It seems a shame to be talking to Travis Payne on the telephone, where he's a disembodied voice. Payne is a storied dancer, choreographer, producer and director who twice danced on tour with Michael Jackson, so it would have been great to see him, watch him move, even.
See, maybe I could have talked him into dancing, or perhaps he would have considered teaching me one of Michael Jackson's iconic moves; doing that has become something of a specialty for Payne.
Payne's client list comprises the elites of pop culture — Beyoncé, Usher, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson. But Michael Jackson was in a different category — as he was for millions of fans. Payne was only 9, the son of a college professor, living in Atlanta, when he started copying Michael Jackson's signature steps. His goal was to work with the King of Pop. And he did, on the Dangerous and HIStory world tours. Payne was co-choreographer of This Is It, the comeback show that never was because Jackson died from a drug overdose on June 25, 2009.
But as we well know, just because an icon has passed doesn't mean he/she is gone, and Payne still works for Michael, after a fashion. He is one of 10 choreographers who helped to craft the Cirque de Soleil tribute show Michael Jackson The Immortal, which first hit L.A. last January. It returns to the Staples Center Aug. 14-15.
“Getting to do Immortal was very therapeutic for me, as well as working with This Is It,” Payne said. (A This Is It movie was made from rehearsal footage from the aborted live show; Payne was associate producer.)
“The idea [for Immortal] was that all the choreography and iconic moves that people have come to know over the decades, I would translate that to the younger generations of performers,” he says.
Payne had known Jackson for 15 years, even staying at Neverland Ranch, where the pop star would wake up his dancers at 3 a.m. so they could rehearse. They would talk about art, books, even their mothers, Payne said. Did Payne sense that anything was terribly amiss in the days leading up to Jackson's death?
“What I knew was an artist who had seen the height of success in entertainment and was poised for a comeback and who was a father and could share [the show with his kids]. He was just excited. He was getting on his leg, as we say in the business. It just meant the world to him, to make the shows. Of course, it was a shock to us all.”
Payne will help Immortal transition from a touring show to a permanent fixture at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. The show got mixed reviews. The Weekly's Ali Trachta wrote, “If you love Michael Jackson, or razor-sharp choreography, or '80s and '90s nostalgia in any way, you will love this show.” The L.A. Times, on the other hand, groaned, it was “such a drag.”
Payne said helping with Immortal allows him to keep alive everything that was special about Jackson, and that's a special honor.
“I think Michael prepared me to work with all the others,” he says, “prepared me to know that every situation was going to be different, prepared me to be flexible, letting the work come first. The treatment on tour was amazing. Being able to go in Neverland. He had a whole house of reference materials. A whole house! It was just really great. You didn't mind starting at 3 in the morning. It was a whole other world.”
Michael Jackson The Immortal presented by Cirque de Soleil is at the Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles; 8 p.m. Aug. 14-15; (877) 522-8669, staplescenter.com