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Moving on from Madonna: Reijer Zwaan’s Strike a Pose

INTERVIEW! Zwaan and co-director Ester Gould's Berlinale crowd-pleaser, Strike a Pose, about the men behind Madonna at the height of her career, returns to Berlin Thu, Aug 25 at Freiluftkino Hasenheide.

Image for Moving on from Madonna: Reijer Zwaan's Strike a Pose
Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, Oliver Crumes III (1990). Photo by Lisa Guarnieri

Even if you don’t remember their faces, you’ve almost certainly seen them in action at some point: the seven male dancers from Madonna’s iconic, David Fincher-directed “Vogue” video. They subsequently joined the pop superstar on her provocative 1990 Blond Ambition tour, and featured prominently in the taboo-breaking documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare. In bringing queer club culture to the attention of the mainstream, the troupe became cherished gay icons. But behind the scenes, they were battling a host of personal demons as they adjusted to life in the limelight.

Berlin got a chance to catch up with the six surviving dancers earlier this year, when Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould’s heartfelt documentary, Strike a Pose, premiered in the Berlinale Panorama, and subsequently won the second place audience award. Strike a Pose returns to Berlin this Thursday, August 25 at Freiluftkino Hasenheide, followed by a Q&A with co-director Zwaan. We spoke with him ahead of the screening.

The film seems like it was an intensely cathartic experience for the subjects. Were they ready to share their stories from the outset, or did you have to build trust before they opened up?

We really had to build trust. For the last 25 years these guys have been asked the same questions about Madonna – what was it like touring with her? Is she really a bitch? So they were done with all that, but we were interested in them because they had made an impact independently of Madonna. We believed that Truth or Dare would never have triggered the response that it did without this group of mostly gay dancers. Some of them trusted us from the first conversation, while others took over a year to convince. But I understand that, because they gave so much and made themselves so vulnerable.

What inspired you to reach out to them in the first place?

I saw Truth or Dare for the first time when I was 11 years old, in a cinema in Amsterdam! My step-mother took our whole family, and I remember going in with very little interest, and coming out wanting to see it again straight away. It’s such a wonderful, larger-than-life world, where everything is possible. At the time I wasn’t at all thinking about being gay myself, but these characters were so open and brazen and expressive, and that was very exciting to me. Years later, having seen the film many more times, I started wondering what might have happened to the dancers. And I started to discover that they had meant a lot to many others. I saw people saying online that because of them, they had dared to come out, or been inspired to become dancers.

Very early on (co-director) Ester Gould and I saw that there was a major paradox. The Blond Ambition tour and the film were all about expressing yourself, and being open and proud. But at the same time, we found that Gabriel (Trupin, who died of AIDS in 1995), didn’t want a scene of him kissing another guy to appear in Truth or Dare, because most of his family and friends didn’t know he was gay. So this kiss, that for many was so inspirational, was for one of the participants a big problem. And then we learned that other secrets were being kept and struggled with during the tour. It seemed that it was easier for them to stand on stage and urge people to express themselves, than it was for them to do it in their own lives. Our film is more about the personal side of finding the strength to open up and not really care what other people think.

At times, it seems like they may have been damaged by their relationship with Madonna, even though they all seem very loyal to her. Did you get that impression at all?

I think Jose (Gutierez) is somewhat damaged, because he had a professional modern dance career waiting for him, and he was really at the top of his game. And then he decided to do this pop tour, which gave him fame and status for a while, but ultimately maybe hindered his career. But the others were mostly truly thankful for the experience. There’s no pop star that allows dancers to get that close, it was really a very intense relationship they all formed. There is however the issue that three of them filed law suits against her! Gabriel sued because she essentially outed him against his will in Truth or Dare. But with the other two, it simply stated in their contract that they would be paid extra if there was a movie. So they asked for money, were refused, and they sued. Which is of course the end of any friendship. But even they don’t feel bad towards her personally. It changed all of their lives forever, and mostly in a good way.

Did you have strong personal feelings about Madonna going into the film, and did they change over the course of production?

Neither Ester nor I are huge fans, but we both very much admired what she did back in the day. She was so much more than a pop star – she really changed our culture, I think for the better. She inspired many people to stand up for themselves, and that’s truly impressive. Don’t forget this was also during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when being gay was a really scary thing because it meant sickness and death. And then the world’s most famous woman brings six gay guys on tour with her and shows them in a film. If anything I admire her more now than I did before making the film.

The film seems to work very well as a communal, big screen experience. Did you always envision it as such?

We were confident, or maybe arrogant enough to think that it would be a cinematic experience, and that many people would want to see it. We also thought that the dancing would come across really well on the big screen. But at the same time we’ve been really overwhelmed by the response it gets whenever we screen it. I had hoped that a few people would be touched by it, but we’re seeing whole rooms of people visibly moved by it, and reaching out to us afterwards, and writing about it online.

Strike a Pose, Thu, Aug 25, 20:30 | Freilluftkino Hasenheide, Volkspark Hasenheide, Neukölln, U-Bhf Hermannplatz

For more details on the forthcoming German digital release, check out the Strike a Pose Facebook page.