June 26, 2009

Fancy Footwork – The History Tour
Michael Jackson, Ericsson Stadium, Auckland
Nov. 1996

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
[for The Listener, 7 December 1996]

Nothing in Michael Jackson’s fragile civilian appearance prepares you for the panther-strong, stroppy, striding dancer who takes the stage.  He arrives in a rocket, not batting an eyelid at the furious fireworks detonating all around him, and initiates a two and a half hour performance that ranks with some of the greatest co-ordinated entertainments in history.

Jackson’s hallmark moon-walking, double foot pirouettes, torso isolations, semaphore arms and shoot-from-the-hip high kick are all the signs of a highly qualified and superfit dancer. There’s quite a bit of pelvis-tipping too. The Māori call it kopikopi, but it’s a movement found in the erotic dancing of many cultures and as a rule has one unambiguous message. Although the movement is ages old, this clever performer slows it down and reverses its accent to make it all his own.

Same trick when, between songs, he cries out "I love you" – with accent on "you", so he seems to be addressing every individual present. All his moves are timed to kill, the mark of a consummate performer. In "I’ll Be There" he pauses to control a sob but, in seeming grief, is unable to carry on. That pause is held for an outrageously long time and leads at least some to think he has lost the thread.  Fooled you.

A crane lifts Jackson 100 metres high and out over the crowd. In a phenomenal show of strength, he holds onto the steel circle bar above his head, lifts his legs out over the lower bar, and arches his body backwards like a flying fish against a starry sky. There’s nothing but fresh air between him and the spellbound crowd below – and I guess a manager who is wondering if $1,000,000 was enough of a premium to insure this act. Then (still singing) Jackson sucks his legs up and feeds them feet first back inside the barrier. (Well, you wouldn’t want to ruin your beautiful gold trousers by scraping them against the bar would you?)  It may be that some of the singing was synched but the movement was real, for sure. And he did it all again, just in case we hadn’t believed our eyes the first time.

Swift costume changes done in stage shadows (while we watch racing video clips). His suit, depending on the angle of light beam, either gleams gold, shines silver, smoulders black or twinkles the multicolours of a Harlequin suit. There are various hats to echo the tricorne of old, an obviously significant glove, and shoes that simply want to dance.

One number, "You Are Not Alone", borrows the Springsteen practice of lifting an overcome young woman fropm the crowd (sweatshirt, jeans and ponytail – obviously not a plant) up on stage to dance with, and be kissed and hugged by Michael Jackson. She has to hold up her lower jaw with both hands and therefore has no way of wiping away her tears of shocked joy – so Michael does it for her. He pats her on the head as she is led away – presumably to a waiting ambulance, although I’m told they give her a backstage pass to meet M.J. later. It’s a theatrical device without peer for involving the audience in vicarious pleasure.

The courts and dukedoms of  Italian Renaissance choreographed entertainments on this scale, with fireworks, high fashion and phenomenal fancy dress. They included dancing, gymnastics, music and singing, and poetry texts with allegorical themes for moral consideration. I bet the famed art patron of his day, Lorenzo de Medici, would have been pleased to commission Jackson and his entourage (a troupe of no mean dancers, and jets full of gear) to entertain him. Jackson certainly has the prized quality of sprezzatura (divine nonchalance) to make the most demanding and stylized performance seem easy – and he also wears the same fancy dancing shoes they did.

The smooth and sexy footwork of that early time were used to make the dances highly, though subtly, expressive. This was developed into the baroque repertoire, which contains some of the most beautiful dances imaginable and, in turn, seeded the ballet. The rest, as they say, is History

I think Louis XIV at Versailles would have been impressed with Michael Jackson, dancer, and that would have to be my highest compliment.

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