A performance of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. Courtesy Cirque du Soleil
A performance of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. Courtesy Cirque du Soleil

Behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour



Tucked away in an obscure corner backstage at the Dubai World Trade Centre, behind the elaborate glittering set erected for Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour by Cirque du Soleil, the wardrobe room erupts with a flurry of activity around one of the Smooth Criminal dancers.

It’s mere days before the opening night of the show, which began on Monday, and a wardrobe assistant is offering precise instructions on how to do a Jackson-inspired move – tipping his hat.

“Be careful when you manipulate the hat,” she explains. “Try not to press it too much or else it will lose its shape.”

Excited to be donning a striped blue suit with gloves shaped like guns, looking every bit the part, the dancer playfully raises his hand in an aim and murmurs gunfire sounds.

“This feels awesome. This is so cool. Can I look at myself in a mirror?” he says, in a single breath.

It’s backstage chaos before the much-anticipated show goes live for an audience of 6,000 people – and that many people are expected each night until January 14. Managing more than 1,500 costumes and props to create the over-the-top “King of Pop-meets-Cirque” proceedings is a challenging feat. But the cast and crew of Cirque’s largest-grossing production, which has toured 117 cities around the world, make it run like a well-oiled machine.

While the head of wardrobe, Bettina Bolzer, delegates tasks to her team in the green room, two harnessed acrobats are mastering a centrepiece aerial act on stage to the song I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.

“This artist has just stepped in as the previous dancer had to leave the show,” explains Laura Silverman, the show’s publicist. “But she has been our backup, so there isn’t any change.”

The various facets of the show fall into place, propelled by hundreds of technicians and volunteers who work around the clock, checking the lighting effects, placement of larger-than-life props in acts – a sequinned white glove, antigravity shoes and Thriller coffins – interaction with the audience and multiple costume changes.

The top level “BBQ deck”, which is where the musicians sit, is supported by the “underworld” – an entire city below the stage that ensures the smooth running of the show. Artists dash to the “rabbit room”, where their chairs are ready with make-up tools and accessories for fast changes between acts. Some are scheduled for up to eight costume changes with not more than a minute to spare.

Between preparing for their roles in the highly charged atmosphere, the artists find time to reminisce about time spent with Michael Jackson on tours.

Cameron McKinlay, 27, is a dancer who portrays a Jackson fanatic in the show, teaching the audience how to moonwalk.

He often talks to the musicians who worked with Jackson about his tour shenanigans.

“He was an amazing and talented performer, but his band members say he was a goofball as well,” says McKinlay. “They’ve told me that during soundchecks he would sneak up in the grid and squirt them with water. It is great to hear things about MJ that no one has heard besides close friends.”

Vincent Deplanche, a parkour artist from France, says that a behind-the-scenes camaraderie translates into a strong and revealing show.

“Expect to be touched, be amazed by MJ’s secrets,” he says.

“You are part of his privacy, his childhood, the things he loved, the people he was surrounded by. You can be emotional over touching moments in his life and get excited by listening to the hits you often hear on the radio. The ones that will get the Dubai audience on their feet.”

aahmed@thenational.ae

Read Olga Camacho's review of the show at our Scene&Heard blog

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