The Vogue Ball 2020: Staying Fabulous In Tier Three
The only major event to go ahead during the pandemic, Shaun Ponsonby talks to Darren Suarez and Joss A La Porter about the challenges and rewards of the Vogue Ball 2020.
Exactly 12 months ago, Planet Slop stood inside a packed Invisible Wind Factory and gazed in awe as the art and spirit of the House of Suarez Vogue Ball filled the giant space.
Regular host Rikki Beadle-Blair lip synched and stripped to Diana Ross’ Muscles. RuPaul’s Drag Race UK winner The Vivienne dropped one liners from the judging panel. The multiple Houses taking part proved that the scale that the Vogue Ball could reach was immeasurable. It is one of our favourite events, and it is always exciting to speculate on how they can top themselves year on year.
Then, Coronavirus hit.
Every major event in the city was forced to cancel; first a smattering of gigs and club nights, then Threshold, then Sound City, then Africa Oye, then Pride, then LIMF – and it continued. Understandably and necessarily so, there was absolutely no cultural nourishment that wasn’t on your laptop. To that end, it was assumed that the Vogue Ball would also be forced to cancel.
Yet, somehow, the Vogue Ball was able to happen in 2020; completely legal even in Tier Three, providing hope that it may be possible for the arts to survive in the age of Covid. Against all the odds, they triumphed.
We spoke to the Ball’s founder, Darren Suarez, almost a week after it takes place. He collapses into a chair with mock exasperation; “Never again!”
Suarez created the House of Suarez in 2006, with the intention of fusing vogue with contemporary dance. With a handful of friends, he created a piece called Liverpool Is Burning for a festival at the Unity Theatre. An expected audience of 30 grew to 180 – almost twice the venue’s capacity – which predictably generated interest. The first House of Suarez Vogue Ball took place in 2008, and the event has grown in stature with each passing year, extending to a second event in Manchester, and now playing to over 1,000 people.
This year was very different. The mock exasperation when he first sat down is understandable. Like everything else in 2020, the Vogue Ball was in doubt. When it did go ahead, he was in uncharted territory.
“When it came to the first lockdown I had a mini-meltdown for the first week,” he says. “Then I got my head around what it was, and I enjoyed it. I was able to reflect, see what I did and didn’t want to do. But one thing that did really come through was that I did want to do the Ball. It’s a way of life for me. I’ve been doing it since 2008. It was the only bite of normality that I could have a grip on.”
Of course, it was a strange bite of normality. This year’s theme was the Carnevil Ball, a spectacle steeped in twisted circus imagery that was an ideal fit for life in a pandemic. After the brightness of the previous Ball of Atlantis, the Carnevil Ball forced us to confront our now darker headspace.
Suarez’s traditional opening piece appeared to be a commentary on the world we are currently living in. A deranged clown enters, introducing us to a variety of characters who had been mutated into a twisted version of themselves. With no group choreography, the isolation of each of the performances highlighted our own isolation through lockdown. Not to cheat us out of striking exhibition, Suarez refers to it as the most “invested” of all of his pieces, ending with aerialists suspended from hoops above giving those in the balcony an immersive experience. It was clear immediately that Covid-19 wasn’t going to stop the Vogue Ball from doing what the Vogue Ball does, safely and legally.
“Performing arts wise, there wasn’t much difference,” Suarez explains.” I was working with Culture Liverpool. I asked them ‘Can I still do the Ball? I’m a bit concerned’. They said ‘Honestly, Darren, we’ve sent you the documents. You’re absolutely fine. The only thing that’s changed is it’s broadened the restrictions [for the audience], but the arts stay the same.’”
Planning for the Ball typically starts early in the year. In the months following the Liverpool show, the production moves to Manchester, by which point the next Liverpool Ball is already in the planning stages. The theme is decided, the images are created, and the sponsors are contacted. As the Ball has expanded, so have the venues. For the last few years, it has been housed in the Invisible Wind Factory.
It was obviously not going to be an easy task to stage the Ball in the middle of a pandemic, but determination kicked in. The first obstacle was finding a venue willing to take the chance.
“I reached out to different venues, Invisible Wind Factory being one, saying ‘It’s my priority to go ahead with the Ball, where is your headspace at?’” Suarez explains. “We had one confirmed, then they pulled out – that was a big space. Then Invisible Wind Factory were umming and ahing, and then we just didn’t hear from them. What I was looking at was if we’re doing a Carnevil Ball and circus, then the Black-E has that rig straight away. And because we were downsizing, I wasn’t thinking ticket revenue. All I was thinking about was making the event happen. From 1,100 people to around 100 people, you can’t really think ‘How is this going to pan out or balance?’ You have to scrap that context and look at the overheads of making an event happen and why you want to make it happen.”
With the Black-E enthusiastic about being involved, the next hurdle was sponsorship. The costumes, props and staging of the Vogue Ball are not cheap. But understandably, when Suarez first reached out to the usual sponsors, they all backed out. More than most of Europe, the United Kingdom was suffering (and continues to suffer) from a lack of leadership and dangerously unclear messaging about the pandemic from the government. Like the rest of us, they didn’t know what was going on, and investing in an event like the Vogue Ball could have been somewhat fallacious on the surface.
Seemingly, the plan was to try to forge ahead anyway – which would have resulted in a loss for nearly all involved. But, perhaps inevitably, we all began getting used to living this way, and opinions from the backers changed. As Suarez explains; “As we went into the new norm, some sponsors were like ‘Are you still doing the Ball? We’d like to get involved’. The Arts Council said they weren’t going to release portals until early 2021, but then decided to invest in the arts. So we tapped into a little bit of money from them as well.”
By now, Suarez was a man on a mission. Not knowing how long the pandemic could potentially last has been devastating for numerous industries and there is barely a freelancer in the country who hasn’t suffered financially. Artists have been positioned in an unfortunate situation in that particular crossfire, and many have lost not just incomes, but basic outlets for their creativity.
This became the driving force of the Carnevil Ball. Not just to prove that we can still enjoy the arts, but that the artists themselves can still express themselves for an audience. The Houses could feel some semblance of normalcy.
Because of the need to scale down, those Houses would be fewer in numbers than the Ball is accustomed to. On top of his own House of Suarez, Darren also contacted the Houses of Korrupt, Handsome, LIPA, Blaque and La Porta.
Joss A. La Porta began his began his professional training while living in the south of France, before moving to Liverpool to study at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. After performing with the House of Suarez for a number of years, he formed his own vogue house and dance company, the House of La Porta. As is customary with Vogue Houses, they function not only as a collective of performers and artists, but as a family away from home.
La Porta has been involved with the Vogue Ball long enough to have intimate knowledge of the preparation required. “Planning our concepts for the categories is our first step in preparing for the Balls,” he says. “Group brainstorming and idea sharing leads to our concepts coming to life. From these, meetings with our costume designer in France take place. At the same time, our music is chosen and edited to reflect the theme and storyline of our pieces. Then the final stage is booking rehearsal studio times, choreographing and creating our pieces for the different categories. We are a collective so try to draw from everyone’s strengths.
“This year, we all had to be more flexible with rehearsal times, studios, numbers in the House, and concepts as these could have to change at any time due to the changing Covid-19 restrictions. We had last minute drop outs due to sickness, people had to step in as replacements, and costumes had to be altered. Rehearsals obviously had to be socially distanced and hence the choreography had to be likewise. This was challenging when given a two meter wide runway to perform on, so overcoming this meant time developing new ways to create formations and pathways in the group numbers. We had also planned a big costume reveal on stage that would require at least three people, but the costume had been created before the socially distancing rule was put in place. We had to completely rework this so that the dancer in the costume could perform the change by herself, and we managed to get it to work after hours of trial and error!”
Like the House of La Porta, the other Houses were Vogue Ball regulars who were selected, as Suraez put it, “off reputation, and also their respect for me and the event. Because we’re going to need people who understand the event and know that it is going to be very different, but they’re open to adapting to that.”
He chose wisely. Perhaps the isolation of the past few months had an effect, but the intensity of many of the performances surpassed even the Vogue Ball’s golden standard. There may have been less props and costume changes, but it was barely noticeable on account of the sheer flaming vigour on stage.
When lockdown was eased, it looked like full speed ahead. But the unpredictability of life in 2020 proved that wouldn’t be so simple. As the summer drew to a close, the government introduced the Tier system. Liverpool, with one of the highest infection rates in the country, was immediately placed into the strictest Tier Three. Wanting to ensure that the hard work of the artists’ would not go to waste, Suarez became obsessed with the government’s handling of the crisis.
“I was watching everything on TV,” he confesses. “Like, everything. I was watching government rules when it comes to performing arts, trying to paper chase the information that would benefit what we were doing. My psyche was being really reluctant to post the stuff on Facebook because I really didn’t understand how the world was thinking about the divide.”
Contingencies were put in place. Interviews were filmed via Zoom in case the public event had to be pulled, in which case the performers would be filmed in an empty Black-E and a documentary would be released. At the very least, nobody’s hard work would go to waste; the performances would be seen, and if the show was able to go on, there was an added bonus of documentation of this strangest of junctures in Vogue Ball history.
But it was also important to forge ahead as if the public show would be staged, no matter what conflicting information we were receiving. So, naturally, the most important aspect to all of the planning was the safety of everybody in the building. It was a tricky tightrope to walk. The Vogue Ball, by its very nature, is traditionally a fairly unrestrained event. The audience is used to screaming, standing, hollering, singing, dancing – none of which would be permitted in Tier Three.
“I’m not there to control people,” Suarez explains. “But what I’m not going to take responsibility for them either. So I said to the artists ‘You understand we’ve got rules in place, if you break those rules, then this is the disclaimer that says we can ask you to leave. If you get a fine, it’s down to you to take responsibility. It’s not on the company or the venue.’ And then we had a disclaimer on the door, which was for people from the same household or support bubble. They were the only two disclaimers that we had. What we did find was that a lot of tables of six were like ‘Can we split that into two separate tables’, we had a few refunds and one table didn’t turn up.”
As much as the onus was on us to behave ourselves, it struck us entering the building as audience members that a colossal effort went into ensuring our safety. There was the now customary QR Code for the NHS app. Entry and exit to the building was staggered so as to avoid any bottlenecking issues. Our temperature was taken with a thermal scanner. Everybody’s seat was strictly allocated. We were shown to our seats by a masked member of staff. The spacing of the chairs was immaculate. Security was placed around the venue in case anyone got too into the groove and got carried away.
The latter point proved to be less of an issue as the Black-E had taken alcohol out of the mix. The only beverages available were soft drinks and non-alcoholic beers and ciders. The latter was actually ingenious. The placebo effect of tasting strawberry and lime cider without the alcoholic effects made the whole night not feel too different from the Vogue Ball we all know and love.
Central to keeping order was regular host Rikki Beadle-Blair. He has been the Vogue Ball’s mascot in residence since the very beginning, but this was a different beast. He would usually work the crowd into a frenzy of fabulousness – pulling people up to dance with him and acting as all-round ringmaster of this alluring circus. He possibly had the most difficult line to walk on stage; keeping us engaged without creating too much hysteria. Calming us down when necessary without losing his command (nothing turns an audience against you like telling them they’re misbehaving like an uptight supply teacher).
He was fascinating to watch. If he had any apprehension for how he was going to achieve this, he didn’t show it. He sashayed onto the stage with his usual confidence, immediately putting what could have been a tense evening at ease, and cracking jokes about how this was the “dry ball”.
Beadle-Blair ensured that the differences we felt on stage were subtle. At times, it was easy to forget that we were watching everything unfold under unusual circumstances.
For example, with travel restrictions in place, the judges had to be selected locally. On the surface, they were perhaps not as well-known as last year’s judges The Vivienne and Dr. Ranj Singh, but they were no less glamorous or esteemed.
First up was local luminary Jennifer John. It is doubtful that there is anyone within the arts community who is not at least aware of her. The co-founder of the award winning Sense of Sound, she was involved in the very first Vogue Ball in 2008, singing acapella as Suarez freestyled next to her. The other judge was Carl Parris, a West End legend whose credits include the original production of Cats and, incredibly, the 1980 blockbuster Superman II.
Suarez told us that one thing he wanted from the judges was an abundance of love, and he certainly chose the right people for that. In truth, the Vogue Ball is always about love, self-expression and freedom. But there was an aura around the judges this year that intensified this with an added dose of nourishment. At one point, John in particular launched into an improvised monologue about the importance of unity and support within the queer community. Though a common message, it felt particularly potent in an era when many of us have felt more alone than ever.
At the Vogue Ball, this feeling extends backstage. Yes, it is a competition, but in the spirit from the culture from which it was derived, that competition is friendly.
“There was a sense of camaraderie and unity between Houses,” explains Joss A. La Porta. “Backstage, every House had its own workstation, which worked quite nicely as we were able to have our own space and weren’t worried about getting in other Houses ways or vice versa. We were able to prep, set out costumes, and perform quick changes at ease within our own personal space. Houses, for the most part, were all encouraging and supportive of each other, and this made the experience so much nicer.”
The key to survival is the ability to adapt – and when you do adapt, it has to be unique and say something about yourself. It was a joy to watch each of the Houses utilise the restrictions in their own way. Whether that was the House of Blaque appearing individually on stage, or an astonishing performance from the House of Korrupt during the choreography category where each of the House’s members somehow managed to keep their distance on a smaller than usual runway.
The need for distance was also built into the show on a deeper level, managing to use these moments to infuse the Ball with even more historical context.
Following the solo category, Beadle-Blair announced that a battle was to take place to decide the winner. Two chairs appeared on stage as the finalists were announced. In line with armchair voguing – an old form that exists within the culture – the two finalists faced off in a duel. A part of their body had to be touching the chairs at all times. If this did not happen, they were immediately disqualified and their opponent declared the winner.
In between the irresistible and intoxicating imagery on stage, we spied Suarez around the room multiple times, surveying the entire room. He himself admits that, between the anxiety of the event being shut down, the safety of those in attendance and, indeed, his reputation being at stake, he forgot to enjoy the Ball.
But, he needn’t have worried. Against all of the odds, he proved that it can be done. Everybody, from the performers, to the Black-E’s staff, to the audience pulled together to ensure it was a success. That one of the sponsors in attendance was Merseyside Police speaks volumes, and their response after the event complimented the organisation’s professionalism in pulling the show off in Tier Three. And financially, the Carnevil Ball broke even. For what was effectively an experimental arts event in an unknowable environment, this especially is a major and encouraging win for the arts in general.
For artists and promoters looking to stage major events in the age of Covid, Suarez has some sage advice. “You need to know the facts and try not to stress out as much as I did,” he says. “Make sure you’ve got a strong team and do it for the right reasons. Sometimes people will do it as ‘I want to prove a point’. Well, what is the point you want to prove? You’ve got people’s welfare in your hands. The government restrictions are there, so we adhered to all of them. All the Houses are healthy, nobody has come down with anything. Nobody has shown any symptoms. None of the audience registered any symptoms on the NHS app. They stayed seated, they used masks when they left their chairs for the bathroom. The risk was minimum. And once you eliminate the risk, you can pretty much do whatever you want in that framework.”
But more so than the careful defiance against the virus, it’s the effect that the Carnevil Ball has had on the people involved that truly matters.
For starters, having proven that it can be done, Manchester’s Contact Theatre have already been in touch to stage the Ball on the other side M62, and this seems likely to go ahead in early 2021.
Encouraged by the success of the Vogue Ball, The Black-E have now begun planning their own events within Tier Three restrictions.
Even our own photographers were excited to be at an event – after months of their camera equipment gathering dust in a cupboard – let alone one as colourful and stimulating as this.
Crucially, it re-animated the artists taking part. Joss A. La Porter told us that “the Carnevil Ball really gave me and my House a sense of purpose and something to work towards. It really helped lift us up, and for some of us, helped us find our passion for the arts again after feeling so low. Being able to perform in front of a real life audience despite everything going on, was not only liberating, but it felt like we were taking the power back after feeling so powerless for so long.”
Suarez himself appears more humble about this success than would be allowed. Does he let himself think about what a monumental moment this could be for the arts in the strictest of restrictions?
“Every now and then I think about it, but I’m still in the flux of being tired, and then being OK, then tired again.
“If we’re still here in a year’s time, I’d do it again, but I’ll be a bit of a pro then. The proof is in the pudding. It can be done. And I’m really proud that it came from Liverpool first. We did it here. Obviously we were the first to go into Tier Three, but I think it is a statement that Liverpool are respectful, professional and can deliver. And will continue to.”
Pictures by Vicky Pea and Gary Dougherty