Forever Michael

Cirque du Soleil pays tribute to the King of Pop, complete with pole-dancing, acrobats and a ‘Thriller’ sequence

May 2, 2012

Michael Jackson’s life was often called a circus. It was inevitable that someone would take that literally.

Cirque du Soleil’s touring amalgam of rock concert and circus show, “Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL World Tour,” was conceived after Jackson’s death in 2009.

“It was always Michael’s fantasy to work with Cirque,” says choreographer Travis Payne. “He was at the very first Cirque du Soleil tent show in Santa Monica, Calif.”

Payne, who worked with Jackson over a period of 15 years, is one of 10 choreographers who conceived the show. The show’s loose story revolves around a mime standing outside the gates of Jackson’s estate, Neverland Ranch, who becomes inspired by Jackson’s musical spirit.

Payne’s challenge as a choreo-grapher was to bring the stories of Jackson’s music to life without introducing him as a character.

“It’s about the essence of Michael, woven throughout the show,” he says. “There’s nobody even dressed like Michael; he appears on video. Because it’s not possible to re-create it.”

Payne was tasked with reimagining some of the most iconic moments in pop music. Everyone knows the Michael Jackson dance moves, so choreographers have to walk a fine line between homage and copycatting. For the “Thriller” dance, he took the original zombie concept and tweaked it just slightly, to mummies. “I know how much [Jackson] loved scary and the macabre. To be able to reimagine it and put my spin on it was really great,” says Payne.

While he was alive, Jackson’s personal weirdness and possible misconduct made him a deeply divisive figure. But nobody was ever divided about the music. Since Jackson died, the bizarre life that at times overshadowed his monumental contributions to pop music has become less and less important to his legacy. While he continues to be, like Marilyn Monroe, a symbol of the dangers of fame, there’s no longer an internal moral conflict when “Beat It” comes over the loudspeaker.

Cirque’s decision to emphasize his musical gifts serves a dual purpose: It reminds the audience of Jackson’s enduring and undeniable talents, and it highlights the sadness of this being the complete catalog. We won’t get anything more from Michael Jackson, it reminds us, but isn’t what we got awesome?

For Payne, who took Jackson as an inspiration when he was growing up as a would-be dancer in Atlanta, Jackson’s dedication and talent were always the main event.

“Creativity was key. That was going to be first,” he says, describing what he feels Jackson would have appreciated about the show. “With Michael’s creative process, it was whatever it took. It was always a comfortable place to create. And being on the Cirque campus [in Montreal] is quite like that. We were able to create the show in an environment that mirrored something that was so special to my experiences with Michael.”

“Being in certain parts of the Cirque campus is like being at his Neverland,” he says. “It was only a matter of time before Michael and Cirque worked together — I don’t think anybody expected it to be this way.”

Pop & Circumstance

Cirque du Soleil takes simple stories to weird places; here’s how it interprets M.J.’s biggest hits.

“Dancing Machine”: This Jackson 5 hit comes to life with acrobats dressed as welders swinging through the air on giant cables.

“This Place Hotel”: A tale of sad love is accompanied by two people doing a tango in mid-air, “as if they were in an anti-gravity nightclub,” according to press materials.

“Scream”: This act features “Ninja-style” dancers, Japanimation and the implication that the world is on the brink of destruction. F.z.

Moving Tribute

Cirque veteran Felix Cane, who performs an athletic pole dance to “Dangerous,” says the song has always been dear to her. “The very first album that I made my parents buy for me was ‘Dangerous,’” she says. “I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. I was lucky enough to see him live in concert twice as a young girl, so he was a great role model for me as a performer.”

1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., Baltimore; Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m., $50-$175; 410-347-2020.
Verizon Center, 601 F St. NW; July 13-15, $50-$175; 202-628-3200. (Gallery Place)
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