Express Yourself: “Strike A Pose” And The Limits Of Cultural Activism

Top row: Salim Gauwloos, Oliver Crumes III, Carlton Wilborn, Kevin Stea; bottom row: Luis Camacho, Jose Gutierez by Linda Posnick

“The irony for me was, like, I’m in a production to express yourself. I wasn’t being that at all with myself,” remarks Carlton Wilborn in the documentary film Strike A Pose. Directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, Strike A Pose traces the experiences–both past and present–of the six (seven, if you include Gabriel Trupin who died of AIDS-related complications in 1995) backup dancers in Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour and the subsequent documentary Truth or Dare. Carlton has been HIV-positive since 1985 though he hid his status during Madonna’s tour. It’s, as Carlton notes onscreen, a jarring juxtaposition between his internalized shame and silence around his status and Madonna’s early 90’s appeal to “Express Yourself.”

While, I won’t lie, I tuned into the documentary in order to see some good old fashioned Madonna bashing. I mean, what is more fun than feeding a love/hate relationship with Madge? All you need is a glass (or three) of wine and a healthy helping of Madonna’s ham-fisted cultural appropriation and misuse of the labor of people of color. Strike A Pose delivered at least a satisfying amount of gossip fodder. But, it turned out to be much more.

Rather than focusing on ripping Madge a new one, the documentary seemed to tangle with the limits of cultural production as activism. Those of us in the art world or invested in pop culture like to believe that aesthetics can truly act as stand-ins for activism, a savior drenched in paint, pop and performance. This is particularly relevant in 2017 as the phrase “now more than ever” pops up on any remotely political press release in an attempt to make cultural workers feel as if we’re somehow taking down the Trump administration, the patriarchy, etc. However, we are rarely confronted with the actual limits of these endeavors–while culture and aesthetics still has the capacity to change hearts and minds, albeit slowly, it’s not failsafe as seen in Strike A Pose.

Screencap from Strike A Pose

The film starts at the beginning of the seven dancers’– Luis Camacho, Oliver S. Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn and Gabriel Trupin–relationship with Madonna as she recruited them for her tour. Six of the men are gay with the exception of Oliver, who admits that before the tour he was homophobic. Their sexual identity, perhaps best embodied in the memorable steamy French kiss between Salim and Gabriel in Truth or Dare, became a handy tool for Madonna to project an air of sexual liberation and freedom.

Barely twenty, the dancers were thrown into a highly visible, little achieved world of extreme fame and publicity. Luis recalls that not only were there fan-made signs projecting adoration for Madonna, but they also broadcast their love for the dancers too. All seven dancers became pseudo-celebrities, granted a bit of the spotlight by Madonna.

Naturally, if anyone has watched Behind the Music, it’s pretty easy to guess that after Madonna dropped the seven dancers like hot rocks, many struggled with substance abuse and maintaining a career. The film’s downfall, though, is a reliance on a Where Are They Now-type narrative, occasionally ignoring the successes of many of the dancers now. For example, in one scene, Gutierez’s mother bemoans his inability to ever buy her a house or achieve resounding success. It frankly makes Gutierez look as if he hasn’t achieved much since the early 1990s. And well, that’s simply not true–he’s the father of the House of Xtravaganza and recently choreographed Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. While his mom, like many mothers, might not think that’s enough, I certainly do and I would have liked to see that insight into the dancer’s continued relationship with performance and dance onscreen.

That being said, though, the strength of the film lies in its ability to juxtapose scenes from Blond Ambition and Truth or Dare with the dancers’ own accounts of their shame and reticence to disclose their HIV status. With copious clips from Blond Ambition and Truth or Dare, the film centers the time period of the early 1990s as a time of dual sexual experimentation, openness and even defiance in the face of the fear of HIV/AIDS and its numerous losses. Madonna’s creative output and personae, at the time, was constructed in order to combat the silences and homophobia around HIV/AIDS with sex positivity with onstage references to condoms and giggly hypersexualization. It was about, as Jose says, “pushing buttons and not being afraid to say who we were.” Asked about Truth or Dare, she said, “If you keep putting something in people’s faces, eventually, maybe they can come to terms with it.”

The Blond Ambition crew, 1990

I mean, it should be said Madonna’s career-long attempts to be edgy and subversive can be grating, but at this point in her career in 1990 and 1991, her button-pushing felt as if it came from somewhere sincere, namely in the context of the deaths of her friends like Keith Haring. Strike A Pose includes a clip of Madonna on her last night of the tour dedicating a segment to Keith, saying: “Now you probably know Keith Haring as an artist, But I knew him as a man who had the courage to tell the truth. The truth is, he was gay, the truth is, he had AIDS and he said so to anybody who would listen. In memory of Keith, let’s tell ourselves the truth. Let’s tell it to each other. Let’s face each other.”

This moment becomes more significant in the context of the dancers’ own narratives. Of the seven dancers, three were HIV-positive and yet, never disclosed their statuses to each other. On some level, I wonder if the expression doggedly promoted by Madonna wasn’t as accessible to the dancers, who are all people of color. Pride can sometimes be a marker of privilege.

Luis Camacho, Jose Gutierez,Oliver Crumes III,Kevin Stea (1990) by Lisa Guarnieri

Despite Madonna’s plea for truth and expression, this never translated to the people who performed onstage with her. In one of the most powerful moments in the film (even more so than the tear-stained family reunion of all the dancers at the end), Salim, who received his diagnosis in 1987 and only disclosed his status to his fellow dancers during the filming of the documentary, narrates his thoughts as he stood behind Madonna eulogizing Haring. “Oh my god, I look so uncomfortable…I look petrified,” he observes.

And yet, their performances onstage did unquestionably help closeted gay kids and others feel as if they too could one day be out and find acceptance. In one scene, a man stands outside Stonewall and describes the importance of Truth or Dare to him as a middle school kid in the Midwest. He recalls, “It was, like, the first time that I saw like…gay people. Like, real gay people just talking uncensored, being themselves.”

In contrast to their effect on others, the dancers’ experiences speak to “The idea of self-acceptance as being very hard for all of us, even when you are a paragon of pride,”as co-director Zwaan told i-D Magazine. And the film confronts viewers with these limits–one can say or make anything to promote self-acceptance but at the end of the day, society, as a whole, has to catch up. While I’m a firm believer in aesthetics, Strike A Pose allows for a much-needed step back to reconsider what and how to promote acceptance rather than just singing about it.

That being said, Strike A Pose also significantly depicts dance as a space for physical expression, abandon and even, pride. The film ends with six long shots of each dancer today, whether teaching a class, contorting their body down a street or performing in an empty studio. There’s a visible freedom in their movements–a reminder that while the activist achievements of cultural production may be limited, there are still momentary glimpses of liberation in its creation.

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