There’s an extraordinary scene in Strike a Pose in which dancer Jose Gutierez is sitting in his mother’s living room performing translation duties between his Spanish speaking mother and the English speaking interviewer. When asked about the path her son’s life and career took after his stint dancing backup on Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour ended, Ms. Gutierez matter-of-factly lists the ways her son has disappointed her. Namely, he was supposed to buy her a big expensive house someday, and she knows he never will be able to. Sitting by her side, a strained smile as protective gear, tears filling his eyes, Gutierez’s face ripples with emotion: shame, disappointment in himself, love for his mother, and clear anguish at having let her down. She doesn’t seem to notice that her every word twists the knife in his chest.
Strike a Pose is unexpectedly moving as co-directors Ester Gould and Raijer Zwaan use their camera to catch up on the seven male backup dancers who worked on the Blonde Ambition tour: Luis Camacho, Oliver S. Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn, and Gabriel Trupin, who died of complications related to AIDS in 1995. As young men – with all but Crumes being gay, – the troop helped Madonna realize her vision of pushing political buttons and cultural boundaries, opening up conversations about sexuality in general and queerness in particular. Camacho and Gutierez, as House of Xtravaganza members in New York’s late’80s/early ‘90s ball culture, choreographed Madonna’s “Vogue” video and set the movement and aesthetic templates for the tour. As the tour moved around the world, the dancers emerged as celebrities in their own right – heroes and role models to countless LGBT youth (and even people long past their teens or twenties) for their unapologetic way of moving through the world. Truth or Dare, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the tour whose micro-managed shocks and revelations set the blueprint for countless such diva productions that came after it, was even more in-your-face with its provocations.
Strike a Pose doesn’t really grapple with the thorny issues of exploitation, cultural appropriation, and the racial and class dynamics of the performing crew Madonna put together – at least not with the penetrating analysis and insights that the late poet/cultural critic Essex Hemphill and Black feminist bell hooks did when they wrote of Madonna’s forays into Black & Brown queer subculture in the ‘90s. Gould and Zwaan keep the focus more intimate, the politics more deeply personal. Their film is, for the most part, more about celebrating the men and the post-Blonde struggles they’ve survived. It’s not surprising then that much of the narrative tension in Pose is around the story of Trupin, who sued Madonna over contract issues before he died. His mother, still grieving and still angry, paints a less than flattering picture of the way Madonna responded to her son’s handling of his own sexuality, and the film gains a kind of prickly energy when Trupin’s mother is talking or onscreen.
The specter of loss that hangs lightly but persistently over the film in the spirit of Trupin is also sprung from the impact AIDS has had on several other dancers, the toll of drug addiction, the squandering of money and opportunities, and the fall from grace when Madonna gives a cold shoulder. In the hands of Gould and Zwann, Pose maintains a gentle, reflective rhythm and an obvious affection for its subject(s) that lets the directors uncover the dark turns and hard won triumphs in various dancers’ lives without the film ever becoming tawdry or sensationalistic. There’s a slow-building emotionalism that culminates in the dancers reuniting more than two and a half decades after some of them have seen each other, and the audience is as teary as they are. Their group hugs are the definition of uplifting and inspiring.
And, to the credit of all involved, the trove of photos, clips from both the Blonde Ambition tour and Truth or Dare documentary, as well as footage from the 1989 documentary Voguing: the Message (one of the first documentaries to document ‘80s ball culture), help powerfully sketch in the climate of fear that girded a time when both queer culture (fueled by the music and aesthetics of Black gay culture) and the battle against AIDS dominated pop discourse. The fear some dancers had of disclosing their HIV status is heartbreaking, compounded by their feelings of hypocrisy for taking part in a stage show that was all about honesty and fearlessness. It may be hard for some younger viewers to fully grasp how crippling that fear would have been, and how bigoted prevailing attitudes were.
Though none of the dancers are “big” stars at this point in their lives, you can’t help but feel that the peace, or at least knowledge of self, they all seem to have now is a huge victory.
Strike a Pose opens in Los Angeles this Friday.