Interview – Justin Katz of The Edwardian Ball

This interview originally ran in 2017.

The Edwardian Ball is coming in January, as it does in San Francisco every year, for two nights of exhibitions, music and acrobatic performances, and the best people watching experience around. Justin Katz and his group Rosin Coven co-host the event with the Vau de Vire Society; SF Sonic had the opportunity to interview Katz about the ball, with its upcoming 18th annual event.

Justin Katz
Justin Katz

SF SONIC: Most of our readers are probably familiar with the Ball, which has been going on for long enough to be regarded as a San Francisco institution. Can you tell us what’s going to be new and different at this year’s Edwardian Ball?

Justin Katz: Every year it’s a challenge to balance new and different while also bringing back things that people really love and enjoy. One of the areas this year we looked to renew things is in the programming. A lot of people have enjoyed participating for a lot of years in a consistent format. This year, we are looking at mixing up the performance roster. Also, we brought on a new art curator last year, Layil Umbralux. She has really taken on our curation and the theming of the visual art and installation art to a whole new level. Last year she was brand new and got her feet wet, and this year, she is really coming into her own in terms of helping us as a team with theme and creative direction with the visual art, and getting the art a little more featured. This is particularly true with Friday’s World’s Faire. She has pushed the theming of the World’s Faire Expo towards art, science, and technology, including partnerships with new organizations. I think we will see a noticeable step up in the art department.

SF SONIC: So the format will be the same this year with the World’s Faire on Friday night?

Vau de Vire

Katz: Yes, we are doing Friday night as the World’s Faire and Saturday night as the Ball in both San Francisco and LA this year for the first time. This is the first year will be doing a two-night Los Angeles event and that’s going to allow us to express the World’s Faire in its complete form. So much work is put into the event – the Gorey show, Rosin Coven set, Vau de Vire performances – that it’s great to have the nights not just be one-offs. So we’re debuting the World’s Faire in Los Angeles and that will merit the work we are putting into the Expo. It’s fair to give a little sneak peak that the theme of our World’s Faire will be astronomy and the stars, and an exploration of what that has meant to people across the eras.

SF SONIC: That will be both visual and experiential?

Katz: Yes.

SF SONIC: How do you pick the musical acts? It’s such a diverse set of musical acts, is there a methodology?

Katz: Mike Gaines, my partner in Vau de Vire, and I go through all the submissions together. We’ve opened it up more this year than we have in the past in terms of taking submissions through our site. We have so much curated, wonderful content within our community that we can move through that, track artists that we work with and their new projects, there’s a family growth that happens. Whether it’s from within community or something coming in from completely outside, something we’ve never heard, we evaluate it, we book what we like. Not everything that we like is a good fit. I also understand from working in the music business for so long, my personal taste is what it is, and it’s not always the best thing for an event to only book my personal favorites. It’s useful to ask about what people are responding to, what are people excited about, what are new trends in music that I might not know? There’s a kind of self-education that goes on every year.

Ultimately it comes down to booking performances that enhance the environment, and figuring out what works together aesthetically. There’s a certain look and feel to the Ball. When you get the right kind of performance, it feels seamless, or it might push the aesthetic in a direction a bit, without breaking it. And that’s the balance. I like things that push us, artistically, but I don’t want to have anyone saying, “I don’t have any idea why that guy is playing here. It’s completely out in left field.” There’s a lot of things that I love that don’t land on the Edwardian Ball stage.

SF SONIC: Is it getting harder to find artists locally with the shifting economics and the departure of the arts from San Francisco?

Katz: It’s not a loaded question, is it? (Laughs.) I would say fortunately no, creativity is like grass growing through cracks in the sidewalk. I feel like the artistic and creative spirit may not be given the same amount of space in the garden that I would hope, but will nonetheless prevail. I’d like to believe that the conditions that have allowed SF and the Bay Area to be a hub of so much creativity over the decades can’t be extinguished. It’s unfortunate that artists are being pushed to the margins – financially and physically – but we are still surrounded by creative genius. I often think that really good art comes from struggle; I believe there’s very little compelling art that’s created by people who are completely content. If there is, I’m not around it. I’m not going to say that this is a good thing, but the counterforce to artists being displaced is a galvanizing of people who want to support and organize and keep arts thriving.

SF SONIC: So do you have some new performers at the event this year?

Katz: Yes, one of the bands we booked for Friday night’s World’s Fare is a really high energy ensemble from Portland called Sepiatonic. One of the performers in that is Karolina Lux, who has been a participant in the Ball for several years. She is a phenomenal performer, great energy and power. Not a lot of people will get up and do a stunning burlesque performance and also play the trumpet like nobody’s business. She has this new group and we’re really happy to be bringing them down. Also, we are really delighted this year to be working with Zoe Jakes (from Beats Antique) who has quite a repertoire of her own. We are really honored that both nights of the Edwardian weekend in San Francisco she will be performing. On Friday night she’ll be doing her House of Tarot, a complete theatrical stage interactive and immersive tarot performance. It’s based on interactions with participants bringing archetypes to life. It will be a complete performance in our Museum of Wonders. Then she will be hitting our ballroom stage on Saturday night with another ensemble. We are really excited for that.

Kat Robichaud
Kat Robichaud

SF SONIC: You’ve been instrumental in maintaining a presence over the years for some performers, for example, Kat Robichaud. What makes some of these performers perennials?

Katz: The balance in booking and curating our performances is that everybody is always looking for what’s new, and one way to answer that is by booking a whole new lineup; another way to answer that is to bring back the incredibly talented people that you’ve worked with and ask them the question, “What would you like to do new this year.” So you could, in theory, have a complete repeat of a lineup and have a completely different performance experience. I believe in supporting artists in that way to give them a chance to express and grow as artists and performers and not just say, “Oh, we know what you do. Next.”

SF SONIC: Who and what are we going to see this year, other than Vau de Vire and Rosin Coven?

Katz: We are really excited for our featured Gorey show this year, which is “The Raging Tide” or “The Black Dolls Imbroglio,” which is, as some people might not know, Edward Gorey’s only choose-your-own-adventure tale. So we are going to be performing that in a novel manner. You mentioned Kat earlier – we are fortunate that she will be emceeing and hosting our ballroom stage on Saturday night. That is an exciting opportunity for us to see her in that role.

Jim SweeneyKingfish

SF SONIC: Is Jim Sweeney (Kingfish) coming back this year?

Katz: Jim will be hosting our Museum of Wonders stage on Saturday night. So that’s another way to keep things fresh – we move people around throughout the environments and see what new art emerges!

SF SONIC: You’ve mentioned that the World’s Faire will be premiering this year in LA. Maybe you can talk about the difference in the two nights for people who can’t make it out both nights.

Katz: Sure, plan ahead and come to both! There is much in common in that, in San Francisco, our Vendor Bazaar and our Museum of Wonders are mostly installed for the weekend, although the performances will vary. Where we really focus on a different experience is in our Grand Ballroom. So on Friday night, our World’s Faire presents just that – an exposition of arts, science, and technology. So we try to curate the ballroom floor into a fun, interactive, energetic, and possibly educational walkthrough, with different themes of art, science, history, and technology as viewed through the varying lenses of the ages. Sometimes we like to focus on something that is in fact true and historic; other times we like to play with that, and imagine and reimagine times. This year with our eyes up to the stars, I think we will have an opportunity for all of that.

Then on Saturday, we clear that out, the exposition goes away, and our ballroom floor is open for a ballroom dance, for a cup of tea from the tea garden, and to make enough room for everyone to come in and see the big performances of the night.

SF SONIC: Where does your crystal ball say the Edwardian Ball will be in five years.

Katz: Five years! Well, that’s the 23rd annual… I’ll be excited to hit that 20th mark in these years to come. I would be really happy to see in five years a greater participation by emerging artists, people that are perhaps new and expressing new work. I’m really interested in youth participation, in five years I would be thrilled to see more presence and contribution by the next wave of Edwardians that are going to be able to come up with and express and show us and teach us ideas about what it means to be in this creative, immersive world. I am really open to the use of emerging technology; I don’t ever want this to be an event where tech innovation gets in between people, but I do think there’s room for us to use all this amazing tech development to enhance our environments and also keep it in contrast with good, old-fashioned, person-to-person, skull-in-hand technology. Just keep it physical, keep it real, keep the experience embodied. I do think those are directions I could see us growing.

Rosin Coven
Rosin Coven

SF SONIC: Tell us about the performances in which we will see Justin Katz this year.

Katz: This continues to be a really, really fun event for me because it’s one where I hold the dual role of producer and performer. That used to be more common for me but most of the time now, I’m doing one or the other. Having the opportunity to jump up and get on stage, usually with the bass in my hands, I think is going to happen both nights this year. We are working on a fun little ensemble for Friday night, I will say it involves some classy old standards and perhaps someone dangling from a paper moon. It will be fun to play something that has that kind of sweet feel.

Then on Saturday night, Rosin Coven will be hitting the stage, as we have from year one, doing our show, and then joining Vau de Vire for a very unique presentation of Edward Gorey’s story. I say that because this year Rosin Coven started with “What if we …” and we are actually doing it. It’s a little vague, but I guarantee that we are going to have a different kind of performance experience than we have in the 17 year history of the Ball.

The Edwardian Ball San Francisco takes place at The Regency Ballroom on January 26th and 27th. You can buy tickets here.

The Edwardian Ball Los Angeles will be on February 9th and 10th, get tickets and info here.

Photos by Jeff Spirer.