King of Pop honoured in stage spectacle

Pole dancer Anna Melinkova performs to the song Dangerous in a scene from Cirque Du Soleil's Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour.
Pole dancer Anna Melinkova performs to the song Dangerous in a scene from Cirque Du Soleil's Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour. Contributed by Kath Rose Publicity

THE man, the myth, the music - there will only ever be one Michael Jackson.

Four years on from his death, one of the world's most renowned live entertainment companies is celebrating the reasons why Jackson was crowned the King of Pop.

Jackson's life as an entertainer is celebrated in Cirque Du Soleil's Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour, currently making its way across the country.

Debuting in Perth last week, just three weeks after what would have been Jackson's 55th birthday, the show plays a strictly limited season in Brisbane from October 2 to October 6.

Immortal blends the iconic choreography from film clips including Thriller, Bad, Smooth Criminal and Billie Jean with Cirque's dazzling acrobatics and aerial displays.

It's Cirque's take on a rock concert, with Jackson's music the undisputed star of the show.

Immortal is the company's largest touring arena show to date, featuring 124 cast and crew members.

But behind the scenes the scale of the tour comes to light.

The show is travelling Australia in 40 trucks, with three trucks dedicated to carrying more than 250 costumes comprised of more than 1200 individual pieces.The set features 5500 square feet of projection screens and large pieces like the gates to Neverland.

Immortal is also Cirque's most wardrobe-intensive show, with different costumes worn for nearly all of the 21 numbers.

All those costumes must be cleaned, maintained and carefully organised.

The show travels with industrial-sized washers and dryers, and four casual workers are hired in each city to help the two full-time staff members dedicated to laundry.

"Most of the wardrobes on tour (in other Cirque shows) aren't as complex as ours," said wardrobe supervisor Tanya Liquorish, who has also worked on Cirque's Saltimbanco, Ovo and Dralion productions.

"Because we travel so fast we have to be totally self-sufficient."

The wardrobe staff help the performers with their changes each night.

As well as two full dressing rooms backstage, there are two small quick-change rooms under the stage for performers who have less than a minute to get out of one costume and into the next.

The show travels with at least two and sometimes three backups for each outfit in case of a last-minute rip or malfunction.

Nate Mondell's sole job is to look after the three sets of costumes which feature LED lights.

He calls himself "Mr Fix It".

We find him backstage at the Perth Arena soldering wires at a table in front of a wall of dozens of charging batteries.

"I can't sit behind a desk; I get bored," he said.

"This gives me a chance to work with a bunch of women (in the costume department), with a variety of personalities (laughs). I'm like the brother in the group."

The celestial costumes, a sort of black fishnet bodysuit which transforms the dancers into ever-changing constellations as they twirl from hoops midair, feature 275 individual LEDs.

Mondell can program each light to individually display a range of colours, or blink at a desired speed.

But the most impressive costumes are the tracksuits, hats, gloves and shoes worn for the Billie Jean number, which have 600 LEDs per outfit.

The lights are controlled via a wireless signal, which works well aside from the occasional interference from a venue's wi-fi or the thousands of mobile phones packed into a venue at show time.

The Billie Jean costumes feature so many lights that staff had to make special circuit boards and batteries.

Tweaking the costumes has been an ongoing job, with the LED strips in the Billie Jean costumes now stored in flexible material rather than being stitched into the fabric.

"It's at a point now where it's ready to go on a tour," Mondell said.

"Before it was prototyped and it was very difficult to get it to be consistent, so we're getting closer to our goal."

Even up close, every costume is complete down to the finest detail.From the Swarovski crystal-encrusted white glove worn by mime Mansour Abdessadok to one-legged dancer Jean Sok's eight pairs of crutches decorated to match his various costumes, no expense seems to have been spared for this show.

Saxophone player Michael Ghegan says Jackson's high standards have influenced every aspect of Immortal.

Ghegan plays saxophone in the 11-piece band, which features six musicians who played with Jackson including his long-time drummer Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett and bass guitarist Don Boyette.

"What Jonathan and Don talk about all the time is how Michael was such a stalwart for perfection," he said.

"He worked so hard every day on his own for hours to make sure that it was perfect.

"It kind of changes your life, doing this gig. I had a really beautiful conversation with Don one night and I was like 'You have single-handedly changed my attitude toward what I will accept as perfection'. It's raised the bar in every aspect of my playing, my writing and my production."

Oh to be a fly on the wall in the band's dressing room.

"There's a sanctity to the band dressing room that is unparalleled," Ghegan said.

"The stories that go on in that room every night are all first-hand. There's no elaborating; there's no need to.

"They're just people recounting moments of their lives with this icon of music.

"It's a one-of-a-kind experience and that translates every night on to the stage."

Dancer Tina Cannon waited for more than a year to join her fiancé Cameron McKinlay, also a dancer, on the show.

Despite her years of experience performing in a US tour of Fosse, as a Radio City Rockette and in Cirque's own The Beatles LOVE show, Cannon had to work hard to prove she was a versatile dance who could seamlessly change from contemporary to hip hop to acrobatics.

"I used that time to really practice and submit videos to have them change their outlook of what type of dancer I am," she said.

"I had to evolve that and become the hip-hop dancer they'd need for this show."

Cannon has been with Immortal for a year, joining the show for the European leg of its world tour.

She said she loves the feeling at the end of the show, when she can relax and take a moment to properly appreciate the audience.

"It's one of my most favourite moments. It's that exhale of relief and accomplishment," she said.

"We're very blessed to have a job where at the end of every day you get a round of applause.

"Sometimes these moments happen so quickly. You're on stage and it's going so fast and you're like 'Oh my goodness I'm in Australia; here I am in front of thousands of people'."

Cannon believes keeping much of Jackson's original choreography is key to the show's credibility.

"I think people would be disappointed if they didn't see Thriller.

Thriller and Smooth Criminal are the two big ones," she said.

"When you think of Michael Jackson you think of those songs. Even if you're not a dancer you kind of know the dance moves already."

Immortal is not a traditional Cirque show, but it's also not a traditional tribute show either.

No one is impersonating Jackson himself, although the King of Pop is ever-present as his voice fills the arena.

But perhaps that's a more fitting way to celebrate Jackson's music and choreography without treading into cheesy tribute territory.

Michael Jackson The Immortal plays the Brisbane Entertainment Centre from October 2 to 6.

Tickets available through Ticketek.

>>More Music News

Michael Jackson The Immortal highlights

  • Dancers suspended above the stage become twirling constellations to the song Human Nature.
  • The start of act two featuring the stunning swans aerial ballet, a feat of both strength and grace, to the song I Just Can't Stop Loving You.
  • Any dance number featuring the talents of one-legged dancer Jean Sok.  His astounding moves in Dancing Machine and Thriller are particular highlights.
  • Electric cello player Mariko's fierce, string-breaking playing during Beat It.
  • Pole dancer Anna Melnikova's spectacular strength and flexibility in her solo performance to Dangerous, focusing on her athleticism rather than sex appeal.

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