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Cirque du Soleil spectacle combines Michael Jackson’s music, dance with circus artistry


◆ 8 p.m. July 20-21

◆ United Center, 1901 W. Madison

◆ Tickets, $50-$250

◆ (800) 745-3000;

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Updated: July 19, 2012 4:44PM

If anyone could be said to have lived a surreal circus of a life — full of dazzling, high-wire feats of performance, and an existence suffused with elements of mortal danger — Michael Jackson, maestro of Neverland, would be that man.

So perhaps it is only fitting that the first major homage to the mega-celebrity and genius of pop — who died at the age of 50 on June 25, 2009 — is a hybrid of arena rock concert and circus, all courtesy of Cirque du Soleil, that multinational spectacle-maker and showcase of fantasy and risk.

“Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” is an extravagant, high-tech, in-the-round touring production that will run for two performances (July 20 and 21) at the United Center. Designed to conjure the performer’s spirit through a mixture of archival video, live music and dance, circus acts and storytelling, the show has been written and directed by Jamie King, who began his career as a dancer, joined Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour in 1992, and went on to direct, choreograph and/or produce tours by everyone from Madonna to Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna.

The show’s all-important choreographer is the twice-Emmy nominated Travis Payne, who also began as a dancer (in Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation World Tour), and went on to choreograph for Madonna, Sting, Ricky Martin, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and many others. A collaborator with Michael Jackson over a period of 15 years, Payne served as co-choreographer with Jackson as the star prepared for his never-realized London concerts that were to have begun in July 2009. He also was the associate producer on the award-winning film, “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” documenting those final rehearsals.

“I was about five years old when I first saw Michael with his brothers on television and, like so many others, I was instantly hooked,” recalled Payne. “I was a big tumbler as a kid, but I eventually studied ballet, jazz, tap and African dance — all those genres that Michael ultimately fused together, and that we have used in this show in a way that has the glitz of Hollywood and Broadway, as well as the funkiness and thrill of a rock concert.

“Michael may not have had the formal training some dancers have, but he was trained and mentored by such idols and friends as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Liza Minnelli and James Brown. He got ‘on-the-job’ training, and of course had his own language of dance.

“His moves were just in the fiber of his being,” said Payne. “He loved to jump, and was a big fan of [Mikhail] Baryshnikov. He learned things directly at the moment, rather than in years of Saturday morning ballet classes like most of us take. And you didn’t choreograph for Michael; you always choreographed with him. He really understood and enjoyed the creative process.”

Payne said he and King devised this production “not to re-create Michael’s shows, but to find new ways in which to approach the iconic material.”

“Of course, there are some things we knew the audience wanted and needed to see,” Payne admitted, noting that in some form or another 35 of Jackson’s songs have been incorporated into the show. “But as much as possible we’ve tried to add layers to the work, using the talents of 60 artists from around the world who have unique skills and disciplines. There are no Michael Jackson impersonators or look-alikes here. And while five of the 12 musicians previously played for Jackson, most of the performers in the show were too young to have even attended Michael’s concerts. Aside from the archival material, there is only the embodiment of the spirit of his art.”

Tara Young, the artistic director overseeing the touring production, has a long list of Broadway credits but readily admits she has never experienced anything quite as monumental as this show, which she describes as “a hugely emotional ride that is more a celebration than biography of Michael’s life.”

“This is the largest arena tour in the world right now, and we are continually on the move” Young said. “It travels with 35 huge trucks, each 55-feet long, to transport the sets, lights, costumes, stages, video and camera equipment. We’ve got a total of 200 humans working on the show, and while the artists travel on chartered planes, the crew goes on sleeper buses because they are on different schedules. Cirque travels like its own little village, with kitchens that prepare all our meals, and with a workout gym staffed by coaches and physical therapists.”

“Michael saw some of the early Cirque shows, and in 2004 he even visited the company’s Montreal headquarters,” noted Young, who never met the King of Pop. “He talked about wanting to work with them.”

Chicago marks the tour’s 67th stop (the show debuted Oct. 2, 2011, in Montreal, and made its U.S. premiere a couple of weeks later in Detroit), and it will head out on an extensive European tour this October. Meanwhile, a wholly fresh sequel to this Michael Jackson show is already in the works for a permanent production at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino that is set to open in May 2013.

Nostalgia on steroids.

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