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Remembering Michael Jackson

Flowing through the motions

July 12, 2009|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal was The Times' dance critic from 1996 to 2008.

The way people move is as unique as their DNA -- indeed, it is their DNA in action, living proof of their singularity. But most dancers have to give it up to become professionals, to lose themselves in the style of a school, a choreographer, a company, an image of unanimity.

Not Michael Jackson. It was his supreme achievement as a dancer to remain indomitably himself and, in the process of entertaining us, to offer a vision of expanded human potential. What's more, long before excesses and obsessions claimed him, he helped turn MTV into DTV, making television the place where dance films set to new music inspired a generation with their creative power and originality.

Best seen in his music videos (where his vocals were pre-recorded so he didn't have to wear a microphone), the components of his personal style are easier to list than duplicate.

Start with isolation: each move alone as if in a close-up, sudden and incredibly sharp. Weightlessness: the sense of freedom from gravity and a body with no mass or muscles, just pure torque. Transformation of the mundane: shadow-boxing and other familiar moves drawn from athletics and pop dance, renewed and heightened through a spectacular sense of flow and delirious speed.

Like the brilliantly calibrated gliding steps that formed his signature moonwalk, Jackson's nervy, high-velocity turns seemed to operate in zero gravity, and his finest dance performances gave the illusion of being a momentary impulse, almost accidental in their perfect balances and other evidence of faultless technical control. If his high-pitched vocal sound simulated perpetual adolescence, the way he moved kept him super-stylized and ageless -- a lover, a monster, a streetwise idealist at home in many cultures, and a smooth criminal too.

The finest music video choreographers who worked with him took what was supremely his and taught it to his backup dancers, expanding the scope of Jackson's style and grounding it in a muscularity and masculinity that kept it from looking over-finicky or effete. A skinny kid in a red satin baseball jacket might not have one chance in hell of stopping a gang war, but in "Beat It" the late choreographer Michael Peters made us believe the galvanic group surges that Jackson generated.

His film performances eventually grew compromised by a reliance on special effects and directors with no talent for shooting dance -- among them Francis Ford Coppola, who managed to undermine Jackson, Gregory Hines and Fred Astaire in various projects, making him Hollywood's champion dance-killer. But Jackson's energy and commitment always remained exciting.

Most of us never saw him in live performance but think we knew him. Not from the piping, childlike vocals, however catchy, but from the moves -- the unforgettable soul-deep individuality of his dancing. And that's a legacy worth celebrating.


"Out on the floor, there ain't nobody there but us; girl when you dance, there's a magic that must be love"

"Rock With You"

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