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  WINDY CITY TIMES

MOVIES Blond Ambition dancers strike a new pose
by Tony Peregrin
2016-10-12

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Strike a Pose—a new documentary featuring Madonna's Blond Ambition dancers—dares to tell the truth about the 1991 behind-the-scenes documentary, Truth or Dare, but this time the dancers take center stage.

Strike a Pose profiles the seven dancers ( Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim "Slam" Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, and Carlton Wilborn ) and—with the exception of Trupin, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995—introduces audiences to who these men are today, revealing how their experience with Madonna and her celebration of self-expression, perhaps best epitomized by the iconic Gaultier velvet cone bra, altered the course of their lives forever.

Noticeably absent from the film is Madonna herself. However, the film's directors—Ester Gould, a Scottish-born documentary filmmaker based in Amsterdam, and Reijer Zwaan, a journalist and filmmaker for Dutch public television—purposely turned their cameras away from the pop star in order to focus on the untold stories of the dancers.

In anticipation of the Chicago premiere of Strike a Pose on Oct. 19, 22 and 23, at the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, Windy City Times spoke with Zwaan and Stea about how the Blond Ambition dancers "live to tell" their stories of truth and survival.

Windy City Times: Why do you think Truth or Dare continues to resonate with audiences today?

Kevin Stea: As put-on as people thought it was back in the day, it's actually full of honesty. I think honestly is timeless. And courage is timeless. And being fearless and being able to show one's self in situations that aren't necessarily flattering, I think, those are things that everyone can relate to.

Truth or Dare also showed gay people as human and relatable and doing normal things like shopping and chatting and being catty and being funny and laughing and loving and eating—things people needed to see back then. It actually changed the landscape of gay-straight relationships back in the day. And I think that has become even more apparent now.

Reijer Zwaan: [Director] Alek Keshishian has done a great job of intermixing the backstage footage with the amazing Blond Ambition tour, which was in itself, a theatrical kind of story. Truth or Dare tells the story of a family—a self-chosen family—which is something everyone can relate to. We're living in different times, but it is still a bold film that is very honest in a way that celebrity culture doesn't know any more.

WCT: Madonna was one of the first to bring LGBT issues and culture to the mainstream. Kevin, looking back, were you surprised that she turned out to be such a trailblazer?

KS: I was absolutely floored. I had no idea that she had anything to say other than being sort of sexually scandalous. I didn't know enough about her to know that she was incredibly smart and very clever and knew exactly what she was doing and the messages that she was portraying. I had no idea. ... I thought she was just doing things for shock value. Her longevity has shown that she has a lot to say. It's not a fluke, it's not guesswork—she's doing things on purpose.

WCT: Why was the decision made to film the dancers individually at the beginning of the Strike a Pose project, and then as a group toward the end of the process?

RZ: We wanted them to share their life stories with us first, individually, because things change when you see each other again. The fact that they hadn't seen each other in 25 years is, of course, on many levels interesting. As a filmmaker, that means there is something new to be done by bringing them back together. I find it fascinating that this group that became a family and talk about Madonna as a mother figure fell apart after filming Truth or Dare.

KS: The idea of not knowing what the others were saying was actually really fascinating because we hadn't spoken in so long. I wouldn't have known where to begin to anticipate what they would say. It could have gone any number of ways. ... We didn't know if there was going to be anger or animosity when we came together. We hadn't been together since the premiere of Truth or Dare—1991. It was a real reunion, it wasn't a put-on reunion. I hadn't seen Jose since that day in 1991. Period. Hadn't spoken a word. Nothing.

WCT: Reijer, despite an earlier decision not to focus on Madonna, you eventually reached out to her via letter with a request—what was it?

RZ: Esther and I knew that you can't have Madonna in a film just a little bit. When she is there, of course, she takes over and I don't mean it in a negative way; it's just what happens with someone that famous. We weren't looking for an interview with Madonna. At the time we finished filming, she was about to go out on tour so we reached out to her with a proposal—we thought wouldn't it be great to have the original group of voguers, the guys who actually taught Madonna how to vogue, back on stage with her 25 years after the fact to perform Vogue one more time? We set the bar quite high. [Laughs]

To keep a long story short, we didn't get a reply. We have been in contact with her management and her lawyers because we had to clear the footage of Truth or Dare so, in a way, we know that Madonna has probably seen the film, too, but we don't know what she thinks about it. For some reason, I always think she would like it because it's about a group of people that she was very close to and their stories are touching and relevant and very human.

WCT: Kevin, what do you want people to know about the lawsuit you filed against Madonna and her management team?

KS: The press is always looking for a tagline; they're always looking for a way to sensationalize something and the lawsuit was just, literally, a contractual issue for me and Oliver. My contact said that for a movie I get paid X amount of dollars. There is nothing gray about that—it is a very clear clause. And now, only this year, am I realizing that she might not have even known why I was suing.

Besides my agency reaching out to her lawyers, I wrote her a letter. And I read the letter back and it was a very emotional letter, but it had nothing to do with the nuts and bolts [of the lawsuit]. I was 20 years old, I didn't know how to speak to a businesswoman—I was speaking from my heart: "Why aren't your lawyers responding to my agency?"—that's all I asked. And, I was like, I love you and miss you and I want to see you again.

WCT: You and Oliver were suing for monetary compensation, but Gabriel's suit was related to something else entirely.

KS: Gabriel was told that anything he didn't want in the movie wouldn't be in the movie. And he was told that very clearly to his face and I was standing right there when it happened. He asked for that kiss with Salim to be taken out and she said no and that this will be the best lesson you'll ever learn in your life.

Now, I understand her stance. I understand how powerful her messages have been. I understand that leaving that kiss in the movie is amazing and that Gabriel would be proud of it now, and that it's changed people's lives—it's saved lives … but at the cost of the well-being and emotions of my best friend.

WCT: Reijer, Gabriel's on-camera kiss with Salim and other private moments made famously public in Truth or Dare, a film ( and tour ) powered by the freedom of self-expression, is the paradox at the heart of Strike a Pose.

RZ: Yes, definitely! The title of the film, Strike a Pose, gets a double meaning because Strike a Pose means to show yourself and be proud about it and dare to stand there, but at the same time it is about posing. And, maybe in that pose, you hide something of yourself as well and that is very much what our film is about. It's about the difference of the public message of expressing yourself and how hard it can be on a personal level to actually do that and to really not care. Don't we all care what people think of us? It can be hard to show that vulnerability.

Strike a Pose, part of the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, screens Oct. 19, 22 and 23. Chicago native Carlton Wilborn is scheduled to appear on opening night. For more information, visit ChicagoFilmFestival.com/film/strike-a-pose/ .


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