A show like no other

  • Article by: SARAH KAUFMAN , Washington Post
  • Updated: July 8, 2012 - 7:45 PM

Dance numbers drive Cirque du Soleil's "Immortal" tribute to Michael Jackson.


Cirque du Soleil’s production of “Michael Jackson Immortal” will begin its European tour later this summer. It features Jackson’s voice, his live band and dozens of dancers.

Photo: , Cirque du Soleil

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We always knew Michael Jackson's life was a circus -- eccentricity swirled around him like the paparazzi.

But he wasn't the only pop star defined by oddness. The sex scandals, pet chimps and radical changes to his looks weren't entirely out of keeping in an industry that has embraced Jerry Lee Lewis, Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga.

But inspiring a true under-the-big-top spectacle? Now that's something perhaps only Jackson could do.

Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour," which opened in Montreal in early July and tours the United States and Canada throughout the summer, claims to capture the "essence, soul and inspiration" of the late King of Pop. In interviews posted on the show's website, its creators state that Jackson's music and vocals drive the production.

They're wrong. Granted, the music is important -- more than 30 of Jackson's songs, including such hits as "Wanna Be Starting Something," "Dangerous," "Beat It," "Smooth Criminal" and "Man in the Mirror," are heard throughout the show, in mash-ups, remixes and live performances of new arrangements. Musical director Greg Phillinganes traces his Jackson expertise back to session work on several of the singer's albums and to his "Bad" and "Dangerous" concert tours, for which Phillinganes was also musical director.

But without Jackson's legacy as a dance icon, there would be no Cirque circus. There would be, instead, the Jackson version of "Beatlemania." "MJmania," perhaps.

Think about it: If he weren't such a physical performer, known for his introspective solos as well as full-out dance numbers in which his footwork outshone the career dancers fanned out behind him, what would Cirque's dancers, contortionists and acrobats have been able to sink their famous bodies into? Jackson was a profoundly talented kinetic artist as well as a musician. He was unique in the pop-music world, an entertainer whose physical expression came at us just as powerfully as his musical one.

To be sure, there are countless other pop stars who dance. Ne-Yo pays affectionate homage to Jackson with his white socks and crisp, jazz-inflected choreography (which Jackson, by the way, borrowed in large measure from Broadway great Bob Fosse).

With his velvet coordination, Usher brings up-to-the-minute dance trends like the Memphis jook onstage. But not he, Ne-Yo or enthusiastic singer-dancer Chris Brown has the personal flamboyance or global renown to spark a theatrical event like the Cirque du Soleil show, which, besides the U.S. and Canadian shows this summer, has European dates booked through next spring.

And none of them has made dancing a cornerstone of his craft to the extent that Jackson did.

Jackson's identification as a dancer went beyond the common practice of injecting choreographed sequences into live performances and music videos. Even if such appealing singer-dancers as Beyonce or Madonna were to depart this life well before their time, as Jackson did three years ago at age 50, I'm not sure that the desire to cash in on their popularity would bloom into a dance-acrobatic-narrative extravaganza as this Cirque production promises to be.

Questions were 'like a child's'

"I don't know who you could really put next to him," ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov told me just after Jackson died in June 2009. "To imitate somebody like Michael Jackson is impossible. Why bother? You just relax and admire."

Baryshnikov, who was introduced to Jackson by Elizabeth Taylor, recalled encounters marked by Jackson's hungry curiosity about ballet and the process of working with choreographers. The pop king was a completely intuitive dancer; his questions about the studied art of it, Baryshnikov said, were like a child's.

That natural ability is what most impressed the ballet dancer, who fondly remembered Jackson's "superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, 'Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.'"

There was his world-famous moonwalk, which, even though Jackson didn't invent it -- it was a longtime tap-dance staple -- is a technique that will be forever linked to the pop star. It's difficult to think of him without seeing him sliding backward across the stage, as if he's slipping on ice, or being pulled by an invisible thread.

Jackson's dance prowess was in glorious evidence from the start. As the Jackson 5's kid singer, he absorbed James Brown's moves into his bones, especially the Godfather of Soul's precise, twisting footwork and his tight spins that started with a sweep of one shoulder. Jackson's joy in moving was an instinctive musical response, and as much a part of his appeal as his dimples and sweet soprano.

A barely contained fire

As his solo career grew, so did the power he could project through that lithe, boyish body. By the time he was singing in stadiums, the electricity in his dancing could be felt in the highest rows.

Look at the jolts and shudders he delivered when he performed "Billie Jean," for example. This wasn't a vanity moment, an opportunity for a costume change and some mimed makeout with a backup dancer, as you see in so many other pop concerts. It was a demonstration of the barely contained fire in this performer, the volcanic self-expression that, whatever the oddities of his personal life, found a positive outlet in a perfected physical display.

This physical fire is what extends Jackson's legacy in a way that Whitney Houston or Donna Summer, as mourned as they are, will never enjoy. The recognizable moves, the kinetic excitement and the visual spectacle of the Jackson concert experience can be resurrected and multiplied, with a cast of hundreds, even though the star is missing. Cirque du Soleil does it with bloodied, mummy-wrapped characters inspired by the "Thriller" video, dancing in "re-imagined" choreography. There is also a chorus of performers in red biker jackets like the one Jackson wore in "Beat It." And hip-hop dancers take the stage in a riff on the video Jackson made with basketball great Michael Jordan.

There's even a number that was designed for Jackson's "This Is It" tour, the one he was working on before he died.

"This will be the show that Michael wasn't able to do," says Phillinganes in a promotional video clip. Perhaps.

But in a larger sense, Jackson had done it all before. That's why the show exists.

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  • Musical director Greg Phillinganes has included more than 30 Jackson songs in the show. “I don’t know who you could really put next to him,” ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov said. “To imitate somebody like Michael Jackson is impossible.”

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