A moving new documentary called ‘Strike A Pose’ reunites Madonna’s estranged ‘Blond Ambition’ dancers twenty-five years on and discovers what’s happened to them since that controversial tour
“Open Audition for FIERCE Male Dancers who know the meaning of TROOP STYLE, BEAT BOY and VOGUE…” ran the ad. “Wimps and Wanna-Be’s need not apply!”
Little did the young men who applied know they were signing up to enter Madonna’s 1990 pop-culture maelstrom, including the now-iconic Blonde Ambition tour: named by Rolling Stone as the Greatest Concert of the ‘90s; censured by the Vatican; infamous for Jean-Paul Gaultier’s conical bras and the slick, monochrome, David Fincher-directed video for “Vogue”; and of course the subsequent smash-hit documentary based on it all, 1991’s Truth or Dare (aka In Bed With Madonna), which became at the time the highest-grossing feature documentary in history.
The video, tour and documentary were unusual in how frequently the star ceded the spotlight to her seven male (and two female) backing dancers, who became, within Madonna-World anyway, stars in their own right. More than a quarter-century on, elegant and elegiac new documentary Strike A Pose, from Dutch directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, puts the focus back on these men, to see where – and who – they are now.
It’s easy to forget how groundbreaking it was to feature a group of gay men (six of the seven) so prominently; not just onstage striking poses, but behind-the-scenes, which is where many of Truth or Dare’s most memorable moments emerge – from joyful communal hang-outs to the now-infamous, playful gay kiss between dancers Gabriel and Salim, virtually taboo in mainstream cinema of the day.
“My father and stepmother took me with my sister to see Truth or Dare when I was eleven-years old,” recalls Reijer Zwaan. “I remember thinking, why would I want to see a Madonna film because I was a Michael Jackson fan! And then I walked out and was, ‘Can I see this again, now?!’”
Zwaan describes seeing the film on video repeatedly through his teen years, responding to “the freedom, the spectacle and this sort of family who said and did whatever they wanted. And when I was nineteen, I came out myself. It was not related, but I think it shaped my idea of what a gay man is.” He wasn’t alone in this, nor in wondering that, while Madonna can still dominate the media, those dancers had seemingly disappeared from the public eye.
Kevin Stea certainly wouldn’t consider himself missing all these years. Since his early Blonde Ambition gig, the forty-seven-year-old has become a hugely successful dancer, choreographer, model and more, working with more pop royalty from Michael Jackson and Prince to Beyoncé. Yet he’s all too aware of how those distant images with Madonna still burn bright today.
“It is weird that it lives on so much,” he admits. “But I think it comes down to, she let us be ourselves and not just bodies on stage. The way dance has evolved now, no one’s looking for stars as dancers; they’re looking for energy or sexy hot movement. You’re not allowed to sort of bring your back story to your art. And I think Truth or Dare gave us humanity and back story.”
That back story, however, turned into ongoing soap opera. Three dancers, Stea, Oliver Crumes and Gabriel Trupin ended up in battle with Madonna: Stea and Crumes for specific, contractually withheld payments; and Trupin for effectively being ‘outed’ in the film against his will through that gay kiss. All subsequently settled out of court, but that Trupin later died due to Aids-related illnesses in 1995, gave a tragic, conflicted and unresolved ending to such an ostensibly positive representation of gay acceptance.
“I found it so interesting that the same thing that had brought freedom to so many people, had hurt him,” observes Zwaan. “The whole backbone of our film is the paradox between that message of “express yourself”, that bold get-up-there-and-do-your-thing, compared to your personal lives: Gabriel kissing and dancing onstage but at the same time struggling with HIV and being gay. If you see what it has meant, the greater good of that kiss, it was worth it. But it hurt him at that time and he never got the chance to get over it.”
‘The greater good of that kiss, it was worth it. But it hurt him at that time and he never got the chance to get over it” – Reijer Zwaan
There’s also the ethical issue of the Truth or Dare filmmakers – presumably Madonna included – choosing to include that dynamite moment, despite Trupin’s pleas to omit it. “As a documentary filmmaker, I don’t know what I would have done,” grimaces Zwaan. “The thing is, he didn’t sign a release form…”
Zwaan and Gould’s film treats its protagonists rather more compassionately. With restraint and resonance, what Strike A Pose does, as well as reuniting them for the first time in twenty-five years, is examine each one’s respective fallout from this key period in their lives. And through them, examine how LGBTQ culture itself has changed. Two, Carlton Wilborn and Salim Gauwloos were still desperately concealing their own HIV-positive status. José Gutierez and Luis Camacho, the actual underground voguing pioneers, tried unsuccessfully to make it as a headline duo. Post-lawsuits, several were estranged from each other.
“For years after the tour and the lawsuit, it was a very sore spot in my life, a reminder of a lost friendship and a lot of misunderstanding,” says Stea. “I always sort of avoided talking about it because of the really vicious fan response that people were giving me from the lawsuit, not understanding what it was about.” “Kevin never wanted it to be a personal thing,” relates Zwaan separately. “But there’s no way of keeping something like that business-like.”
Yet Stea is keen to point out that motivation for being involved in the project was less about legal self-justification (“our intention was never to drag [Madonna] through the mud,” he states firmly, “it was to stand up for dancers’ rights and what was in my contract. I never asked for anything more.”) than to finally have the chance to reconnect with people he’d once considered family. Not that all families are meant to stay together…
“The level of connectedness was unexpected,” he marvels. “When we all got in the room together it felt like no time had passed at all and we all stepped back into the exact same roles we’d had before, but [each] with twenty-five years of wisdom and experience. And with this invisible thread of the loss of Gabriel. One of the beautiful things is that he comes alive when we’re all there.”
Strike A Pose might surprise audiences who assume that it follows the attention-seeking, image-manufactured modus operandi that some might think of as Madonna’s – and therefore her former collaborators’ – speciality. “I was floored by how lovingly and delicately they treated us and our stories,” says Stea. “ I think I had expected more sensationalism… more dirt, I suppose. But it’s about courage and survival.”
Of course, in the film’s climactic reunion there’s one elephant in the room – or rather, not. “We talked about it a lot,” nods Zwaan, “what could be Madonna’s place in the film? But having her there shifts the attention immediately.”
Still, imagine what a coup it could’ve been. “In the very end, when we were done, we sent her a letter explaining what this film was about and also having one idea of performing ‘Vogue’ one more time on stage on her ‘Rebel Heart’ tour, with her original dancers,” Zwaan admits with a smile. “And we never got an answer.”
“There’s mixed feelings among the whole group about this,” says Stea, “but I don’t see why we wouldn’t want to see her.” He laughs. “Yes, she can be a bitch sometimes… whatever. I think now more than ever I’m finally understanding why she is the way she is and I respect that so much more than I ever did before.”
“Yes, she can be a bitch sometimes… whatever. I think now more than ever I’m finally understanding why she is the way she is and I respect that so much more than I ever did before” – Kevin Stea
Stea is possibly more relaxed about future reconciliations because he had his own bizarre encounter with Madonna a few years back. They were separately dining at the same LA restaurant – he was with, among others, photographer David LaChapelle, Madonna was with hip hop star Nas – at the end of the very week he’d chosen “to deal with this whole Madonna situation” and reach out to all concerned by phone. She came over to greet the table, and, all of a sudden, Stea found himself finally face-to-face with the Material Girl again.
“The coincidence was insane – the same week!” he relates. “I got up and hugged her and we held hands and talked and that was my experience with her. And then she walked off but, for me, it was a resolving moment. And if that’s all I get, I’m OK with that. Because I went out in that moment wishing her love and gratitude.”
Zwaan himself is pretty sure Madonna has seen the film now, as she requested a video link. Not that he’s waiting on a review. “I don’t know her but I do think that… she must like it,” he surmises. “I think they are very dear to her. It was sort of a family for her too and a special year. That was not a pose.”
Strike a Pose is showing at the Bertha DocHouse in London from Feb 3 - Feb 9 and will have a digital and download release soon after. More info: www.strikeaposefilm.com
Follow Leigh Singer on Twitter: @Leigh_Singer