Darren Suarez
Darren Suarez

Darren Suarez Interview: “There’s a story of people’s journey and creativity”

As the House of Suarez prepare this years’ Vogue Ball, Andrew Nicholls talks to artistic director Darren Suarez about Liverpool’s secret voguing history. 

By Planet Slop
Sat 05 October, 2019

The Vogue Ball is returning to the Invisible Wind Factory on Saturday 19th October, and organisers House of Suarez are promising it will be the most fabulous yet.

The Ball invites the best vogue teams (known as ‘Houses’) to battle it out in a fight for ultimate dance supremacy, under this years’ theme; Atlantis.

A mainstay of queer culture for decades, voguing was is an amalgamation of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the famous model poses of Vogue magazine. It arose from Harlem ballrooms by African American and Latino drag queens of the early 1960s. Over the years, the dance evolved into the more intricate and acrobatic.

It became more well-known internationally thanks to the award winning 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning (currently available on Netflix) and, of course, Madonna’s hit Vogue from the same year. More recently, the FX series Pose has put a spotlight on these stories, telling them on a scale they have never been told before.

The night will be pulled together like a couture corset by the godmother of the Ball, the one and only Rikki Beadle Blair, the master of ceremonies helping the crowds to raise the roof. The judges this year include Strictly Come Dancing favourite Dr Ranj, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK ambassador and cast member The Vivienne, Vogue legend Avi’ance Urrutia and leading fashion designer and expert Gordon Webber.

Vogue Ball partygoers can then continue the fun until the early hours at Liverpool is Burning, The Vogue Ball official after party which will commence straight after the main event.

Ahead of last year’s event, we caught up with Darren Suarez, the artistic director of House of Suarez in which we touched upon topics ranging from Liverpool’s secret voguing history and the past, present and future of the House of Suarez. With the year’s Ball just around the corner, we thought it was the perfect time to re-visit.

Click here for our past editions of Queenstion Time with Alaska, Courtney, BeBe, Trixie, Naomi and MORE

Planet Slop: The theme of the ball is The Toy Box, how do you come up with theme for the Ball each year?

Darren Suarez: I have to identify with a theme which is readable to the audience and also to the participants. By doing that it opens up the spectrum of creativity from the groups. The reason I chose Toy Box is because it’s a theme that can run across different things from adult toys to kids’ toys. When I was doing my feelers around, a lot of people got excited about the theme as a concept, so I ran with it.

PS: Which groups are taking part this year?

DS: We’ve got some veteran houses like the House of Suarez obviously, the House of Cards and the House of LIPA. LIPA are actually assessed on this every year, so they invest a lot of time into it. We’ve also got a House from Eat Me and Preach entering for the first time. We have Viva Brazil who are often a favourite, the House of Fabrication which is a design company and their concept is crazy! It’s going to be a showstopper and they have a good chance of winning their category. We have the House of Corrupt who won overall best house last year. An old veteran called the House of Valentino, who entered in 2011 and now their entering for the first time since then. We have the House of Liberty who is a trans girl, the House of Merseybears entering for the first time. That should be good fun, I’ve been working with the group.

PS: How did the Vogue Ball turn into the Vogue Festival?

DS: I was actually discussing this yesterday, as I’m making a documentary on this so I’m filming the three days. The reason I wanted to consolidate it into a three day thing is because the House of Suarez does a rollercoaster of events throughout the year and what I felt it was lacking was a cross-over of audiences and an education of the events. So I’ve decided to bring together the Elements of Vogue under one night instead of twice a year and expand the size and scope of it, and incorporate a theme which we’ve never done before. By putting it under the umbrella of the ball, it can run with the Toy Box theme and also within that, we can slowly incorporate the shows that are kid friendly into the Elements of Vogue programme, so we can entice new audiences to go to the ball. On a Sunday, I usually have drinks with my dancers and a few of my artists, and we usually have it in Frederik’s. Sunday this year is a new thing, and what I’ve decided to do is put on an event, which is a pay on the door event, £5 which is nothing. We’ll have a DJ until midnight, a little screening of the House of Krip, going on about their journey, we’ll have two mini performances, one from the Elements of Vogue and from the Ball, just to capsulise the whole weekend.

PS: You mentioned there about education, how important it is for people to know the history of voguing and the culture surrounding it starting in New York?

DS: I think it’s great to come from that. If you don’t know where it comes from, there’s no growth or perspective on how you can branch that out and expand. I think it’s really important. Whenever I work with new groups, I educate them about the history, about certain avenues on what the culture is. Even though the Ball culture is quite passionate and strong, there’s a story of people’s journey through it and creativity – through not just vogue, through classical work, through costume. Whatever it is, all I do is give them a lose guideline to steer them into the right direction so they can participate.

PS: How much do you think people like Madonna helped bring voguing to the mainstream?

DS: I think people like Grace Jones, Malcolm McLaren, Madonna, what they did was ambitious and quite risky for that time. What they did was really put it on a platform. Some people will disagree with that and say that they robbed the idea, but without Madonna doing Vogue, I wouldn’t have had that influence and it wouldn’t have inspired me to do what I’m doing now. So it was the catalyst to my idea.

PS: Is Madonna what got you into it?

DS: No, the clubs got me into it. I started vogueing in 1988, and Madonna brought out Vogue in 1990.

PS: So you swooped in there first!

DS: Yeah, it was only a small group of people in Liverpool. We just used to go to the clubs, party and learn moves from each other. It got heated now and again! But that made me fall in love with it, the escapism, the whole fantasy thing was great.

PS: Is that how you learnt to vogue?

DS: Yeah, we learnt off each other. In 1990, Paris is Burning came out, which kind of revolutionised the whole culture and historical point of view from the Ball culture. Not so much the vogueing of it, more the lifestyle and the essence. It was quite important to see that at my age when I was young, as it made me realise how much positivity came from something so negative and that was quite inspirational really. The sequel, How Do I look?, was ten years after Paris Is Burning and it basically gives you an outlook of the ballroom scene ten years on. They’re similar, but more people, bigger costumes, more investments, and the popularity grew as well.

PS: How important do you think it is to have all-inclusive spaces, like the Vogue Ball, in Liverpool?

DS: I think they’re important anywhere. I wouldn’t call it an open space, I’d call it a safe space. I think it’s a safe space for everyone to get involved with and I think with the Ball itself, within the structure we give as a template, it’s open for a lot of people to get involved. So far our audience members have been so passionate, that the energy the participants get, the confidence building alone is fantastic. We’ve got a big demographic of people, we’ve had people in their 60’s walking, one was almost 70. Backstage is amazing, you see people helping each other and supporting each other. The community of it, for me, is very liberal as it is based on community, so they both go hand in hand.

PS: When did you start the House of Suarez?

DS: In 2006. I stopped a festival director and asked if I could put a piece into his festival. I wanted to fuse vogue with contemporary. It was something I wanted to explore as I had a handful of friends who are dancers such as Darren Pritchard and Stuart Bowden and we got into a studio for about a week and created a piece called Liverpool is Burning. We were there every day, and within a week we had created a three minute piece of work. It was more a lab case and we were exploring the movement, finding out how we could bastardise the technique of vogue and contemporary together and within that we did a performance in the Unity Theatre. We were expecting about 30 people to turn up, and we had about 180 people and there were 100 seats. That hype actually created a massive interest. We started to get little pockets of money and then we collaborated with Homotopia for the first Liverpool Grand Vogue Ball. For me, Liverpool is Burning was a closing of that three years of story. Being in the Adelphi Hotel for the Liverpool Grand Vogue Ball gave me the confidence to go independent. In 2010 I went to Cream and did the Justice Vogue Ball, and now we’re ten years on. It’s our tenth anniversary this year

PS: Wow! Happy anniversary! That’s quite a milestone, so how do you look to the future from here?

DS: I want to play around with the festival idea and see how I can expand on exploring on different programmes and maybe getting triple bills in theatres where I’m getting people to come together with their choreographic fusions using vogue or fashion as a template. What I really want to start doing as well is developing the festival, but I also want to get into the studio and create work just for myself – which is not for an audience – and playing around with my dancers a bit more and getting a sense of what I can push the boundaries. There are a couple of events I want to create, but I’m not going to mention them yet!

PS: Secrets under lock and key! So you would like the festival to become a regular thing?

DS: Of course. The Vogue Ball is annual and it makes sense that if we’re going to put anything together under the one umbrella we can aim to make that as big as possible.

PS: You also put on a ball in Manchester, do you plan to branch it out to other cities?

DS: The Vogue Ball is creating hybrid houses so far, for example the House of Krip are going their own thing. These hybrid houses are filtering out and doing their own work which is branching out the creativity and dialogue of the Ball culture has created. I am more interested now in building the Manchester Ball as our audiences there have grown rapidly, and I think they’ll soon be up to scratch with the Liverpool Ball. Then maybe looking at doing the House of Suarez festival in Manchester and cross over the audiences, that’s where I see it.

PS: Is it mostly professional dancers who take part?

DS: Not all. As we said before, it is a safe space. The two main ‘serious’ categories are solo and choreography. They’re the ones which take a lot of skill, obviously the costume category takes a lot of skill, but as far as the dance capability in the vogue style, they are judged within the disciplines and then their ability to then fuse that with dance theatre or commercial skills. With those ones, I would usually vet the houses to make sure they’re not going to be overwhelmed entering the ball when the caliber is pretty intense and high from all the houses involved. What we usually do is get people to walk in the ball under a different category first like lip sync, let them get a sense of what the runway is about, and then if they have any dance skills, they will then know the level they’re meant to be at.

PS: I have zero vogue ability! Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to learn or get involved?

DS: The House of Suarez puts on lessons at the weekend, they’re mixed level. My main dancers started in those classes, and now they teach for me and they’re choreographers and rehearsal directors for me. With that class, if you persist with the style and the technique of it, when you start to get used to that flavour, you can build from that. Elements of Vogue is really a nice platform for anyone who’s not done the vogue ball. It’s a smaller audience, about an hours’ length. We have that on this year on Friday.

PS: How long does it take you to plan the Balls? Are you looking at making them more regular?

DS: I only want an annual Ball! The reason I want that is that I don’t want to take for granted that the Houses will be able to invest all that time spent on costumes and everything. We’re already planning the Manchester Ball in regards to things like hiring theatre space. As soon as the Ball’s finished, we have things in place ready for the February Manchester Ball. After that, in March, I’m doing the photoshoot for the Liverpool Ball. I try to keep way ahead of the scheduling. If I was to throw another ball in there, it would get too messy. That’s one of the reasons I’ve moved Elements of Vogue and put it with the Vogue Ball!

PS: Is there a similar theme for the Manchester ball?

DS: It is the Toy Box theme. The Vogue Ball in Liverpool is a touring performance and what we do is we open the city of Manchester to get involved. So we have the touring show and it has its outreach opportunities within that for the city to get involved. About 60% of the Houses who have entered the Liverpool Ball will do the Manchester one, and we do have different groups who get involved in the groups. Houses such as the House of Ghetto are doing a lot of outreach to support new houses. We’re exploring Leeds and Newcastle as destinations.

The Vogue Ball 2019 – Atlantis takes place on Saturday 19th October 2019 at Invisible Wind Factory. Click here for tickets.  

Lead Image: House of Suarez Facebook page