Miming the magic: Michael Jackson and Marcel Marceau (Part 2)

Gravity did not exist for Michael Jackson, the moonwalking King of Pop. Nor did it seem to affect Marcel Marceau, the legendary French pantomime artist. Both performed their art with an elegance and fluidity that only few have ever achieved. As masters of their trade, Jackson and Marceau were bound to meet.

Marcel Marceau and Michael Jackson in Paris
Marcel Marceau and Michael Jackson in Paris, 1997 (photo: video still of press conference)

This article is the sequel to:
Miming the magic: Michael Jackson and Marcel Marceau (Part 1)

‘Childhood’ on stage

The setting for Jackson’s and Marceau’s performance at the Beacon Theatre was kept minimalist. On a stage set in black, Jackson would appear upstage on the left in a small pool of light, singing ‘Childhood’, whereas Marceau would be positioned downstage on the right, miming the lyrics in a larger pool of light.

“He begins to sing, and then the camera swings towards me,” Marceau told HIStory Magazine. “I mime the themes to the song. When he says he’s searching for this childhood, I run in place (…) At the end (…) he comes up to me singing out ‘have you seen my childhood…’ and with a gesture of the hand I show him the way. We finish the piece together, so together we are almost one body moving together. It was so very, very pure. Poetic.”

Pantomime, according to Marceau, was a perfect match to Jackson’s song. “There is, in particular, a passage where he talks about pirates, of conquests and kings. To make the transformation from a pirate to a king on stage, there is only mime. There are various elements of attitude for this; mime is, after all, an art of metamorphosis. It’s difficult for a dancer to do so. A mime would do it through attitude; he would go from being a pirate to being a king.”

Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like pirates in adventurous dreams,
Of conquest and kings on the throne…
– Michael Jackson; excerpt from ‘Childhood’ –

Photo opportunity

As the show developed, Jackson was eager to create as much publicity as possible. Four days before the first recording of the show, on 4 December 1995, a dozen television reporters and a few hundred journalists came to the Beacon Theatre to attend a rare photo opportunity featuring Jackson and Marceau.

The intent of Jackson’s performance in New York City – to create art instead of tabloid fodder – was immediately made clear. Rather than answering questions, Jackson and Marceau silently mimed their way through their encounter with the media. But their lack of further comment or answers to – at times impertinent – questions, did not go down well with some of the assembled journalists.

The New York Times, for example, commented afterwards that Jackson’s change from pop music to mime was to be expected: “The two clowned around together onstage, with Mr. Jackson imitating the old mime routine of being trapped in an invisible box, an apt metaphor for his life off the stage. This pairing was a perfect one, because Mr. Jackson seems to be transforming himself into a mime. He likes to whiten his face, as mimes do.” Needless to say that the latter remark was a dig at Jackson’s chronic skin condition of vitiligo.


Total blackout

Still, it was true that Jackson’s life was confined as a result of his fortune and fame. He was also under pressure to excel beyond his previous achievements – a pressure that proved to be detrimental to his health. Just two days after meeting the press, Jackson suddenly collapsed during rehearsals. Falling face down onto a metal grate, without even putting out his hands to break his fall, Jackson had a total blackout.

“Michael Jackson was on stage with about fifteen dancers. At one point I stepped away to get something to drink and then, suddenly, there was this great silence. Everything came to a halt. (…) it was as though the world had come to an end. I went back to where I had been watching the rehearsal, and I couldn’t see Michael Jackson; he had collapsed, lost consciousness, and was on the floor. We were all petrified. There were people all around him; he wasn’t moving at all”, Marceau told HIStory Magazine.

Jackson was immediately rushed to hospital in critical condition. “He was dehydrated. He had low blood pressure. He had a rapid heart rate. He was near death,” physician Bill Alleyne recalled in an interview with the Rock Hill Herald in 2009. It took Alleyne an hour to get Jackson stabilized, while keeping a defibrillator at hand. Jackson, who had no drugs in his system, remained hospitalized for a week. Not surprisingly, the HBO show was cancelled.

Surprise at the Musée Grévin

Despite Jackson’s misfortune, it was not the end of his relationship with Marceau. Two years after the New York debacle, the two met unexpectedly at the Musée Grévin in Paris for the unveiling of a wax statue of Jackson on 19 April 1997. Jackson was not aware that Marceau would be present, as Marceau was invited by the museum for a surprise appearance.

“We brought in Marcel Marceau because I knew they had met a few years before and they were friends (…) Michael Jackson was overjoyed to find Marceau on the stage, as well as his wax sculpture, which he really liked. It was a beautiful moment in the history of the Musée Grévin. A lovely encounter”, Véronique Berecz, the PR manager of the museum, said in a television interview in June 2009.

Marceau’s performance at the Grévin was a short pantomime piece set to the instrumental version of Jackson’s ‘Childhood’. Obviously, Marceau wished to honour their previous collaboration. On stage, he mimed the work of a sculptor and finished his act with the help of lights to reveal Jackson’s statue. The two then amicably toured the museum while hundreds of fans waited outside, blocking off the Boulevard Montmartre.


Jackson’s note

After the event in Paris, the mutual trail of Jackson and Marceau disappeared from public sight until well after Jackson’s death. During the trial of the Jackson family against concert promotor AEG, a personal note surfaced on which Jackson had written instructions regarding his concert promotor and a personal reminder to “Call Turkle, Marcel Marceau – Marcel Marceau interview”.

Whether or not Jackson had plans to work with Marceau again remains a question. Marceau passed away in 2007 at the age of 84, so Jackson’s note either dated from before this time or perhaps referred to a posthumous tribute to Marceau. It does show, however, that even at a later stage in his career Jackson had no doubts about fusing pop music with mime.

Note written by Michael Jackson as a reminder to call Marcel Marceau
Note written by Michael Jackson as a reminder to call Marcel Marceau, 2009 (photo: video still)

Music and silence

In a short television interview in 1995, Marceau already expressed the added value of this artistic synthesis: “He [ed. Jackson] is a poet… poetry. And through poetry you can reveal the feeling of the soul. And this is why I am very happy that we have met and that our art has a chance to be also reunited with the outcry of pop and song and music, and then silence will become like a blessing flower.”

Music and silence are inextricable linked in the creation of art. “It’s behind any movement – the feeling, the musicality – and this is why very often musicians say: ‘Do you sing inside?’ I say, ‘How did you feel it?’” Marceau told PBS NewsHour in 1999.

Jackson expressed a similar sentiment in his book Dancing the Dream (1992): “The faster I twirl, the more I am still inside. My dance is all motion without, all silence within. As much as I love to make music, it’s the unheard music that never dies. And silence is my real dance, though it never moves. It stands aside, my choreographer of grace, and blesses each finger and toe.”

Profound persona

By acknowledging the creative force emerging from the opposites of music and silence, Jackson and Marceau shaped their art – art which purpose was to create beauty, to touch the senses, to change perceptions, and, ultimately, to bring people together. These are the qualities – the magic if you will – that have made both Jackson’s and Marceau’s performances timeless.

Marceau, in any case, never doubted Jackson’s lasting influence: “He will remain a great, not only for his pop music, but for the many themes he translates into art. Through his dancing, for example, he evokes the violence of this life, the angst that characterizes our era. There is the eternal child in him, as well as the poet, the deep side of his persona. Michael Jackson is profound.”

© Annemarie Latour

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