Pop music and acrobatic stage art may not seem like the most natural of partners: One, carefully sculpted radio fodder genetically modified for mass appeal, the other an artistic niche of the elite and informed. But Michael Jackson’s music was far more than bubblegum pop – it was theatrical, conceptual, born in an MTV age and carried a (oft too obviously stated) message. And as the world’s largest theatrical company – a literal touring circus that has played to more than 900 million people across the globe and generates Dhs3 billion annually – it’s safe to say Cirque du Soleil has what you might call mass appeal. So the King of Pop’s magnified music should form a natural fit with Cirque’s thundering theatrical juggernaut. Or to paraphrase another critic: Michael Jackson’s life was a circus, so Cirque’s trademark spectacles should fit MJ like his iconic white glove. But is it really possible to intertwine two such distinct brands without losing some of the magic along the way?
Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour is like no other Cirque du Soleil show you will see. While the company is renowned for jaw-dropping aerial artists and freak-of-nature acrobatics, there’s less emphasis on such artistry here. Instead this is a rock concert like set up – an 11 piece band at the back of a raised stage spurt out note-perfect renditions of the hits, while costumed dancers strut around a gangway reaching out into the crowd, much of the routines recalling MJ’s own stage and video moves.
Split into 25 acts, and churning through 35 of Jacko’s best tunes, there’s a bewilderingly bizarre range of costumes and themes: You get whirling winged ghouls, futuristic mechanics breakdancing, two-man elephant suits trotting, metallic bots striding, tommy gun totin’ gangsters and hoop-dunkin’ basketball youths. Side attractions also include a monkey, a feisty female Mohican-touting guitarist (doing her best Eddie Van Halen impression), a scantily-clad electric cellist, and one-legged dance star Jean Sok, who rightly commands centre stage more than once with his incredible dexterity on clutches.
Some of the symbolism is overstated: A giant globe is rolled out for ‘Earth Song’, a man appears inside a giant glove costume. The only dramatic device linking one song from the next is a mime artist who, well, mimes. The overall result is something that in many ways feels a lot like a Michael Jackson concert – not unsurprising given that writer-director Jamie King comes from the pop world, best known for spearheading blockbuster mega-tours by Britney Spears, Madonna and Rihanna. Four of the show’s musicians have actually once played with MJ (!), a fact Cirque are understandably keen to promote. But there’s one conspicuous absence: The King of Pop himself. While the band is live, its Michael’s pre-recorded vocals which are piped over the pop, creating a slightly unnerving affect: the human ear is used to listening to vocalists performing over backing tracks, but switching that arrangement around creates a strangely cold experience.
Some acts work better than others – showstopper ‘Thriller’ features more than a dozen demonic dancers, while aerial artists swoop up and down and evil eyes glow at the back of the stage. The scale is smaller for other numbers, with just a small cast of performers onstage. Cirque fans might be disappointed by a lack of aerial art and acrobatics, despite a few notable standouts, including an impressive couple air-dancing to ballad ‘Human Nature’, and a fearless pole dancer for ‘Dangerous’.
In the opening number ‘Childhood’ Jackson screams ‘no one understands me’. Watching the circus-like way his hits are recycled here, you can’t help wondering if for the producers of this show at least, he was right. But it’s an undeniable spectacle, a technical triumph of music, light and pyrotechnics which caters to Jackson fans more than those familiar with the Cirque du Soleil brand. Which is a wise move – the world clearly can’t get enough of MJ: The show’s two year tour has already played to two million people, raking in Dhs1.2 billion along the way.
Had Michael Jackson lived, there’s little doubt his 2009 concerts would have been equally bombastic and choreographed. So seen another way, this bizarre compromise of commercialism, art and homage is the most fitting tribute to the King of Pop: Once more, all that’s missing is the man himself.
Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour by Cirque du Soleil is at Dubai World Trade Centre until January 14. For more information click here.