Madonnas‘ Ex-Choreographer on the AIDS crisis 40 years ago and its impact on the dance world
by Markus Vögele
Brad Jeffries choreographed for pop icon Madonna and “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox. “I was in the perfect age range to get AIDS and die. And now I just turned 61, so now I am getting in the perfect age range to die of COVID. Two pandemics in my life… I got a big X on my forehead”, says Jeffries.
Today Corona is the name on everybody’s lips. 40 years ago AIDS made headlines. Is Corona a Déjà-vu?
The current virus is not killing everyone who gets it. AIDS killed everyone who got it. Like if you got HIV, you were dead. It was a death sentence.
When did you hear about AIDS for the first time?
I was in the dressing room of the Schubert theater in New York and I was doing A Chorus Line. So, I just hit Broadway about six months before. It was 82 or 83. I had a dressing roommate. Tommy was reading the Village Voice. And buried six or eight pages deep was this little blurb, about four inches high, that says “Sixth Man Dies of Gay Cancer.” Because they didn’t even have the AIDS name yet. They just knew that there was this cancer that was quickly killing gay people. Tommy was dead in three years. From AIDS. Like half of the guys in the show were dead.
Was anyone talking about AIDS at that time?
It was like the McCarthy era. Because if somebody you know died, you didn’t really want to talk to people that didn’t know that person because everyone was like: Slut! Pig! He deserved it. That was the sort of attitude, even of some gay people, you know. Once it started going, if you lost five pounds for some reason, people would give you a side eye. Thinking maybe he has the wasting disease, maybe he’s got “The Disease.”
What impact did AIDS have on the dance world?
It just decimated the dance industry. It was enormous because two thirds from the male dancers are gay and more than a half, maybe 70 percent, died of AIDS. In fact, that’s why I had the choreography career that I had.
In what way?
Because – my contention is – the Michael Peters of the world, who choreographed Thriller and Dream Girls, the Michael Bennetts… there was a ton of really great choreographers and they all got taken by AIDS. And that left this void for young, untried, wet-behind-the-ears dancers to move up into those positions. I would never have gotten Madonna or Back to the Future. I was just a chorus dancer.
But you choreographed for the Queen of Pop. How did you meet?
Madonna was not the Queen of Pop at that time. She saw me dancing on the American Music Awards, and then invited me to dinner to offer me the job of choreographing her Virgin Tour.
What’s she like?
Madonna has a superpower. And her superpower used to be that she could walk into a room and entice anyone. Madonna thought I was straight. I didn’t disabuse her of the fact. It’s like “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and it worked for me in Hollywood for a lot of jobs, because I would not have been hired for a lot of jobs if I was known to be gay. But I let her go along thinking that. I had already kissed her because she used to want attention so badly, that we would go out to dinner and at sushi bars she would start putting her tongue down my throat just so everybody in the restaurant would stop and look at her.
Why did you hang up your dancing shoes?
I retired after 9/11 actually. In one year I lost my golden retriever, my mother, my father, my best friend, all in a period of 9 months. And prior to that I lost about 48 friends due to AIDS like Mykal Perea [Madonnas‘ backup dancer, author’s note]. So I was shell shocked at that point. Then I decided to move to an Ashram. While living at the Ashram, I started doing volunteer work a Hospice facility. The doctor I was training under suggested that I try massage because she saw I was tactile and knew the body being a dancer. I discovered I like it and I graduated massage school in 2005.
Recently you turned 61. What gift brought you the greatest pleasure?
I have already had miracles in my life because I had spinal meningitis as a kid and it left me with rheumatoid arthritis and the doctors at Stanford hold my parents that I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was 26. And when I started dancing I went into total remission and never had another attack. But I did have a cancer scare a couple weeks ago. I had a biopsy. The Tuesday after Christmas I got the results. Totally cancer free!