A crowd packed into the 341 seats of the Walker Cinema got for what was for many their first taste of a small but vibrant culture last night. In a nod toward the Walker Art Center’s ongoing Cindy Sherman exhibition, “Pick Your Persona: A Cindy Sherman Ball” served as an energetic, engaging introduction to “ball” culture for the uninitiated. The brainchild of Susy Bielak, Walker associate director of education, and local fashion designer and curator Emma Berg, the event brought local ball culture to the relatively mainstream setting of the Walker via the House of Legion, one of two local ball “houses.”
Some background: balls are multi-category competitions that originated in New York’s LGBT scene in the ‘80s, as famously documented in the 1990 film Paris Is Burning. It came into the mainstream thanks to Madonna, whose iconic “Vogue” video featured voguing, a highly stylized form of modern dance and one of the hallmarks of ballroom culture. “Houses” are individual families, or chapters, within the ballroom scene.
Mother Paris Legion — known by day as Vision Model Management booker/stylist Xavier Rucker — served as host for the night. Dressed in head-to-toe fashions by Emma Berg (who dressed male members of the House in her women’s wear), Rucker related ballroom culture to Sherman’s transformative photographs, stating how both confront and question society’s ideas of identity. Ballroom culture "is an art form," he concluded.
After offering a brief explanation of the category at hand (“Realness with a Twist,” “Butch Queen,” “Face”), members of the House would kick off the competition by demonstrating their specialties. In the beginning, Rucker had to practically plead with the audience to participate. It seemed that, momentarily, Minnesotans’ tendency to appear humble and avoid showing off was in danger of killing the vibe of the night.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the crowd to warm up and get into the action. Rucker and his House managed the impossible: successfully engaging a timid Minnesota crowd. What ensued was a charming mix of those who clearly had participated in a ball before — or had at least done their homework — and newbies who made their best, if misguided, efforts to work the runway and meet the requirements of the categories. In an adorably goofy moment, one man took to the runway for “Butch Stud,” a category intended for women in male drag. Later, two women who clearly had never vogued in their life kicked off their heels and faced off. But the biggest cheers of the night came for the members of the House of Legion, who duckwalked, spin-and-dipped and vogued as if they were competing for top honors at a major ball.
For those who left hooked, there is a chance to experience more ball culture soon — the Vogue Fantasy Ball, which Rucker called one of the biggest ball competitions of the year, takes place at the Gay 90’s on February 10.
[Top photo courtesy Emma Berg. Above photo by Jahna Peloquin]