(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
In a dark booth at the Polo Lounge, just down the street from his Beverly Hills home, tour director extraordinaire Jamie King struggles to recall the day he hung up his dance shoes for good. Though his management badly wants this interview to stay on the topic of his current feats as the director-writer of the Cirque du Soleil/Michael Jackson tribute world tour, "The Immortal" (Tuesday and Wednesday at the Honda Center and Friday through Jan. 29 at Staples Center), as well as his stint directing Madonna's heat-seeking Super Bowl performance (Feb. 5), and please don't forget the start of his Latin American "Idol"-esque TV series with Jennifer Lopez and Mark Anthony called "Q'Viva!" (premiering this month on Univision and later in spring on Fox), the affable King is giggling as he tries to remember exactly who was the last artist he danced for. He was neither injured nor burnt out at the time — he'd just become increasingly consumed with one-off choreographing and directing projects.
"Madonna!" he says, finally. "It was her. She wanted me to dance in her 'Human Nature' video. I didn't want to do it, but she begged." In the 1995 cult-favorite music video, a cat-suited Madonna sports a frisky S&M attitude in a realm of white-on-white boxes. King, then a spiky blond, hangs upside-down from a swinging trapeze in the scene, among other things.
A talk with King this month made Madonna's pleas easy to understand. At 39, he is broad-shouldered and warm, with a soft Midwestern twang. It's hard at first glance to reconcile this large, solid presence with his amazingly fast dance technique. Nor can one immediately see — as he gently cuts his pizza after a nonstop day of meetings on "Q'Viva!" — the stubborn, steely will that was needed to catapult him from dancer to choreographer to tour director by age 27.
Since 1999, he's directed Ricky Martin (two tours), Rihanna (three), Britney Spears (three) and Christina Aguilera (two), among others. And don't forget Madonna, whose last three stratospheric tours he conceived and directed. His trademark? Dream-like tours that feel born from the artist's forehead, not his.
"If you can make it all — and that means the stage moves, the choreography, the costumes, the lighting — be a reflection of that artist, you've done your job correctly," he says. "Because the fans will really understand the show."
King prefers invisibility in his public life too. He keeps a low profile and has embarked on only one clunky self-promotional endeavor (a 2007 dance-exercise tape called "Rock Your Body" that's proven too tricky for mass popularity). In the past, he's acknowledged a relationship with the Beverly Hills Kabbalah Centre, where Madonna attends, but when asked if his close circle is made up of A-listers he's fast to say, "No! I do that all day long!" Later, when he removes his dark sweater, a vintage Cartier key can be seen hanging from his neck. When prodded, he will say it was a special Christmas gift — but not from whom — and shyly demonstrate how its teeth spell L-O-V-E.
"Jamie has a spirit about him that is quite remarkable," says "American Idol" founder Simon Fuller, King's production partner on "Q'Viva!" "I need someone like him by my side."
Especially now, by the sound of it. Fuller describes 200 far-flung contestants arriving in Los Angeles this month, to be winnowed to 60, who'll then be coached in stage performance and presented in a concert, conceived and directed by King, in Las Vegas in late April, all played out on weekly television.
Fuller calls it "a massive, massive operation, which, with a [Lopez-Anthony] divorce in the mix, has become far-away the most complicated thing I've ever done." On a happier note, it's also the culmination of years of strategizing between Fuller and King to build a unique show around King's artistic passions and directing talents.
"I recognize myself in those kids, those groups," King says. He traveled to Argentine bars, festivals, dance studios and barrios during the taping. "I definitely see that hunger, just wanting to be heard, just wanting to be appreciated, just wanting someone to get you. I remember that. I still wake up like that."
Born in Verona, Wis., to a white teenage mom and a black father who left when he was 5, King describes a people-pleasing childhood in which he felt the pain of his mother's struggles and tried his best to ease the situation. "I learned to 'produce' early," he says. By high school, he worked afternoons and weekends and summers: making pizzas, tinting car windows, cleaning offices, watering greenhouses.