An art. A sport. A way of life. The 1980’s black queer New York dancing subculture has crossed continental boundaries and entered the U.K, and Darren Suarez is leading the charge.
An arresting presentation of the body, as limbs fly, mouths pout, and joints jive, voguing is an ultra-stylised, modern house dance. Sashaying out of the 60s Harlem ballroom scene, voguing is an agile art form that has since blazed out of the underground and into the plasticity of the mainstream; shout out to Madonna there. The scene sequined western fashion trends and powdered pop culture with its well-manicured hands as vogue queens promenaded the grit of New York, decked in pearls and furs.
The ballrooms forged a safe space for queer folk of colour, and its historicity has fucntioned as a method of safety for queer people. Spreading to New Zealand and even Russia, the freedom of voguing is what Darren Suarez, Artistic Director of the House of Suarez, hopes to develop. Holding the annual Vogue Ball in Liverpool, Suarez is a trailblazer in contemporary voguing. We sat down with the man himself and spoke all about the upcoming Vogue Ball 2017: Se7en Deadly Sins.
How did you land in vogue?
I started voguing in 1988. Coming out at an early age and seeing this dance style happen in the gay clubs of Liverpool. I decided to get to know the people who were voguing. Hanging with them, and taking on board the dance style of it.
How would you describe the style of vogue?
Vogue is a dance form for free expression and it focuses on picture-perfect poses that are put to house music. Over time the popularity of the style branched and opened up for different disciplines to be added giving the variety we have today; such as old way, new way, fem, hand performance and face.
As the 9th year of the ball, just why the theme ‘Se7en Deadly Sins’?
Each year I set a different theme. The theme has to be digestible for all the local and international dancers that get involved in it so they can create and work within the theme. Some have experience in vogue, some in fashion, and some just want to participate for the first time. I have to pick a category that everyone can get. Se7en Deadly Sins involved different emotions as the seven deadly sins represent something different within each person.
Within that, I will choreograph an opening piece each year that reflects all the categories involved in the ball so the audience receives a good framework of what they’re about to be exposed to on the runway.
What have been your favourite themes in the past 9 years?
The Gods and Monsters Ball, and the Sugar Ball. For the latter, people’s creativity went crazy. I was quite dark with it; I created a piece that told the story of the child catcher being born on stage and as she’s born, she goes around and kills Willy Wonka and the Milky Bar Kid. It’s entertainment, but it’s twisted. This year’s opening is pretty sinister too.
Do you often use dance and the body as a medium to tell stories?
I’ve been dancing for more than 25 years, from professional theatre to commercial work. I’ve taught at LIPA and everywhere I’ve worked I’ve choreographed a narrative.
What’s the creative process like for ball?
The team is built upon 4 or 5 people. I have my fundraiser who taps into money that we can grasp so we can extend and think about bigger productions each year. I’ll take that to my music producer and say “This is where my story is, I want to create a soundscape for it.” We start generating material, and half-way through the process, I’ll bring the fashion designer in who will observe the movements and see if it’s inhibited or restricted by costume. Moving forward to the agreement of direction. If we lose track, we revamp from the beginning.
So, the event will see the Wind Factory venue transformed into a ball space reminiscent of the 80s New York ball scene. How important is it for queer culture to reference historical moments like the 80s New York Ball scene?
Personally, coming out on the 80s gay scene, I do think it is important we are reminded of the struggle back then. We find it normal to co-exist with a society that back then it was against the law to be gay. Any reflection will help us move forward. Archive is integral for the growth of younger queer generations. For the Vogue Ball, it was Jennie Livingston’s documentary, ‘Paris Is Burning’, that inspired me to want to do my own vogue ball. Being young back in 1990, I wasn’t going to go New York to see a ball.
I guess Easy Jet wasn’t really that big back then…
I don’t think it was, actually! Saying that, vogue gave me the confidence to pursue a dance career. When voguing fell out of style around 1991, I was ready to take the next stop of modelling and commercial dancing. I moved to London and commercially worked on television for 5 years. I decided I wanted to train classically, so I went to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds and did my BA there. After graduation, I took two years to work with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra as a choreographer and soloist. I thought “Could I start auditioning for other companies, or start my own?” I wanted my company to be a reflection of my journey of voguing into commercial and then classical dance. In 2006, I founded the House of Suarez, fusing vogue with classical dance. All that is archived and made visible. You can go back in time to go forward even more.
The ballroom scene alone in America is completely different from my ball. Mine is a celebration of another culture, and I make it accessible for all. Anyone who understands the history of the ball and that you take the time to fuse and show knowledge of styles of vogue is welcome.
It’s important to bring back the authenticity of the Vogue House.
To create something new, you have to understand something old. To understand the format of what the vogue scene was – and still is on many occasions – gave me the knowledge to turn it upside down.
Some of the new kids in the London ballroom scene are too logistically ‘We Are The 80s’. When it’s like, you’re not. We have moved forward, and you should use the 80s and the 70s to reflect on how you can progress and develop as an individual. That’s what vogue is about; the freedom of self-expression. And the ballroom scene was created in response to people who wanted to take it to the next level of discipline. But primarily, it’s a safe house for people to be who they want to be to an accessible audience who want to share the love.
As the Artistic Director, how are you re-developing the vogue ball?
I’ve opened the gates for those who want to be involved to be involved. The way the vogue ball is formatted there is two serious categories which are solo and choreography. There’s also fantasy that’s for those who want to be seen walking in this massive installation. We’ve introduced lip-sync to keep it current and have more accessibility to be involved on different levels. It’s the accessibility that makes it unique. I have classes for folks who want to further their discipline, and I promote and advocate my students to found their own balls. To harness and nurture the creativity of the youth. From that, we have the Manchester Ball which is a sell-out event, and we’re looking at Leeds or Blackpool for our third city.
Since the 80s, how has Vogue dancing and ball culture changed over the years?
It depends on where we’re talking in the world. In New York, it’s in a static position of what it’s all about; the categories. You find places around Europe and Russia which are bouncing forward with the styles and there are more females participating which is amazing to see. As far as the U.K is concerned, the House of Suarez is one of the first houses to sew the seeds back in the country. Such as bringing back the awareness of what vogue balling is.
Now that vogue has become commercialised by pop singers such as Rihanna and Beyoncé, there are more public figures than ever taping into vogue for its ferocity and severity of skill. It’s become current, so London has re-started its ballroom scene. Some have a Kiki scene, which is one arm of the ballroom culture concerned with the vogue-femme style. So, if you have a kiki ball, it’s usually just the femme style as opposed to new way/old way. Whereas for Liverpool I’ve kept it connected to the high-art energy. The ball culture that I’ve created is stemming further afield ideas that are not always about vogue. It’s more about black photographic, queer visualisation, or it is futurity. People are now getting more creative and don’t feel as restrained. I’m quite excited about this new plateau of houses and groups are doing their independent work are going to evolve the ballroom.
Darren Suarez will be performing at the Vogue Ball 2017: Se7en Deadly Sins @ Liverpool’s Invisible Wind Factory, 8pm, on Saturday 21st October 2017.