HA VU speaks to Kevin Stea about Madonna’s ‘Blond Ambition’ dance troupe, the subject of a moving documentary by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan.
‘Hey you, don’t be silly – put a condom on your willy!’, coos Madonna on the stage of her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour in 1990. Amidst the AIDS epidemic and resultant fear of the gay community, Madonna’s bold and outspoken persona made her the symbol of acceptance. The young and the scared looked to her for direction, for inspiration. Madonna’s barely-twenty troupe of dancers was no exception; she was not just a boss to them, but a mother. Using the same archive footage, directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan construct a dark transition fifteen minutes into Strike a Pose. What seemed a nostalgic documentary of the dancers’ glamour days turns into one of fear and sadness. Strike a Pose uses a structured combination of interviews, archive footage, old news reports and pictures to reveal the tumult behind the glamour, the perils behind fame.
The documentary opens with footage from a ‘Blond Ambition’ show, with a conical bra-clad Madonna elevated to the forefront of the stage. Surrounded by sculpted dancers, brilliant lights and a thunderous crowd, it is easy to see how the show engendered so much controversy and popularity. At a time when sexuality was taboo (perhaps it still is), Madonna’s work made unapologetic statements about sexual freedom, cross-sexuality and Catholicism. ‘That show was about freedom’, explains dancer Carlton Wilborn, ‘Freedom as an artist, freedom as a human being, freedom to fucking speak the truth’. Generating much disapproval from the Vatican, her tour was considered blasphemous, even satanic. Cut away to the present day, six of the seven dancers (Gabriel Trupin had passed away) are introduced in a series of interviews on a set washed over by black and white. Recalling the moment of being cast for the touring troupe, the dancers demonstrate a sense of giddy excitement that still remains. Plucked straight out of nothingness, they entered the elusive world of fame.
Despite Madonna casting a troupe where six of seven dancers are gay, dance captain Kevin Stea, who I spoke to last week, recalls, ‘When we went on tour, our sexuality was not public knowledge, and it was not used to promote the tour. It was so shocking when we found out that we might have been arrested in Toronto, and that the Pope was condemning us. People were interpreting the shows incorrectly, and they were using their misinterpretation against us. But you cannot change your work just because other people feel uncomfortable. You can never be conservative enough to please everyone. I wasn’t out, loud and proud, but I was proud of myself’. In many ways, ‘Blond Ambition’ was not just revolutionary: it was a reaction against the homophobic sentiment of that decade. In the fight against AIDS and for sexual freedom, Madonna did not stun for the sake of controversy, but to ‘portray the good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation’. As Stea reflects, ‘We sent a daring progressive message that you can be gay and human, and happy, and successful, and full of life, and still be gay’.
In 1991, documentary Truth or Dare revealed behind-the-scenes of the tour. It’s candid and honest revelations showed many people that their sexuality did not have to be ‘hidden in a back alley of some sleazy bar’. Madonna’s film rejected the idea of needing acceptance from Hollywood and the general public. Yet what shook viewers the most was the scene showing two men, dancers Salim Gauwloos and Gabriel Trupin, engaged in a ‘hot French kiss’. Although the scene was freeing for still-closeted gay men who idolised Madonna and her troupe, many of the dancers were not ready to come out to friends and family, let alone be ‘outed’ on television: perhaps Truth or Dare had revealed too much.
The stage provokes flamboyant personas; backstage hides a more complicated reality. The attributes of fame, as well as keeping up the the ‘loud and proud’ message promoted so fiercely on stage, were difficult for these young dancers to handle. Truth or Dare revealed one version of backstage, one of daring high-jinks and glamorous drama; Strike A Pose reveals the other backdrop of addiction, alcoholism and secret HIV-positive statuses. As the dancers ruminate their youth, it is clear that such a quick rise to fame took its toll. In 1992 Stea and two fellow dancers sued Madonna for invading their privacy, misrepresenting them and inflicting emotional distress through the presentation of their private lives in Truth or Dare, perhaps shadowing the liberating message of the tour with a sombre irony. The subtleties of Gould and Zwaan’s direction in Strike a Pose emerges in dealing with these complexities. A minimalist yet emotive score of violin and piano accompanies a handheld camera that provides a healthy dose of close-ups that always stay far enough to appreciate the individuality of each dancer, and the story being told.
The film ends with a much-awaited reunion after twenty five years; old friends talk of regrets, share choked-up secrets, and play a final round of truth-or-dare. More than anything, Strike a Pose is about having the courage to be yourself when beset with others’ judgements and scrutiny. Discussing the losses and gains that have made their person, the unusual bond formed during their formative years means what remains is not clouded by regret, but shared love. ‘Putting Madonna in the mother role, we unwittingly became brothers and sisters. No matter how much you fight, you are still family’, Stea poignantly remarks. A final montage documents the dancers’ current lives, revealing the great cost of self-expression. The candid way in which Strike a Pose presents the undeniable norm-shattering events of the tour, and the resulting damage and trauma it inflicted reflects a vital and hard-won honesty.
‘Strike a Pose’ premiered on 3rd February at the Bertha DocHouse. More information here.