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‘MJ’ director Christopher Wheeldon on how he brought Michael Jackson’s dancing to life

‘I can make the shape, but what is the intention and the attitude behind that? The people who worked with Michael and danced with him understand that,’ the choreographer says of creating the Broadway musical.

Michael Jackson is portrayed with rubbery finesse in “MJ: The Musical” by Myles Frost. (Matthew Murphy)
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Christopher Wheeldon knows more than a little about the precision and perfectionism that drove Michael Jackson into his swift, twisting spins and his backward-gliding moonwalk.

One of the world’s eminent ballet choreographers, Wheeldon has a strong appreciation for Jackson’s impeccable control as a dancer. But when he began working on the dances in “MJ” — the kaleidoscopic Broadway musical about the King of Pop, which Wheeldon directed and choreographed — he had to face facts.

“I don’t have a popping technique,” Wheeldon said in a recent interview from New York. “I’m not a hip-hop dancer.”

Christopher Wheeldon, bringing ballet to Broadway

The musical takes place during Jackson’s preparations for his 1992 “Dangerous” world tour, and focuses tightly on his creative process, excluding the most disturbing aspects of his personal life that dogged the singer, who died in 2009 at age 50. (The timeline of “MJ,” created under an arrangement with the Jackson estate, stops short of the eruption of child molestation allegations that surfaced in 1993, and eventually led to lawsuits and a criminal trial.)

“MJ” is mostly set in a rehearsal studio, where Jackson — portrayed with rubbery finesse by Myles Frost — works on his songs and the ghosts of his past, surrounded by an extraordinary ensemble of spectacularly buff dancers. The dancing is the show’s crowning achievement; Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks hailed “MJ” as “a riveting, adrenaline rush of a show” and “a dance musical of the first rank.”

From the start of his three-year collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, who wrote the show’s book, Wheeldon knew he wanted to lead with the dancing. But he wasn’t going to take a paint-by-numbers approach and merely reproduce Jackson’s music videos, with a crotch grab here and swiveling ankles there. Wheeldon isn’t that kind of choreographer. None of the big names are; there’s no creative challenge in it. Justin Peck, for example, didn’t duplicate Jerome Robbins’s original dances when he worked on Steven Spielberg’s recent film version of “West Side Story.” Peck used Robbins as inspiration for a fresh approach.

But to riff on Jackson’s famously eye-popping moves, to build variations on his themes of anxiety and defiance, and to free the pop star’s physical expressiveness from the three-minute song frame, Wheeldon had to start somewhere, and his customary starting point is himself.

“I’m so used to fully realizing movement through my own body,” he says, “but I don’t have that with Michael.”

The British-born Wheeldon, 48, has been a Jackson fan since his teenage years, when the poster of 1987′s “Bad” album hung in his dorm room at White Lodge, the London residence for Royal Ballet School students. Yet neither his admiration nor his magnificent dance experience — with the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet, performing works by all the greats, including Robbins, George Balanchine and others, and choreographing ballets in opera houses around the world — told him how it felt to move like Jackson.

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This, Wheeldon says, was the most difficult part of his work on “MJ.” “I’ve never had that experience before,” he says.

“So much is in intention and attitude and not just shape,” he adds. “I can make the shape, but what is the intention and the attitude behind that? The people who worked with Michael and danced with him understand that.”

So Wheeldon rounded up a team of experts. “You have to set your ego aside and understand that there are people who know this world far better than you do,” he says. “People who are moving Michael encyclopedias.”

He brought in Rich and Tone Talauega, brothers who had danced and choreographed with Jackson on tour and in his videos, and he leaned on the show’s associate choreographer, Michael Balderrama, a Broadway veteran who’d also danced with Jackson. Equipped with their muscle memories, Wheeldon began building a new vision of Jackson’s artistry.

Wheeldon took a similarly expansive, interpretive approach in 2015, when he directed and choreographed the Broadway musical “An American in Paris,” based on the 1951 movie with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. (Wheeldon won a best choreography Tony for his work.) That production helped him land the “MJ” job, after officials with the Jackson estate saw it.

“They felt Michael would have really liked it,” Wheeldon says, “the way it moved, and the way I’d taken these iconic artists and not tried to re-create them.”

Nottage says she and Wheeldon endeavored to tell Jackson’s story “not only in a traditional way, but through how he uses his body.” She was inspired by a line that Jackson scribbled in a notebook: “I like to think while I dance. I process my ideas through my body.”

Frost’s Jackson voices this early in the show, to the MTV reporter (Whitney Bashor) who’s recording his rehearsals, and whose interview with him unleashes memories of singing as a youngster in the Jackson 5, and suffering an abusive father. There’s scant mention of Janet Jackson, though — you’d never know Michael had a famous little sister, who, according to her recent docuseries, was always underfoot in their early years. But you wouldn’t be wrong if you suspected that a few of the show’s moments are Janet-inspired — Wheeldon watched a great deal of her work, he says, and unintentionally but quite possibly mixed in some traces.

There aren’t many dance sequences in “MJ” that are wholly Michael Jackson’s. The “Billie Jean” number is close to Jackson’s solo spot on the Motown 25 television special in 1983, when viewers gaped at his moonwalk and then lost their minds. The show’s epic “Thriller” number has red jackets and monsters, but it veers sharply from Jackson’s original. The monsters are subtly costumed as various versions of Jackson, as if he’s being devoured by his past personas. It includes almost zero Michael language, Wheeldon says.

“Doing our version of ‘Thriller’ versus Michael’s version was always a difficult one to encourage the estate to go along with,” Wheeldon says. “But what they appreciated in the end is that we could take a Michael song and successfully place it in the narrative we were building, and also deliver a sense of joy and spectacle for the audience. We could do both, in fact.”

Ultimately, Wheeldon preserved what most astonished his practiced eye: Jackson’s unique clarity of movement.

“He danced with this superhuman speed and precision and attack, which ballet dancers certainly can understand,” the choreographer says. “But what you don’t necessarily connect with the dancing of a pop star is that you can pause him anywhere through a sequence, and you realize he is attacking each pose with infinite amounts of precision.

“I was just in awe of the articulation in his body,” Wheeldon continues. “The ability to seemingly isolate every bone, every muscle, and to be so full of attack in those isolations, and then below, be like mercury in his legs. Seamlessly shape shifting.”

Jackson’s moonwalk, for example, “reminds me of a ballerina with a brilliant bourrée,” he says. When beautifully done, this string of quick, tiny, blurred steps is so smooth, the dancer seems to float atop her legs. You can’t see where the motion comes from. As in a moonwalk, “it only happens if they can hold the top of their legs together in a lock, and have enough release in the knees to have the feet behave like liquid,” Wheeldon says. “You can’t quite believe the human body can do that.”

As he and Nottage worked on the script, Wheeldon covered a mirror in his living room with colored Post-it notes scribbled with song titles. He moved them around as his ideas on how to link them evolved.

“I just sat back and watched in wonder as he worked out a movement vocabulary to tell the story,” Nottage says. Wheeldon could improvise in the moment when they got stuck, which is what happened during an initial attempt to stage the “Bad” number in the second act.

“He said to the dancers and singers, ‘I’m going to do something now if you’ll just bear with me,’ ” Nottage recalls.

Then Wheeldon showed them how they should surround Frost’s Jackson — “so he’s circled by all the people in his life who question him, and it’s like this hive around him, and then he goes into this bone-chilling scream, and goes back into the dance,” Nottage says.

“Watching him build that was really revelatory. He did it in response to wanting to capture what Michael was feeling. It couldn’t be a traditional number. It had to be much more expressionistic. We all just broke into applause.”

For some observers, though, the greatest act of creativity in the show may be the story itself, which stops short of the alleged abuses that still cloud Jackson’s legacy. How does Wheeldon feel about the absences?

“Lynn and I felt we needed to look at this as making a piece of entertainment first and foremost,” Wheeldon says. “Our work as artists is to make something that’s honest but also entertaining, that has a point of view without being in any way judgmental, and makes space for the points of view of the individual audience members. We worked hard to create a work that gives everyone space to bring in their own feelings about Michael, and not in any way be judgmental.”

Members of the Jackson estate came to rehearsals at the beginning, he says. They also attended a studio run at the end of the rehearsal process and gave the creative team notes. “There was an assumed suggestion that they were on us all the time and dictating what we did, but that wasn’t the case,” Wheeldon says. “We ended up telling the story we wanted to tell. We were not told what we had to do.”

The estate, he says, wanted to show “a meteoric rise through the creation of the ‘Thriller’ album. And they wanted balance. They were fine with us dealing with some of the harder truths, as long as it was balanced with showing the brilliance of Michael’s creative process.”

Wheeldon acknowledges that building the show solely around Jackson’s art and some of the circumstances surrounding it “is a choice we made that’s not necessarily going to make everyone happy.”

“These are conversations we’ve had about great artists in the past,” he adds, “and that we will have about artists in the future — about the legacies that are left behind by complex artists.”

And in the end, he says, Jackson’s body of work will endure, and it will demand interpretation.

“He’s left behind a legacy that is not going away,” Wheeldon says. “Wherever you land on Michael, the art is going to live.”

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