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January 20, 2018

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Creation director: ‘Immortal’ is unlike any other Cirque du Soleil show


Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. The world premiere of Immortal was in Montreal, the location of Cirque headquarters, on Oct. 2, 2011.

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Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour

Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. The world premiere of Immortal was in Montreal, the location of Cirque headquarters, on Oct. 2, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour: Red Carpet

The red carpet for Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour in Montreal on Oct. 2, 2011. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

Salah Benlemoawanssa and Chantal Tremblay of Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour."

Click to enlarge photo

Salah Benlemoawanssa and Chantal Tremblay of Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour."

Cirque du Soleil and Michael Jackson

Cirque du Soleil and Michael Jackson's Immortal. Launch slideshow »

It was a 20-month journey from the first day of planning “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” spectacular to curtain up on its world premiere at Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal last month. The nearly two-year process fell on the shoulders of Chantal Tremblay, the company’s director of creation.

Chantal told me that the most important first step was putting the team together, and that took place at Neverland: “It was the first brick we set in stone for building. To start the show, to have a team, to be inspired so much by Neverland, we were so close to Michael in one sense there. It became the first step of our inspiration.

“Right from the start, it was all about Michael’s music, not the chronological story of his life. So we built the show in musical sections rather than as a story. Once we’d decided that at the beginning of our journey, we didn’t question it once -- we simply stayed with that. Our director, Jamie King, knew himself working with Michael that the music was the way to tell the story. Michael’s own songs drove the visual of the show and acted as the inspiration for the choreographers, the set designers -- everybody!

“We started with Neverland, and we brought the audience there. Instead of a chronological story, it was by section of things that were really important for Michael. That inspired us, too, to create more and better. It’s the messages in the songs that were the most important. The messages of ‘The World Upside Down’ and taking care of our Planet Earth came after the scary section with the monsters, gangsters and ‘Thriller.’ ”

I had to ask Chantal how she thought the percentage of Cirque versus the percentage of Michael Jackson worked out without huge personality clashes. She told me: “That’s a hard question, but I would say one-third Cirque, one-third a pop concert and one-third of Michael. But it is all married together. Michael is still the start of everything, obviously, but it’s a hybrid of those three worlds.

“There was no wrestling between us as to who wanted more than the other. Right from the beginning, the pop concert formula was very clear. We were not going to do a traditional Cirque show in an arena. This is the first time Cirque has entered the pop arena business, so it is different from anything you have in Las Vegas. This is about performance and feeling, with the perfect mix and fusion of rock ’n’ roll sexy and dangerous.

“We didn’t even want to go overboard with the level of acrobatics Cirque is so well known for, but you will see great tricks, great feats of acrobatics at the highest level. The white-and-black swan we saw on the lake at Neverland the first time we went there as they loved each other -- neck wrapped around neck -- was the inspiration for the strap sequence with our acrobats.

“We never set out saying we want this performance or that performance. We took it a completely different way and let Michael’s music steer us. It was a challenge for us because it was so different from what we do normally, but I’m very proud of what we put together. You might call them Cirque trademarks, but these performances are totally different because there’s a lot of youth, a lot of young stuff, energy, free running and very untraditional tumbling. We never wanted our work to distract from Michael’s work.”

There’s no question that the 65 performers in “Immortal” are remarkable and different from any we have seen on the Strip: fiery, yet beautifully sexy rock musicians to the amazing one-legged hip-hop dancer to the twin dancers Larry and Laurent Bourgeois. There’s also the very remarkable principal dancer Salah Benlemoawanssa.

I wondered if Cirque ever worried about running out of talented performers and how they discovered people new and different for “Immortal.” “It’s always a challenge,” Chantal said. “After making so many shows, you still want to find something special. For ‘Immortal,’ we found the artist Salah. The way he moves and the strength of those dancers we have.

“We found two numbers, which we never had at Cirque before: the tumbling, the Japanese men’s rhythmic group who fall on their stomachs from great heights. I agree with you, Robin, unbelievable. The Swiss ring, which is the last number, is also new that we have never done before at Cirque. Yes, Robin, your heart skips a beat, breathtaking.

“We remembered Salah as we looked inside Michael’s inner world, and he found inspiration for his own movements from the great mime Marcel Marceau, who he admired. So we asked ourselves who would be the mime for Michael in 2011. We knew we didn’t dare go with a traditional mime, but the way Salah moves is totally unique. We’d actually tried to hire him from France when we started doing the Beatles ‘Love’ show.

“We brought him to Montreal to audition, but things happen and it didn’t work out. However, we kept good relations over the years, and then as our director showed us the redline link through Michael’s music, we wanted somebody to show us the story. How do we show a story with dance? The way he moves, he is the only one to move like this, so it became the perfect fit.”

In my notes from the premiere, I had circled Salah’s name, writing “not only does he have Michael’s moves down, but he may do them even better than Michael did. Chantal commented: “He’s certainly different than anybody we’ve met before. In the show, he’s the one possessed more by Michael. He’s the one who gets closest to Michael’s spirit. All I can say is that Michael’s music goes inside his body, and he just goes for it.”

Chantal and Jamie, who wraps up our five-part series Friday, worked with no less than 10 choreographers for the auditions held in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Montreal. She told me every dancer hired for the show had to be able to make Michael’s miracle moves: “We had to be sure they moved exactly the same, so when you see those 24 dancers onstage, you don’t see even one who is not totally Michael. They had to be capable to do Michael’s routines because they are in clockwork sync for the iconic moves of ‘Smooth Criminal.’

They are a young cast -- mid 20s -- so we didn’t want them copying or interpreting a 40-year-old Michael. We reprogrammed them so it was new, passionate, as if they were eating those dance steps from morning to night. You’ll understand when you see them because they love it, it’s so fresh for them. It was such a unique experience for them to work with Michael’s own choreographers.

“After our first night, Michael’s three brothers Jackie Marlon and Tito came backstage with our founder Guy Laliberte and our President Daniel Lamarre and said how happy and proud they were of the show. They told the cast they had been really touched by what we accomplished. It was so important for us to hear that after all the hard work. We did it in less than 24 months. For Cirque, that’s short timing and very intense.”

Be sure to check out our “Immortal” stories posted Monday, with Michael’s three brothers, and Tuesday, with the costume designer and backstage technicians. Then check back tomorrow for our interviews with Musical Director Gregg Phillinganes and Musical Designer Kevin Antunes, both of whom worked with Michael on his previous tours. On Friday, it’s a wrap with our onstage sit-down with the mastermind director and show author, Jamie King.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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