This month will see the first ever vogue ball in Birmingham Gay Village as part of this year’s SHOUT Festival. Midlands Zone caught up with Vogue Ball choreographer Darren Pritchard, the House of Ghetto’s mother when it comes to all things vogue...
First danced by black drag queens in New York’s Harlem, vogue was part of a 1960s’ underground scene, its balls giving the QTIPOC+ (Queer, Transgender & Intersex People Of Colour) community a safe space to thrive and develop.
In 1990 came the documentary Paris Is Burning, which brought voguing and the ballroom scene into the mainstream. Since then, the scene has continued to be referenced in pop culture, whether in iconic Madonna hit Vogue or, more recently, on TV shows RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose.
Here in the UK, the vogue scene has grown and thrived in recent years, with popular houses opening up across the country. Now, in 2019, it’s Birmingham’s turn to welcome the scene, with its first ever house, House of Bab, and first vogue ball featuring as part of next month’s SHOUT Festival.
Manchester-based choreographer & dancer and House of Ghetto’s mother, Darren Pritchard, is part of the team bringing House of Bab to life. Dancing since the age of 16, graduating from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and with plenty of credits under his belt, Darren certainly knows a thing or two about dance.
Now with his own national touring dance company - Darren Pritchard Dance - and acting as a house mother to vogue houses in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, Darren is heading to Birmingham.
How did you get into voguing, Darren?
I’m a friend of Darren Suarez, who was an original voguer in Liverpool’s House of Banjee Realness in the 1980s. The ‘house’ and the whole vogue scene had kind of died out a little bit, so we had this conversation about how we could create a resurgence of interest.
This led to Darren setting up his own house - The House of Suarez - in 2006 and inviting me to be one of the original daughters. He initially trained me, and then we set about doing balls in Liverpool before branching out to Manchester and then, more recently, Newcastle and Leeds.
So Darren was the one responsible for introducing me to this very specific scene and culture.
Tell us about the vogue scene in 2019...
There’s been a massive resurgence in audience numbers. From our very first ball, numbers have just continued to grow.
We’re experiencing a time of great division within the LGBTIQA+ community and need to create a safe space for the alternative and mainstream to come together, which is what I believe we facilitate here. Gays, straights, blacks, whites should all come together under one banner, and the ball touches upon that.
The gay scene had become quite homogenised, trying to emulate a heteronormative society, whereas queer culture has never done that. It’s created its own face. Men can dress as women, and gender has always been played with. That’s not heteronormative; that’s very queer.
What we’ve done is make an unapologetically queer space which embraces everything - dance, fashion, music etc... all coming together under the banner of the vogue ball. We’re one of the few that manages to bridge gay and straight and get a good balance. It’s about us and our allies coming together. Fundamentally, though, people are coming into this space to celebrate a black queer gay culture.
Do you think mainstream media has helped with the resurgence?
Most definitely. We call it ‘the Pose effect’. When you get something that people can use as a point of reference, it’s great. The TV show is a brilliant point of reference because it’s so trans and non-binary, so we now get a lot of that community coming to our balls.
Where do you get your inspiration?
From anywhere and everywhere. It could be music, fashion, hair, artwork or just life in general. I did a show called Rent Party, which was political, and I recently did a Black Pride vogue ball, which was kind of a political statement. I don’t limit myself to where my inspiration comes from.
If we’re talking musically, then my influences can come from classical, R’n’B, hip-hop, grime. If it’s fashion, it can be anything from avant garde to street. A lot of my influences come from how I’m feeling at any one point in time.
How much work goes into planning a vogue ball?
A lot, particularly in terms of logistics. For the last vogue ball I did, and they’re all pretty much doing the same thing, there were numerous different categories. There are several categories with around six people in them. That’s around 30 to 35 people who you have to manage, and each one of them is going to have different needs and different wants. They’ll each have their own design, there’s music mixing, choreographing, the judges to organise.
Darren (Suarez) only does one ball a year. Generally each city does a ball a year. In London they do a couple, but we really like to make them events - that’s why they get packed.
Me and Adam (Carver) started talking last year about doing the ball. To get the partners on board, to get the money in place, to get the studios and to get it out there, it can take a lot of work. Also, because it’s developing and it’s brand new, we didn’t want to just open with any old ball. We do it grassroots and in the queer communities, and that takes time to evolve.
How do you think Birmingham will differ to up north?
I don’t know, as I don’t know the lay of the land yet, but I’m sure that I’ll get involved in the Birmingham scene and see what it can bring. We’re working to make sure the QTIPOC representation is there, but also making sure it’s 100% inclusive, which is totally unique in itself.
Have you ever had any criticism?
With any scene you get criticised, and we get criticised for not being as ‘authentic’ as other balls.
For me, as one of the people in the UK who’s been doing this for 10 years, every art form needs to manifest and unfold. If we’re providing a safe place where people want to be and feel accepted and loved, I’m not going to shut the door in their face just because of who they are. As long as the core and the essence of the vogue culture and vogue history are honoured and are known, and you know what community you’ve come into, it’s like, come on in.
Are there any secrets you can share with us about the SHOUT Vogue Ball?
No - but it’s going to be fierce! The thing about the ball is that you can’t explain what it is. You have to be there, in the room. We’re very fortunate that we have the most amazing host, Mr Rikki Beadle-Blair, who is the heart and soul of the ball. We’re so fortunate to have him because he’s a very busy man.
All the stars aligned and I was just so happy we got him because he brings everything to the event. It’s going to be extremely unique and unlike anything Birmingham has ever seen before. That, I can guarantee.
What are you looking forward to most at the ball?
For me, it’s got to be the new, undiscovered talent. It brings people out of the woodwork, and that’s what I’m really looking forward to. I’m also looking forward to how the queens in that community translate the vogue ball, because I want it to have a Birmingham feel.
I’ll also be bringing some of my other daughters from around the country to the ball, so hopefully we will have some of the kids from Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds. It’s nice that that’s happening as well because it’s bringing these kids to Birmingham. People go through Birmingham to get to London, but actually it’s a destination. You can actually stop there and have a good time.
You can catch Darren Pritchard and House of Bab at SHOUT’s Vogue Ball on Friday 15 November at Birmingham Hippodrome.
To book your tickets and see the rest of the SHOUT Festival programme, head to shoutfestival.co.uk
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