Cirque du Soleil: Gymnasts, dancers and the ghost of Jacko

The Times

January 30, 2012


The shouts are plaintive: “We love you, Michael!” Mass whooping and hollering ensues. The thing is, “Michael” isn’t in the cavernous thunderdome of Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay, where Cirque du Soleil, the sparkly and death-defying circus troupe, are holding the US premiere of Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour, featuring Jackson’s songs, sometimes in full, sometimes mixed together, playing over a group of dancers and acrobats throwing themselves off platforms or dancing in the dark, illuminated by lightbulbs sewn on to their leotards.

The show, which will tour the world over the next three years and reaches London this October, features no mention of child sex scandals or addictions. This is “a celebration of Michael’s life”, everyone with the show insists, and if you are not one of the Jackson faithful you may observe the spectacle askance, particularly when Bubbles the chimp appears, or when an animatronic “Michael” pilots a balloon with a red love heart glittering in the darkness. Blame it on the Boogie comes with two bejewelled model elephants.

Camp and deranged as it may be, here and there are fleeting references to the darker faultlines of Jackson’s biography: the show begins with the song Childhood (“Have you seen my childhood?” Jackson’s disembodied voice sings), the gates of Neverland on stage looming like prison gates.

A parade of hysterical tabloid headlines plays over Jackson desperately pleading for his privacy: the media are the criminals in the show, rather than Jackson. But these reflective moments are few, and soon we’re back to all-singing, all-dancing renditions of the likes of ABC and the gloopy environmentalism of Earth Song. It’s so portentously performed with multiple globes flying through the air that you yearn for a Jarvis Cocker-style intervention.

The show is made more problematic because, as Chantal Tremblay, the creative director, says: “You don’t have the star on that stage.You go and see Madonna and there may be 15, 20 dancers, but bam, you have that person, singing, the reason you are there. But we don’t have Michael . . . ”

Some moments make for stunning stagecraft — Thriller features a fun, jittery mash-up of video projections, a giant silver glove has its own dancing solo — but repeatedly Jackson’s voice, the references to his clothes and life and the presence of a figure attired in a white tracksuit covered in Swarovski crystals who seems like him, serve to underscore Tremblay’s point: Jackson isn’t there, and it’s bizarre seeing his ghost used so slickly to make money and weirder still to hear his devoted fans calling his name in the darkness.

Such misgivings are not held by Jackson’s intimates. Kevin Antunes, the show’s musical designer, says that Berry Gordy, the Motown Records boss who signed the Jackson 5 in 1968, told him: “The way this show has been put together, it’s as if the people truly knew Michael and truly knew his music.”

The Jackson family themselves are also squarely behind the show, seeing it en masse in Las Vegas (including their matriarch, Katherine). The day after the premiere, I meet Jackson’s brothers, Jackie and Tito. Jackie tells me they found it “exciting, uplifting, full of energy — it captured every aspect of my brother’s life”. The Jackson 5 tribute in the show “brought back the days when we were all young kids living our dream,” says Tito. “Hearing him sing Gone Too Soon was emotional for me, because he is too. I absolutely miss him, always will, every moment of the day.” I ask about the reality of that first song portraying a stunted childhood. Tito says: “We all shared that. We worked very hard at our craft. We didn’t always get the chance to go outside and play baseball, we were too busy rehearsing concerts. They called us ‘little guys with old men’s souls’.” The brothers, Jackie says, would like to see “as many productions as possible”.

The brothers themselves will be going on a world tour “performing his songs and our songs”, says Tito. As for Dr Conrad Murray, sentenced to four years’ jail for Jackson’s involuntary manslaughter, Tito says: “Whether they gave Dr Murray four years or 400 years, nothing is going to bring Michael Jackson back. I don’t feel hatred towards anyone.”

Jamie King, the show’s writer and director (and director of stage shows for stars such as Rihanna, Madonna and Britney Spears), was one of Jackson’s four principal dancers for his 1992 Dangerous tour. “I saw Michael leave his heart on the floor for his fans every night. I also saw his humanity, his humour, how passionate he was about the state of the world. This show is in no way reflective of his hard times or public views or the persecution of him. That’s not entertainment for me. This show had to be inspiring and loving.”

Tremblay says that when production members visited Neverland to research Jackson’s life she saw the “tiny studio” in which he practised his dance moves. “You could see where he was always spinning, the floor was scratched and a spotlight was focused on it.”

Jackson’s children saw the show at its world premiere in Montreal, she adds, where his son Prince, 14, played with his father’s animatronic puppet. Everyone involved with the production is adamant the singer would have “loved the show” in all its glittery bombast . . . well, almost. Travis Payne laughs. “Michael would have said, ‘The music needs to be louder, I can’t feel it in my chest.’ ”