Performing Arts

Cirque takes on King of Pop's signature dance moves

By Chantale Glover

The legacy of Michael Jackson will unfold on stage Fridaywith mind-blowing body contortions and a Cirque du Soleil fantasy of fireworks, gymnasts and dancing strobe lights.

Almost three years after the pop star's death, the Michael Jackson estate has teamed up with Cirque for a 47-city tour that critics have called "timeless and inspiring." The show started in Montreal in October 2011, danced its way across Canada, and will be staged Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at American Airlines Arena.

The Jackson family and Cirque have entrusted two-time Emmy-nominated choreographer Travis Payne to help create the show's moon-walking madness and "pop-locking" performances.

"It's a dream come true for me, " says Payne, a director and producer who has worked alongside the Jackson family since the early '90s. "It's been a blessing."

He has worked on sister Janet's Rhythm Nation tour and appeared in a number of Michael's videos (Remember the Time, Scream and Ghosts). Payne, of Atlanta, also served as the main choreographer and associate producer of Jackson's planned "This Is It" tour.

"There is a great honor, I feel, being able to be involved as long and in as many ways as I have, " he says.

When Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour opens, it will bring Jackson's life, his music and his style to the stage - using the theatrics of Cirque Du Soleil's over-the-top costumes and outrageous acrobatics.

"It's a mixture between a theatrical show and a pop-rock concert, " Payne says. "You feel like you're inside an experience. It's just different."

Payne and a crew of choreographers have sketched out a plan that allows 30 dancers to showcase Michael's signature moves on stage.

Musical selections will serve as a jukebox, jammed with some of Jackson's chart-topping singles: Beat It, Smooth Criminal, Black or White, Thriller, and many more. The lineup is arranged to tell a story.

Salah Benlemqawanssa, 32, in a white costume adorned with crystals, is the featured dancer who represents "Michael's spirit."

Benlemqawanssa says he now realizes the true messages in Jackson's songs and often gets overwhelmed with emotion during his performance of Earth Song.

When he asked Jamie King, the writer and concert director, what was needed for the portrayal, King said "I want everything, I want emotion. You are the transitioning piece of the show, ' " Benlemqawanssa recalls.

King, creative director for celebrities such as Madonna, Rihanna, and Celine Dion, said on Cirque du Soleil's website, the show "is a journey into Michael's head, Michael's world."

He has one goal.

"When people leave the arena I want them to be inspired, I want them to be excited, to be celebrating Michael's life. I want them to leave knowing something more about Michael."