And the category is

Voguing and classical ballet seem worlds apart, but Gareth was eager to bring them together. Anna Winter invites leaders from these very different worlds to share some Royal Ballet realness.

Monica Mason in conversation.

It’s a grey February morning and something unusual is afoot amid the gilt and crimson grandeur of the Royal Opera House’s Crush Room. In the bar area, clothes rails hang with striking black and scarlet creations by guest editor Gareth Pugh. Lint rollers lie among lighting equipment and scattered packets of tights. There’s an expectant energy in the air – soon enough, dancers will be sashaying down the plush carpet on vertiginous heels, throwing shapes quite unlike the kind you’d find in the building’s ballet studios.

The art of voguing has come to Covent Garden. But before the performance, a conversation. Former Royal Ballet artistic director Dame Monica Mason sits down with Kartel Brown, the father (or leader) of the House of Abloh, the group to which the dancers belong. Ballet’s establishment status seems worlds apart from voguing’s underground counterculture, and the same initially seems true of the two leaders. Mason, a warm, poised presence, is in a leather jacket and statement earrings, while the neatbearded Brown, in tracksuit bottoms, describes himself as a ‘working class person with a neck tattoo.’ Nevertheless, they have more in common than expected…

First of all, what is voguing? One thing’s for certain: it wasn’t invented by Madonna. Brown explains that ‘voguing dates back to the 1960s in Harlem, New York. It’s a culture spearheaded by queer people of colour, particularly black and Latino LGBTQ people. It’s a form of expression in dance, an act of resistance, playing with gender.’

Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh.

Voguing takes its name from the fashion magazine, with movement based on model poses. Bronze, a member of the House of Abloh, mentions that ‘its other influences are martial arts and Egyptian hieroglyphs, playing with lines and angles. It’s about pushing the body to the extreme and reaching for something outside yourself.’ For him it’s about a lot more than poise and ‘Voguing gave me a reason to be sober, a way of healing from depression. It was like knocking down the foundations of a rusty dilapidated house – building something anew and finding myself.’

Voguing emerged from ‘ballroom’ culture, which is nothing to do with the Strictly sort of ballroom – so where does the name come from? asks Mason. ‘We call the events “balls”, because they used to take place in ballrooms in Harlem,’ explains Brown. Drag balls involving crossdressing competitions had existed since the 1920s but ‘the beauty pageants were dominated by white queens. Queer people of colour felt like they needed their own space.’

At balls, participants ‘walk’ or compete in different categories that play with or subvert gender and social classes. Contestants might be judged on their voguing skills, costumes and attitude and they often belong to ‘houses’ – a chosen family led by a ‘mother’ or ‘father’, typically an older member of the community. Within this family, many will have experienced ‘bullying, homelessness, being rejected by their parents for being queer or trans. Ballroom is a safe space, a space of expression, celebrating who we are as a community and the struggles we’ve overcome and continue to fight.’ During the ball itself, a fight for glory ensues as houses vie for trophies. ‘It’s a competition we take very seriously,’ says Brown.

Where do today’s balls take place? ‘Community centres, church halls, basement clubs,’ says Brown. He gestures to the surroundings: ‘We don’t have all this fanciness, it’s a huge contrast.’

The idea of a company home strikes a chord with Mason, who remembers constantly packing up belongings and make-up boxes backstage as a dancer. ‘Before 2000, the Royal Ballet hadn’t had a home here. We used to use the studios and part of the school. So we lived our lives backwards and forwards on the Piccadilly line, coming here only for performances. When we first came into this house with custom-made dressing rooms and rehearsal studios, it changed the whole feeling and morale.’

Brown picks up on a parallel with ballroom. ‘So in a sense you are almost like what we’d call a house. We travel together, we compete together, we depend on each other. Did you see the Royal Ballet as a family?’ he wonders.

‘We always talk about the Royal Ballet as a family,’ replies Mason. ‘That’s one of the most extraordinary things about it. You join when you’re very young, as a teenager. But many dancers have already been in the ballet school. It’s shared experiences, shared struggles, shared training. You embark on a life that is entirely dependent on the people around you. You feed off their energy.’

The conversation covers the art of making entrances (‘very lively, very noisy’ in ballroom), wardrobe malfunctions and salty language (used by ballet dancers and voguers alike), but Mason also wants to know how much time Brown and his house can spend rehearsing.

‘Not a lot, honestly,’ says Brown. ‘We have young people who are potentially homeless and use all their money just to survive so they don’t have disposable income to train. When we do get a space we may spend an hour or two, all of us chipping in money. We try and make it fun and it’s probably not as disciplined as you would be. But we spend 15 minutes drilling someone on their category and moves.’

There’s a place for everyone, he explains. ‘Even if you’re not a dancer, there are other categories. My category is called “realness”. It’s about playing with stereotypes and being able to blend in as a straight person. Often people will say they want to walk Vogue Femme, which is very high energy. It’s up to us, the house fathers, to say “that’s not for you but we think you’d be great being a runway diva, wearing fabulous clothes.” This is why I love ballroom. Even if you’re not technically able and your posture isn’t great, there’s a space for you. I don’t know if ballet is that inclusive?’

What stops ballet from being all-inclusive is ‘body shape,’ says Mason. ‘As a ballet dancer you need certain equipment. It’s like having a finely-tuned instrument.’ She discusses the need for a certain foot shape for pointework (‘that’s me out of the race,’ Brown chuckles) and natural flexibility. ‘You’d have to call ballet a category. Just as you choose the people and the categories that suit them, that’s exactly what we do.’

Bronze Abloh, Nicky Balenciaga, Kartel Brown and Sakeema 007.

Then there’s another big question, the issue of race. ‘Why haven’t we seen a black trans person on stage at the opera house?’ asks Brown. Mason replies that ‘things move slowly. You have to educate people.’ From growing up in South Africa under apartheid to arriving in London during the Windrush years, she’s aware that ‘you’ve got to fight and push’ for political and societal change. She recalls how, in the 1960s, the corps de ballet would put white body makeup on for Swan Lake that ‘would turn a very strange colour under the lights’ if applied to anyone with non-Caucasian skin. ‘So we got rid of white body makeup. We don’t say all the swans have to be the same colour.’

While the conversation flows, Gareth Pugh, his husband and creative partner Carson McColl and their team are busy preparing the Crush Room’s bold temporary makeover: they’ll film as the dancers dramatically strut and slink, catwalk-style, their high-sass movement punctuated by precipitous drops to the floor.
As the dancers prepare to give their all, the emotional tribulations of their dance families are something that both leaders sense keenly. ‘There are not many secrets when you have a group of people who work and perform together,’ says Mason. As director, ‘you become very involved with all those issues. You realise there are very few of us who just sail through life.’ Ballet dancers might be able to hide their issues behind the everyday ‘discipline of doing class then rehearsals, keeping a lid on it. But ultimately, you’ve got to face those facts. Some young people are in denial of being gay; then they find other people in the dressing room with similar issues.’

She reflects that ‘we need a family, wherever or however that family is constituted. Your support system.’ Though she didn’t have children, as the Royal’s director, ‘I ended up having a hundred children. They were wonderful, all so different. As director, I really couldn’t have favourites. You have to give them all the opportunities to maximise their gifts, to find their best way.’

For Brown leadership is akin to parenthood: ‘It doesn’t come with a manual!’ Despite all difficulties, he’s adamant that ‘we’re here to do more than just dance: to break down barriers and challenge the status quo around gender, sexuality and racism.’ He’s unafraid of having ‘tough conversations’ even within his own community.

Kartel Brown and Monica Mason.

Mason agrees with his thoughts on leadership. ‘You have to present very strong even when underneath you might feel like a jelly. The responsibility is enormous and you can’t please everybody all the time. It’s something you don’t necessarily know you can do until you find yourself doing it.’

Any successful leader must carefully balance innovation with tradition. When it comes to ‘breaking the mould of classical ballet’ Mason considers that while ‘exploring new territory is just so exciting,’ the director’s job is about ‘trying to measure that level of innovation: what is appropriate for us and do we want to lead the way? So often you’re taking a gamble.’

In ballroom, ‘people are always innovating, it relies on the next generation to come in with a fresh set of ideas,’ says Brown. Its current mainstream popularity – thanks to the success of TV shows RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose – is ‘contentious. Ballroom was this underground subculture and every 10 years or so it has a flash of exposure and people capitalise on it.’ It frustrates him that ‘people take the entertaining bits, but not the struggle and the politics.’

While the focus of previous decades was on subverting male and female stereotypes through ballroom, ‘now we have trans people in the community saying we don’t like these binary gender labels.’ He stresses that ‘with every generation comes a struggle. Until everybody has the same rights, then nothing has been done. There’s always going to be a fight in ballroom because we’re still under attack as a community. History has a habit of repeating itself. In the 1980s the biggest global crisis to the LGBTQ community was AIDS. Now it’s the epidemic of violence against trans women. So we’ve got to go out there and fight.’ Nevertheless, he smiles, ‘we can still have fun while we’re fighting and do it looking good.’

This article appeared in Dance Gazette, Issue 2, June 2020.