Cirque du Soleil pays tribute to Michael Jackson as only it can

As Cirque du Soleil’s fame rose in the 1990s, the troupe discovered it had a very noteworthy fan: Michael Jackson.

“Michael was a huge Cirque fan, and he came to Montreal four or five times to see Cirque du Soleil,” Cirque’s Michael Smith says of Jackson.

That created a relationship between Jackson and the troupe that now plays out in the form of “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” Cirque’s tribute to the King of Pop. It is one of Cirque’s two Jackson-themed shows. The other is “One,” which is presented only in Las Vegas.

“Immortal” uses many of Jackson’s music and dance collaborators as well as Cirque’s signature acrobatic style to bring Jackson’s music to life onstage.

It also includes his voice.

“Because Michael owns all his own music, produced all his own music, we have access to every recording that he ever did,” says Smith, the tour’s artistic director. “So for the presentation of this show, we use Michael’s voice and isolate that on a track, so all the music around that and all the backing vocals are live.

“So it’s using Michael’s voice to grasp his spirit, but the musical arrangements of those songs are different to help people who know those songs so well hear them in a different context.”

But it is far from a group of artists just dreaming up new ways to share Jackson’s music. “Immortal” was produced with the cooperation of Jackson’s estate, which is why it has all of those recordings. Collaborators include writer and director Jamie King, who first worked as a dancer on Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour in 1992 and ‘93 and continued to work with him through the years; musical director Greg Phillinganes, who directed several of Jackson’s tours and special events; and a number of choreographers who worked with or were inspired by Jackson.

“Michael was painfully shy, and a complete paradox to this person he became as a performer,” Smith says. “So when he found people he trusted, particularly musicians, he stayed with them. That gives us a sense of authenticity, too.”

Of those collaborators, including Jackson’s longtime drummer Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett, Smith says, “Their willingness to share with me what Michael thought as a musician and what Michael felt as a person as to why certain songs meant so much to him, and why they were important has been crucial to how I view the show now.”

Of course, almost equally important to Jackson’s fame and legacy was dancing. As a result, “Immortal” features the most dancing in any Cirque du Soleil show.

“He really integrated dance into his music,” dancer and dance captain Tammy To says. “I grew up in the era when Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, and as a dancer, his influence was huge.”

His moves are in some cases inescapable.

She says some numbers are done pretty much as Jackson did them in iconic videos for “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal” and, of course, “Thriller.”

“That’s what audiences want to see,” To says of numbers such as “Billie Jean,” noteworthy for its solo dance by Jackson. Choreographers Travis Payne and King “said no one is going to be able to do it just like Michael. He would always have his own flavor and basic vocabulary of music.”

But as a dancer, she says, it is a thrill to perform some of that iconic choreography, interpret Jackson’s music and be in a Cirque show where she is collaborating with a variety of artists, including the acrobats of Cirque who once thrilled Jackson himself.

“All of the acrobatic acts in the show are so great and accomplished,” To says, noting it is fun to go into the studio and see them working on their own extremely physical crafts.

All of it comes together to honor the legacy of Jackson, only the third artist to be honored with a Cirque show; the others were the Beatles and Elvis Presley. Asked who else might rate such an honor, Smith says Madonna, but then adds that it’s not something the company would do while she is an active recording and touring artist.

But Jackson is no longer with us, and Smith says it is fitting that the company continue the mutual admiration with the “Immortal” tribute.

“When you start adding up all the incredible hits that you know so well, there’s some that are not in the show because there are too many,” Smith says. “He left behind a legacy that I don’t think anyone has since been able to re-create. The kind of all-around performer that writes their own songs, does all their own music arrangements, does all their own choreography, does all their own tracks; it’s the complete package of the all-around entertainer.

“I don’t see anyone else today that has that wealth of talent. And I think that it’s right that we as a company, as Cirque du Soleil and what we represent, give homage to this legacy.”