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Channeling MTV devotion into a career

A look back at the choreographer-turned-concert director

Fans of concerts as not just live music performances but extravagant spectacles of choreo-graphy, multiple costume changes and the kind of titanic theatrical sets associated with Andrew Loyd Webber have likely witnessed the work of Jamie King.

The 39-year-old choreographer-turned-concert director has been behind many of the big-budget, high-profile music tours that have crisscrossed the globe since the mid-1990s. The early connections with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince represented the fulfillment of a childhood dream, while Shakira, Pink and Mariah Carey later benefitted from King’s burgeoning talent.

Starting as a background dancer while still in his teens, King, by the mid-1990s, had made a quick ascent to being the choreographer du jour for every pop star with grand designs. Within a few years, King had added writer, director, designer and overall visual conceptualist to his resume.

“If you know anything about my pop shows they are always big spectacles,” says King, who, nearly single-handedly took dance-based pop shows into the same realm as the gigantic concert experiences associated with the Rolling Stones, U2 and Peter Gabriel.

“It’s about really sustaining that artist’s career, and showing the theatricality and the size of the artist. You want the fans to leave feeling they have really seen something special. It’s the way the screens move; the way the stage is designed; the way the lighting works; the way the choreography moves. It has to all move in a way that is reflective of the artist.”

Having been born on the wrong side of the tracks to a biracial in Verona, just outside Madison, Wis., he grew up, as he says, “the only dancer in town.”

“School was hard in the sense that people didn’t always understand my ethnicity and the mix,” he says. “My cards were dealt for me; I was already an outcast. I have always felt different, but I have also always felt that anything is possible.”

His obsession with the music videos he saw on MTV in the early 1980s fueled his career aspirations. “In my bedroom, growing up, I had pictures of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna,” he recalls. “My friends thought I was kind of crazy. I would copy everything I saw on MTV. Then, I would change all the choreography. I would take what I had learned and make it my own.”

At 16, he enrolled himself in professional dance classes, and soon after, won a scholarship to a prestigious dance studio in Los Angeles. From there, it was a steady stream of cattle calls and rejections, trying to dance his way into the competitive musicvideo industry.

Eventually, he landed a gig with Carmen Elektra, who, at the time was signed to Prince’s Paisley Park Records. Prince noticed the innovative young dancer. But before he could snatch him for his own tours, King landed a spot as a dancer on Michael Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour.

“I would say that Michael was one of my greatest influences in terms of what I do now,” says King. “The shows I direct and the spectacles that I create, they are influenced by Michael 100 percent. He was one of my greatest teachers because I spent every day with him in rehearsals. I would stand right next to him and feel that energy and that output of love. And the energy he would give his fans was everything. I learned from him that you give all of yourself; you leave it on the stage. That is how the audience falls in love with you.”

His two-year stint dancing with Jackson quickly landed King a long residency with Prince, initially as choreo-grapher and lead dancer, and eventually, as overall show director, but it wasn’t easy.

Prince initially invited King to watch him perform in Minneapolis, and asked him afterward what he thought. “I was a young scrappy dancer with a lot of ego and opinions,” he recalls. “But when I told Prince my thoughts, he hung up the phone.”

King flew back to L.A., crestfallen. Then he got another phone call — Prince liked his ideas, and wanted him redesign his musical show. “I said absolutely, yes — I don’t really know what that means, but yes.”

Prince had created a musical called “Ulysses” using music that he was unable to release because of his ongoing battle with Warner Music. He asked King to choreograph a weekly performance at his downtown L.A. nightclub Glam Slam West. Every Monday, Prince would send him unreleased songs and King would have to choreograph an entire routine, including props and dancers, by Friday, when Prince would fly in to watch from his private VIP box.

“He took a chance on me,” King says of Prince. “He saw something in me that I really didn’t see myself. The second I started choreographing for Prince and designing performances for Prince, I felt like I was in the right place. I was really understanding what my journey was supposed to be about in terms of activity and staging and so on.

“Prince showed me more of the details of how music is created and how lyrics can match choreography. When lyrics match choreography with moves, you can create magic and energy that the fans relate to.”

King directed and choreographed Prince’s award performance at the American Music Awards in 1993, a 17-minute mash up of all of Prince’s hits. Madonna happened to be sitting in the front row. A few days later, she called him and invited him in for a meeting, the beginning of a 14-year creative partnership between the two.

Their relationship began with King working on her “Human Nature” video; he has remained her creative director, overseeing most of her videos and all of her world tours with a large team of production and dance professionals.

Guy Oseary, Madonna’s manager, credits King with creating a balanced atmosphere for his client. “Jamie has an incredible ability to get Madonna in creative space; working and having fun at the same time,” he says. “She is at ease when she knows he is there. It is much more than choreography. He and Madonna plan everything out A to Z when it comes to her live show.”

Madonna concurs: “No one knows more about music and movement than Jamie King.”

King aims large without sacrificing intimacy | Playing Kingmaker in the manner of ‘Idol’ | Resurrecting Michael via Cirque Du Soleil | Channeling MTV devotion into a career | Extending the King brand into fitness realm

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