Kevin Stea: Dancing His Way to the Top
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra,
Kevin Stea first felt the heat of the celebrity spotlight when he was hand-picked to become one of Madonna’s dancers for her iconic Blond Ambition World Tour. Since that auspicious beginning, he has become one of the most talented choreographers in the United States, working for artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. Here, he opens up about how liberating that tour was for him both personally and professionally and the way it shaped the rest of his career.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 13th issue of ODDA Magazine.
When you were a child, were you already interested in dance?
I would watch TV shows like Dance Fever and Solid Gold and imitate them, but just for fun. I never thought it could be a profession, nor even as an art. I was more interested in gymnastics! Even now I’m definitely more interested in doing it than watching it. Once I realized how powerful it could be for communication, I wanted access to that language!
Initially, you studied Film in California. What were those years of film student like?
I’ve always loved film, and studying it made me even more of a fan. I never got into the really good hands-on Film courses in my two years at USC. I was mostly taking my horrible general education classes like meteorology. I left to go on tour right when I would have begun the more interesting stuff. The world of film that interested me, short form videos and the budgets to support them, don’t really exist anymore. I still watch films like a critic though, with an extra layer of dissection and observation in my mind.
When did the world of dance attract you?
It was Janet’s Jackson’s video for Nasty that inspired me to want to dance. It was so cool. I was 16 in Singapore on scholastic scholarship and I taught it to myself in the mirror. For the first time, I felt sexy and got attention for dancing it at a school performance. I felt like I had finally found something I could excel at that wasn’t about losing myself in books at the library.
I might have gone crazy without it. It helped that there was this sense that I wasn’t supposed to be dancing. Men dancing was not completely acceptable, especially with sexuality behind it, and not at all acceptable to my great grandmother’s church. I wanted to rebel, and dance was an easy outlet. When I got to LA, I discovered a dance community filled with people who were exploring themselves, their identities and fashion, all while perfecting a craft. The sense of acceptance was wonderful.
Did you create some films like short films or documentaries during that time?
Not back then unfortunately, but I have a documentary in the works now called Great Walls. It documents a trip I took with my father back to his homeland of China for the first time since he escaped in the war. I used the opportunity to ask him all about his life and to get to know him, since I didn’t grow up with him. It was life changing.
How did you get to the audition to be part of the mythical Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour?
The auditions were open to the public and advertisements were put out in all the newspapers, and my agency called me for it as well. It was a madhouse. Thousands of people. Some VERY talented dancers, and others there just wanting to see Madonna in person. Luckily, Niki Harris, who was helping at the audition, pulled me up front and said to everyone, ‘Look here, THIS is how you do it correctly!” Madonna said: “You stay, everyone else, thank you,” and dismissed the rest of my group of 40. Eventually, I was hired as dancer, dance captain and associate choreographer for the tour.
What was it like working with Madonna on all of her amazing choreographies?
The choreographer of the tour was Vincent Paterson, but I worked with him to create that wonderful tour. I got to teach her many of her steps. I’m glad I didn’t know how big of a star she was at the time, or I would have been a nervous wreck. She often wouldn’t like the steps until someone else said they thought it looked amazing, then she would ease up and embrace them.
All of dancers were young on the tour. What did that experience, working with the Queen of Pop, do for all of you?
She gave us a whole new world. I had traveled before, but never like that. Private jets, five-star hotels, high-end dinners. It was a world filled with artists, designers, performers and beautiful people. We were young, but all bold in our own way, and not intimidated. I think she loved our excitement. I didn’t want to value it too much or value myself by it, I had had too difficult of a year to let myself get too comfortable. I also didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have because I was so focused on doing a good job, but looking back I can see that it turned us into professionals.
Were you aware that, for many fans of Madonna, that stage was a sexual liberation?
We were unaware of our impact on the world at large. News and information didn’t move like it does now. We were too focused on our own sexuality. Helping kids with their sexuality is something we’ve only discovered recently with the release of the wonderful documentary Strike A Pose that has allowed us to travel and meet so many of the people we’ve impacted. Nothing on the Blonde Ambition stage was shocking to us, so maybe we were just representatives of a new generation that kids could relate to. Diverse outsiders with nothing to lose, and a powerful champion by our side at the height of her career.
In the middle of that tour the famed artist Keith Haring, who was also a close friend of Madonna, died of AIDS. How did you experience that loss in the tour?
Keith died at the very beginning of our rehearsals. I loved his work, but really had no idea he even had died until a few weeks before the New York shows. She held her grief close and away from us, and always stayed focused. It wasn’t until she began to tear up and her voice began to break during our prayer circles in New York that I truly realized the impact it had on her. People in the artistic and dance community were dying daily. It wasn’t a surprise, but every day was seemingly another tragedy. It was terrifying, but galvanizing.
Thanks to designer Patrick Sleem @patrick1ny for this great capture for the Today Show 1/17 (Entire vid on his pg.) pic.twitter.com/xZfTzgYPP4
— Kevin Stea (@KevinStea) 18 janvier 2017
Do you still maintain a friendly relationship with all the dancers or with Madonna?
We’ve always had somewhat contentious relationships with each other. I’m closest with Carlton, Luis and Oliver because we live closer to each other, but Jose and Salim will always be my brothers. I’d love to hang out with M again, but it has been a long time!
The documentary In Bed with Madonna broke all the established rules about the way we talk about sex, homosexuality, death, darkness or light. How did you live that shooting and the consequences that came after?
The movie, to me, is a home video more than anything. In real life, we spoke about sex, homosexuality and death… it’s weird that it was so taboo to speak about it on film. The movie outed me to the general public as gay, and that was odd, but freeing. I wasn’t closeted, just still figuring it all out. At that time, being out and gay felt limiting to me. It had such stigma, it became this giant label on the forehead. There are some jobs I lost because of my notoriety and sexuality, but it seems like a very distant past. I’m honored to have been a part of it, and a part of her voice and message.
After that tour, you were a choreographer and dancer for other artists like Michael Jackson. How was it work with him?
Michael was such a unique artist. His attention was always on doing something that had never been done before or seen before, on what would excite himself and his fans. I heard him say it over and over. I loved that money was never an object or a roadblock to his vision. He knew that he was in a position to do the things that no one else could. Madonna wanted to shake up our hang-ups and throw them in our face to show us that they’re pointless. Michael wanted to make us believe in something new, in what was possible.
And also you dance for Prince, Lady Gaga…
I’ve been so fortunate to work with absolute legends. Prince was the one I was really the fan boy for though. I have ALL his music. I learned a lot about presenting an image and mystique from him, and that it meant walking the walk and living it to make it real. From Lady Gaga I learned that I may not have the energy to keep up anymore! She works so hard. I called her once to invite her to my birthday and she was like, “I have three shows tonight at three different clubs, but I’ll try to stop by!” That’s unbound energy. I was so inspired by her joy of doing what she’s doing, the FUN of it, the DRIVE. It felt like my own joy of performance. If I was given her schedule, I would dive in and enjoy it too. I love being worn-out from performing.
You were a model for firms such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler or Tommy Hilfiger, photographed by LaChapelle. Are you interested in fashion?
I LOVE fashion. I’m not a fashionista though, I approach fashion like a comic book nerd. I get excited about stupid things like draping, finishing and fabrics, not about ‘cool factor’ or labels splashed across my chest. Because I dress emotionally, not from logic, sometimes I leave the house looking like a clown. That’s part of the fun of fashion though. Once it gets too serious, it loses something.
I was hanging out with Daphne Guinness a few years back, and she was wearing this fabulous Alexander McQueen couture ensemble. She was so playful like me and, at one point, just kicked off her pumps and did a cartwheel. I like to keep that as my rule. I should always be willing to do a cartwheel in my clothes, no matter how fabulous.
You were the character of Daryl in the movie Showgirls. Would you like to make more movies, and what was it like to filming that movie?
I’ve been in over 20 movies, and I’ve loved doing them all. I’d gladly do more! Showgirls was particularly challenging because the dancing was very difficult, and the hours were brutal. I also sprained my ankle from an accident on the set where the stage broke underneath me, and was getting chaffed by dancing in G-strings for four months. It was worth it though. At the time I wasn’t so sure. When it was released, it was reviled and shredded by critics, who were judging it as a dramatic film. Twenty four years later, it’s a camp classic. There’s a documentary in production about it now, called Goddess. Look for it in 2019!
Tell us about your records and singles as a singer?
I perform under the name at Rogue Romeo, and released two albums of material called Machine & Magic and REBUILT. Years ago, I had a recording contract in Italy where the producer decided to use the contract to manipulate us into getting him some other unrelated jobs.
He stopped me from singing for years. Eventually, I realized that it would be my life’s biggest regret if I didn’t make my own music… so I did! My favorite songs on those are Last Dance, City of Glass and Joy. I had a lot I needed to express, and still do!
Where can we see you now?
I’ve been traveling for two years promoting Strike A Pose at film festivals and theaters worldwide, and it is available now on iTunes and on Netflix! At about the time this article is being seen, you can find me on a beach in Thailand!
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary.
For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others.
Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler.
Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary. For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others. Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler. Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
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