in my blood,” Pitts, wearing 10-inch platform boots, tells ISRAEL21c at Jacuzzi, a nautical-themed, multimedia art party that he and Chokron co-organized with fellow scenesters Uri Direktor and Carmel Michaeli.

“We want to bring more substance and quality and theatricality into the nightlife scene here. I think Tel Aviv, and Israel in general, has an incredible nightlife scene. People live here like it’s their last day, and more than that, we want to make the last day the best day.”

To drive the scene forward, Pitts and Barry created Fagazine, a brand that’s neither a magazine nor exclusively gay, but rather a collaboration of musicians, dancers, DJs and performance artists who create culture-themed parties. Fagazine often collaborates with DJ Litty Lev Cohen, who draws crowds with her New York-inspired garage music, vogue beats and chants.

Pitts, Barry and a friend on stage. (Photo: Goni Riskin)
Shamel Pitts and Billy Barry dancing with fellow Batsheva dancer Zina Zinkchenko. (Photo: Goni Riskin)

“It’s not just about going out,” explains Barry. “Nightlife is so important in shaping so many aspects of culture — music, fashion, art, dance, performance — so much of ‘daylife’ culture has come out of the amazing things you’ve seen and experienced in nightlife.”

Nearly all of those aspects were on full display at the Jacuzzi party. The venue, Pasaz — an alternative space located underground — was decorated like the deep sea with soft blue undulating light. Partygoers fluidly transformed their gender identities throughout the night with the help of a makeup artist and costume designer. Women adorned fake mustaches, men embraced flowing robes, and people danced platonically to minimal beats.

In the midst of all the multisensory stimulation stood hostess and drag performer Nona Chalant, approximately eight feet tall, painted pale blue and wearing a white Afro wig, inspiring guests to be whoever they wanted.

“Tonight is a night without boundaries. It’s a straight party that talks about gender,” says Chokron/Chalant. “I’m really inspired by the nightlife of New York — all the voguing, the dancing parties, the balls — I really love it. That’s what I’m really trying to bring here, the Club Kids scene.”

Chokron also organizes weekly culture-themed parties that pay homage to LGBT icons like RuPaul, Andy Warhol, Boy George and Amanda Lepore.

“We want to remind people about everyone who came before Lady Gaga,” Chokron laughs.

While their immediate goal is to throw fun, artsy parties, the guys are having a greater ripple effect on Tel Aviv’s overall after-hours scene.

“We don’t have ambitions to make a revolution in the nightlife here, although I feel like we’re making small changes,” says Pitts. “Each event we do, we bring something new and relevant — cross gender, cross identity and cross cultures. Because of our relevance, it allows other venues to bring different types of artists because they see there is a scene and a need for it.”

Encouraged by Fagazine’s success, organizers at The Breakfast Club hosted American rapper, performance artist and poet Mykki Blanco, who packed the venue with his Grace Jones-inspired style and explicit lyrics last November.

As for their future plans, the trio simply wants to continue growing Tel Aviv’s nightlife circuit beyond the mainstream.

“Many different types of people come to our parties, definitely not just the gay community,” says Pitts. “If I were to generalize, I’d say they are simply alternative people.”

For their latest events, check out  Fagazine’s Facebook page and Nona Chalant’s “House of Nona”.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director