MadonnaTribe had the chance to have a long chat with
choreographer and dancer Alex Magno about
his adventurous life, his incredible career and his work
with Madonna - from his early days in Brazil to the nights
spent to create amazing dance routines we saw in the Girlie
Show and Drowned World tours. In this first half of the
interview Alex is here to bring us back to his roots, to
let us know how he did happen to know Madonna and to start
working with her, and to reveal some great anecdotes about
how her Girlie Show was created.
MadonnaTribe: Hi Alex,
welcome to MadonnaTribe and thanks a lot for this interview
Alex Magno: First of all thank
you so much for inviting me, I feel very honoured to be
able to contribute and share my life and my experience
as a professional woring in the field of dance and as
a choreographer also working with Madonna, a great star
that has revolutionised music industry.
MT: I guess the easiest
thing it to start talking of your amazing experience in
the show business from the beginning...
AM: I started dance back in Brazil about
over 20 years ago and I originally started in night clubs,
myself along with my brother and two other boys. We had
a group called "Old Jazz" and we used to perform
in night clubs. We used to perform on the dancefloor and
people would make a huge circle and watch us dance.
In one of those clubs we met a professional dancer called
Sergio Vasconcelos, a classicaly trained and very well
established dancer. At the time there was a huge taboo
with male dancers. And we were skeptical when he approached
us, we were teenagers and he was more mature. He came
to us and said "you guys are such great dancers,
you should go to dance class because you have the ability".
And we were like "ballet dance is not for guys",
we had that huge taboo ourselves as we prettty much went
to night clubs to get girls.
MT: From the dancefloor to the studio,
was that a big change?
AM: He then convinced us to go to a specific
dance studio called "Spacio Dance" which was in
a suburb of Rio De Janeiro. We had an audition with a teacher
by the name of Ana Melo. We showed her one of our routines.
I was the choreographer of the group and at the time I was
inspired by a popular tv show of the time called "Baila
Con Migo". It was very big. It even went to Europe.
That's how I got the references of Jazz without having any
academical training. So I used to watch and pick some steps
here and there and throw it in the choreography and mixed
with street dance and club dancing. We didnt know how to
count and any music she put on we just danced. We looked
at each other and said: go! She stopped us and said: If
you want to ever dance, choreograph or do anything with
music you need to know how to count the music. So that was
my first lesson in understanding music and counting music.
And what happened next?
Afterwords we all got a scholarship and we started
studying ballet and modern dance. My brother Carlos Magno,
who is also a choreographer today in Brazil, had to go under
the army when he was 18 and as I was younger I had the luck
to be able to study longer time there. After studying ballet
and Modern Jazz at the same school and with the same teacher
we gave the audition with, Ana Melo, who taught me the a-b-c
of everything, they gave me a full scholarship 'cause they
saw they were getting good results.
The years passed and I went to see my first professional
show and it was the show that turned myself around and it
made me go to the next level of dance. I saw this dancer
performing, his name is Renato Vieira. He also was one of
the choreographers and he was someone who really inspired
me as a male dance, that made me wanted to be like him.
So I went to his studio, he owned a dance studio with another
famous choreographer in brazil by the name of Carlota Portela,
so I went to take his class and I was like a fish out of
the water. I came from a humble town in Brazil by the name
of vila kennedy and I went to the rich area of rio de janeiro
to take this class and everybody knew I wasn't from there.
I didn't dress with the most expensive clothes. I think
I've might even be barefeet. It was very obvious I was poor
but I had the talent and the passion and Renato was able
to recognize that.
MT: Sounds like it was a big challenge
It was very hard for me, it was a very advanced class and
it was very styleized. It was nothing I was used to do at
the other school.
The other school was more squared, more academic, more clean
and this was more like roundy movements, more ballet with
Jazz. And Renato explained things very fast.
Renato did a choreography
to Michael Jackson's "Beat it".
It was that time
in the 80's when Michael was very huge and every teenager
wanted to dance like him. I felt very comfortable doing
that, I did it pretty well and Renato saw the true potential
that I had and at the end of the class he asked if I wanted
the opportunity to have a scholarship there. I said sure,
I was so inspired by his dance and choreography. He pretty
much took me under his wing.
MT: That is really cool.
AM: Renato is like a father to me and I
like to acknowledge people in my life that have helped me
because an artist is not anyone without those people in
Those people help you and they sort of create a path for
you. Sometimes you messed up in the way but without them
you wonder if you would be here today. So I'd like to acknowledge
people like that.
Renato was that person for me and then after years taking
classes I became a member of his dance company working as
a chorus dancer. And then I moved on into a lead dancer,
dancing besides him, which was a honour and such a huge
accomplish to me, to be able to dance in the same stage
with renato and also to at the same level as a lead dancer.
After that the company toured Brazil and we did a lot of
tv shows and during those times I was invited to attend
an audition for a commercial that was going to use american
MT: That had to be
a very different experience for you.
AM: That was my first experience working
with american dancers in Brazil soil and the dancers and
choregraphers were Dennon and Sayhber Rawles that were in
charge of choreographies for the film "Staying Alive".
They brought with them six american dancers to work with
us. And among them there were Michelle Johnston, Michael
Rooney and Nyla Fry which is the person that later on when
I came to LA guided me and helped me and allowed me stay
at her house in Santa Monica and was very supportive of
my talent and my work. It was pretty big experience and
I didn't speak English at the time and so my communication
with the Americans was very limited but I was able to connect
with Nyla fry who gave me her contact in case I ever went
to United States.
Later I started doing competitions as a choreographer. I
did three competitions and I won first price on the last
one that was sponsored by Paramount Pictures and the prize
was a round trip to United States.
I had the ticked paid for and I had the hotel paid for however
I still had to save money. That was my only chance of getting
to United States but before that I had to go through the
whole embassy thing. I got on a plane for the first time,
I got in Los Angeles and a man was waiting with my name
"Mr. Magno" and I was like "Is that me?"
I only knew the basic one on one english at the time. The
was a limo waiting for me. I said to myself: Is this happening?
Is this real? If my parents could see me now. And they took
me at the Universal studio and I had no chance for the tip.
I said: I have no "cambio" and the guy started
laughing and said "it's ok". That was my welcoming
to United States.
MT: Then you started doing auditions...
AM: Yes, after a while I started
doing auditions, my first job as a dancer in a music video
was with Hinton Battle, a choreographer and a huge star
from Tap Dance Kid which won a Tony award.
He was the person that believed in me and said I'm, going
to use you in my music video but prior to getting those
dance professional jobs I had to survive so I got a job
as a dish washer in a restaurant.
I didn't speak the language so I was forced to do that.
Then I was able to survive just as a dancer.
I started working with another choreographer, Kenny Ortega,
I worked with Paula Abdul, all prior to Madonna. Before
I go into Madonna there are two important things. Not everybody
gets to Madonna so I have to explain how I got there. I
made a dance company at that time, in order for me to grow
as an artist, to expand my choreography and also to give
a platform for dancers here in LA to sort of grow in this
style of dancing.
I created the Personna Dance Theatre. Our first show was
very well respected by the dance community. Then from those
shows I created a strong union of dancers that supported
me. People like Carrie Ann Inaba, which was one of the dancers
for the Girlie Show, Carlton Wilburn and Luca Tommassini.
MT: And then came
the Academy Awards number...
AM: Yes, then I was given the oppurtunity
to co-choreograph "Under The Sea" from Disney's
"Little Mermaid" with Paula Abdul for the 62nd
Academy Awards ceremony.
We did this huge production number and I danced also. Luca
Tommassini was in there, too. It was a huge production.
Everyone was in there as far as dancers. And it was the
last time that the academy awards did something at that
huge spectacle show. After that the level of the show sort
of went down. After that I was invited to direct, conceive
and choreograph as a guest for the variety show called in
living color for the fly girls. Among the fly girls were
Carrie Ann Inaba, the dancer from the Girlie Show, Jennifer
Lopez, today's huge star and others.
All of those girls prior to work with me they all took my
class to get used to it and I'm very proud of the work I
did for In living color. It's one one of the best works
on tv as far as dance is concerned.
How did Madonna come into your life and career?
AM: I put a reel together and I had an
agent representing me as a dancer. She would called me
one day telling me that Madonna wanted to meet me. She
saw my reel and was considering me and another choreographer
to choreograph the "Girlie Tour". And I panicked.
I was like "that is not true".
I mean you don't get a call from Madonna like that.
Madonna wanted to meet me because she is all about vibe.
She might like your work but if she doesn't vibe with
you, forget it, you can be a genious but you are not going
to work for her. She needs to connect with you.
If she likes you then you're in and most likely if you
pay attention to her direction and follow her direction
carefully you will be there for a while because even getting
there doesn't mean that you will stay there.
At first I had this huge problem to do the "Girlie
Show" because I was under a contract to do a show
in Japan. And I had to fly the next day to Japan while
they wanted me to fly to New York to meet Madonna, so
they could make a decision. I told my agent I have contract,
it's my first time in Japan, a big company and I am a
professional. So I said "I'm very flattered and I
want to be part of it if they can wait". Well Madonna
is not gonna wait.
So I took this huge chance and said I can't meet her.
They went ahead and hired another choreographer and went
ahead and had auditions. Prior to leave to Japan I went
to Carrie Inaba who was also my assistant, I told her
about Madonna and said here's my most updated reel, I
would like you to take this reel and to put Madonna's
music on top of the images for me while I'm gone cause
I don't have time.
went ahead and put together a rough version of that and
I also said to her: "Submit yourself as a dancer because
I think she will like you". Madonna did receive the
package and she called Carrie Ann for the callbacks.
MT: What songs did you use on top of the
reel you presented to her?
AM: Oh we used "Erotica" or "Justify
My Love". I don't recall exaclty because they have
the same vibe.
We all know you got the work in the end...
Two weeks passed, I came back to United States and I immediately
called the production company thanking them once again for
considering me and if they needed any help to please call
Another two weeks later I got a call from the show's director
Christopher Ciccone asking me to meet him to possibly choreograph
I had a dinner with him in Beverly Hills and he told me
the show's concept and askes me a few questions about my
artistry and personal stuff and finally asks me to come
in the next day to teach "La Isla Bonita" to the
cast of the "Girlie" tour.
He gave me a concept to see how I would follow their direction.
We ended up not using that concept but never the less they
wanted to see what I could do with it. It was kinda crazy.
It was based on a old MGM film. It was about a hotel bellboy,
hotel helpers and a singer. Madonna was the singer and the
dancers were the hotel helpers and they wanted me to a number
like that. They told me the name of the film but I don't
remember it right now. But I've seen it and I put something
together and I put down a whole concept based on just that.
That's how I work, before I put ideas into steps I have
to put things onto paper, to define who the character is
and the motiviations. And it was great for me because that's
exactly the same way Madonna works and I didn't know that.
the dancers I workshopped the night before with Luca Tomassini
and Carrie Ann from the tour and some of my own dancers.
Carrie Ann being Madonna. I workshopped for about two
hours just to get an idea of what I had to teach.
The next day Madonna comes in at two o'clock after music
rehearsals and she sits down and watches the number. When
the number is over she holds me by the shoulders and takes
me aside away from everybody else and says: "Ok I like
your work I just want to advise you if I don't like something,
if I say why are doing this steps, I want you to have a
reason, I want to have a motivation, I am a performer that
relies on a character, this is more a theatrical piece than
just dance steps so every dance step must have a reason.
So if I say I don't like the step I don't want you to take
offence and I don't want this to take you because this happened
with other choreographers that I worked with. If you can
do that then you're cool".
And I said, "good, that's exactly how I work".
So it was perfect that her visions of steps and of dancing
sort of fitted the way I choreograph. We had to do a choreography
a day because they were behind schedule, they brought me
in to put the show back in its place. There was a lot of
The director specifically asked me that, he said: "Can
you do these many numbers in this amount of time?"
I said: "I will do it, even if I will have no time
to sleep". So he said: "ok let's take the chance".
So I got the job.
How long did you rehearse for the show?
AM: We then rehearsed for three months.
There were two different shows for the "Girlie"
tour. There was an arena show and a stadium show. We opened
in London at Wembley. The staging of the show over there
was the actual show we staged and choreo-graphed. It was
a little be adpated because we couln't fit everything. We
kept changing things. Madonna would watch back and forth
and say "this is missing".
She gave notes to everybody. She did that also in the "Drowned
World Tour". It's amazing.
MT: "Bye Bye Baby" on MTV
was a nice preview from the tour...
AM: Yes the "Bye Bye Baby"
one for MTV was actually a number from the tour. I actually
wanted to do a different piece for the MTV show, thinking
in terms of dancing and dinamycs I wanted to do "Justify
My Love", because it was a huge production number,
with all those beautiful costumes. I also had "Beast
Within" as another option but it was way too much
for MTV at that time, it would have been too controversial.
So they decided to do "Bye Bye Baby" and keep
it very mild. And also that song sort of represented the
whole idea of the "Girlie Show". The idea of
starting a show with a master of ceremony saying "Ladies
It was a great teaser for the tour. A perfect teaser for
the actual tour.
MT: How did your career change while
AM: During the tour my career really
changed. Suddenly people started saying "Who is this
guy?" because I sort of came out of nowhere and Madonna
has that ability to find raw talent. In my humble opinion
she doesn't really go for "who is the most famous
right now". She wants something different and unique.
A lot of choreographers today are oversaturated, they
do the same work for every artist. That's what happens
and it's nothing new.
And Madonna is smart because in order for that not to
happen she hires people who are fresh. People who have
fresh ideas with a fresh mind.
They are going to bring something new and unique. Something
made especially for Madonna as opposed to "let me
recycle what I did".
I don't mind recycling as long as you use that as a starting
point of creation just to get things going and from there
you come up with something new.
How did you approach choreographing the "Girlie Show"
knowing that people would sure compare it to the previous
tour, the hugely famous Blond Ambition?
AM: It was a huge pressure
but I also knew when I was brought in that the whole idea
of the director and Madonna herself was to do something
different than what they did on the previous tour.
Blond Ambition was a huge production, the set was much more
elaborated. They wanted to make something more simple relying
more on the music, the musicians and the performers.
As far as performance it's definitily one of the most raw,
in comparison to the other tours. Because it didn't rely
on huge props, huge lighting, huge big production set such
as the other tours. It was pretty simply in the sense that
it relied on her performance, the choreography, the staging
and the dancers. They made that show.
Never the less there was some brilliant choreography on
the Blond Ambition Tour. Vince Patterson did an amazing
work. He's one of my favourite choreographers and directors
and actually someone who I had the priviledge to work with
as a dancer in two different occasions: a music video for
Michael Jackson and a commercial.
I have a huge admiration for what he did back then with
the Blond Ambition dancers. They were so unique, so different,
Slam and the others became almost celebrities themselves.
MT: ...And the Truth or Dare
AM: Yes that helped because we got to know
the behind the scenes. Once again Madonna is the one who
invented "reality tv".
MT: ahaha, yes that's true
AM: Mtv has to bow down to her, she sort
of like took MTV to a whole new generation because of that
Truth Of Dare documentary. It changed the face of tv in
The Girlie Show came during a very controversial moment
in Madonna's career, it was after the "Sex" book
and the show was going to present highlights from her "Erotic"a
album. With the help of your choreographies the tour turned
out to be strong and sensual at the same time. How did you
work with Madonna to achieve such a result?
AM: Well "La isla Bonita"
was the first piece I did for Madonna, as a flamenco piece
which I wanted to do from the beginning but they didn't
want to so from my original audition routine I kept some
of the movements such as the wave from there.
The wave with the hands that Luca Tommassini does before
doing four pirouttes and then drop to the knees.
Then I added additional choreographies such as the hwole
dance break when Madonna dances with the guy.
The second piece was "Beast Within".
Madonna would come in and she would go: "Wait a minute,
can you add a sword movement and we put it's sound on it...
MT: ...And she was not
even on stage on that number...
AM: Yeah, she is very involved. Everyday
at the end of the rehearsal she would say: "Alex, tomorrow
we will be working on this".
She would take what she was working on with the musicians
because the day was splits between the dancers and the musicians.
So by the end of the day, which was pretty late she would
be bringing the tape, actually it was a DAT at the time,
from the rehearsals with the musicians and she would play
the next track that we wanted to work for the next day.
And she would go over the whole song, saying what the wanted,
giving me ideas and sometimes even possible steps or possible
staging, sort of improvising and sometimes even bringing
With "Bye Bye Baby" she did exactly this. She
took a chair and said "the girls sit on the lap"
and playing with the whole thing.
Doing pretty much a director's job, walking down the whole
song, like what she sees in her head and what she would
like to have happened. I would go home and and basically
writing down all the directions she gave me.
The next day I would put that in a choreographic format
in the right parts of the song. Break the song down into
verses, chorus, bridge and put it in a structure for it.
She would come in and say: "Perfect!", because
pretty much I followed her guide.
And when it wasn't "perfect" she would say "Ok
I don't like it, change it" and I said "Ok, fine"
and I would go and just change it.
Most of the time we would rehearse separately. I would rehearse
with her alone and then alone with the dancers.
And then put them together.
We rehearsed back at the old MGM studios and we had two
rooms, two huge film studios. I had one to rehearse with
her alone and one to rehease with the dancers.
Aids was very preminent, very huge big thing back then,
she was very into writing songs to support that. She was
very supportive of the community. So it became the tour
that became for many reasons. First of all because she was
who she was back then.
MT: And what kind of direction did she
give you for "Like A Virgin"? Who came up with
that Marlene Dietrich idea?
Well they told me to get the tape of a Marlene Dietrich
film. I watched the movie and studied some of the movements
and I kept that in mind and I was completely inspired by
Marlene Dietrich. That was the direction Madonna gave to
me and it was so much fun to do it because she is so good
to give new life to old songs, and it matches with her theatrical
MT: Absolutely, her latest tour was very
much about that.
AM: Right, she is one of the few artistist
today that are able to do that in a very succesfull way.
Giving a whole new world to the music and giving a whole
new life to the songs. She gives songs another 10 years
of new life each time giving them a "timeless quality".
I love that on her and I love to be part of it and to be
challenged to come up with steps that are also timeless.
That's the cool thing about working with madonna too. Especially
when you do pieces like Beast Within you are challenged
to come up with steps that are timeless. You can play that
today and it's still a great fresh number. Some of the numbers
because we used very hip movements they look a bit dated
but some of the work like Vogue from that tour is timeless
Is there one number your particulary proud of in the Girlie
AM: Of my work I'm proud of "Beast
Within", I'm proud of "Justify My Love" and
"La Isla Bonita". I Love all of them. As far as
other choreographer's work I love "Vogue", the
whole Indian idea is brilliant, the indu dance with the
hat is amazing, a clever idea really well done.
MT: And which was the most hard number
to work on?
AM: Even though I didn't choreograph it,
I had to "clean" the "Vogue" number.
And I must say it was one of the most hard for the dancers
because there was so much detail. "Beast Within"
also. It was very phisical and it was very aggressive and
harsh. And when you are in front of an audience you have
to be 300% on.
Choreographing the opening number, the pole dancing with Carrie
Ann Inaba, was also a great challenge. Carrie Ann took circus
classes by a specialist and they teached her the tecnique
and different steps.
A funny thing happened the day we did "Bye Bye Baby"
at MTV. Everybody else went to party later. You know what
MT: Let me think... You went to rehearse
AM: Yes, we went to rehearse (Laughs).
Well just Madonna Carrie Ann and myself.
Madonna wanted to work on "Erotica", the opening
with the whip. She wanted me to change a few things and
clean the number up. She worked on that while Carrie Ann
was there sitting and waiting.
Then she said "Ok now I'll work with Carrie Ann on
the pole" and helped her with the sequence, make her
fit more the music.
Carrie Ann had put a bunch of sequences together but it
wasn't structured properly because she was pretty much doing
on her own so Madonna said to me "Fix it, it has to
be done today". She is like that but it paid back because
the opening number looked amazing.
MT: Earlier in the interview you shared
with us the story of you leaving Brazil in search of fame
and fortune. How was going back to your country as Madonna's
choregrapher with the "Girlie Show" on the very
first time she performed there?
AM: There were 80.000 people in the stadium.
It was a huge thing, I did some interviews with the newspapers
there and it was a huge deal with Madonna.
It was the first time of Madonna there and the Brazilian
We had to let them in earlier because they were screaming
outsite the stadium and they were packed against each other
and the firemen had to hold them down. They were singing
even before the show started.
We were rehearsing for the show, Madonna was going over
some of the songs with normal clothes and the fans came
in and watched part of the rehearsals.
There are actually some pics around of people watching rehearsals,
it's quite funny because she doesn't usually let people
enter the arenas before she's done.
AM: She never does but in Brazil she was
so taken by the atmospheare. She didn't even have to try
to make them party. It was the fans that were saying: "Madonna
can you keep up with us? Cause we're gonna party".
MT: Must have been different from other
AM: Yes, first of all the other audiences
take it for granted, and for Brazil it was the first time
they saw Madonna performing live.
In a way it was a big honour for the Brazilian people to
be able to see a huge star like that. And they were thrilled
to see her. She is very ispiring for young people.
A lot people grew up with her and her music such as myself.
Madonna, Prince and Michal Jackson were the three huge teen
age idols people grew up with. And it took them many years
of works to become the stars they are today. Nowadays you
can become a star in two months and in a way that made the
word "star" lose its power.
Everybody is a star today or they think they are. The true
stars in my opinion are those that are timeless, that create
ways and not follow ways. People like Madonna, Prince, Michael
Jackson. Even if some of them didn't do much in recent years.
Madonna has transcended into time over and over.
MT: She has always been there actually.
AM: Yes, always.
Click here for Part Two
of this interview
where Alex talks to MadonnaTribe about his work in the Drowned