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King aims large without sacrificing intimacy

Tour helmer's rise to the top began as a dance guru

It’s not every day a white grand piano drops from the sky, only to rise up again carrying a crooning Rihanna. It’s not every day Britney Spears straddles a giant electric guitar, or steers a massive Egyptian barge onto the stage. But then, there’s nothing “every day” about the work of Jamie King, who conceived both Rihanna and Spears’ current tours.

From the opening images that flicker on the jumbo screens to the last shred of ticker tape for the finale, King has re-defined what both fans and stars have come to expect from a live performance, not to mention ticket sales — King’s 20 or so major concert tours, for major pop acts including Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Avril Lavigne, Rain, Celine Dion, and the Spice Girls, have cumulatively grossed an estimated $2 billion at the box office. No wonder he’s known as the master of the traveling pop extravaganza.

In King’s hands, a concert is much more than a sequence of songs with corresponding dances; it’s a three-act narrative guiding an audience into the heart and soul of the performer. “He’s a complete visionary,” say Adam Leber, Spears’ long-time manager. “He tells a story with the artist as the main character. And he works with us on every single detail — every single piece of clothing is looked at; every remix of every song is painstakingly tweaked until it is perfect.”

After King put together Britney’s sell-out “Circus” tour, Leber wasn’t sure it was possible to create anything bigger — until he saw this summer’s “Femme Fatale.” “I had that ‘holy shit’ moment. I thought, ‘I can’t believe it — this show is actually better.’ I was shocked!”

Daniel Sladek, King’s manager, says King has more in common with a Broadway show producer or Hollywood blockbuster director than a typical choreographer. “Sometimes people ask if Jamie is a choreo-grapher, because that’s his background, and I just laugh — that’s like saying Brett Ratner is an editor.”

King’s typical crew for a touring show includes set designers, wardrobe, assistant directors, stunt people, cinematographers for the jumbo screens, music directors for the band, and a team of choreographers — 10 of them, to be precise, for Spears’ “Femme Fatale” tour.

Budgets range from $20 million-$50 million, and King is responsible for every dollar that’s spent. So well-oiled is the King production machine that he put together the current Spears “Femme Fatale” and Rihanna “Loud” shows simultaneously, booking two adjacent sound- stages at the Sony lot — one for Spears and the other for Rihanna — alternating back and forth during rehearsals.

There’s nobody out there doing what he does, on quite the same scale, according to his agents Julie McDonald and Tony Selznick at premiere dance-choreography agency MSA. They also represent show directors Kenny Ortega (“High School Musical,” Michael Jackson’s “This Is It”) and VincentPaterson (Madonna’s “Blonde Ambition” tour), but say King has carved an entire niche for himself.

“In this business everyone understands what a director does, but it’s hard to truly understand what Jamie does,” says McDonald. “Sometimes I think of him as a conceptual visual artist — truly, he is the master of creating stunning visual imagery. Every song becomes a picture.”

Adds Selznick: “Jamie is the first dancer we ever had that became a superstar director.”

From dancer, to choreographer, MSA started referring to King as an “artistic director” after he put together Ricky Martin’s career-defining Grammy Awards performance in 1998. Overnight, King started building tours and awards show performances for the biggest names in pop.

“Jamie has repeat business like I have never seen,” says Selznick. “People love the way he makes the impossible happen.” When a road manager on one tour complained that King’s set was too big to fit on the stage, Selznick recalls, “Jamie said, ‘let’s make a bigger stage.’ ”

After seeing the scale and ambition of his productions, McDonald and Selznick helped transition King from being known as artistic director to director.

King learned his craft from the best: Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, the holy trinity of pop, each of whom personally showed King the secrets of great performance. As a backup dancer on Jackson’s “Dangerous” tour, for instance, King learned the importance of detail. “The audience needs to feel that their artist is giving the most that they can in terms of production, costumes, staging and choreography,” says King. “They need to feel like that artist went as far as they possibly could for them, that night.”

That’s something King pushes for from the first meeting with a client. “I always want to create the most elaborate show possible — if it’s a pop artist, it has to be a pop spectacle.

Prince taught him two things: make the movement match the lyric, and push for the impossible. “The greatest thing about Prince is that he has no sense of limitation, and he forces you to think that way too.”

King has worked with Madonna for 14 years, and has been her creative director for the past decade, directing her record-breaking “Drowned World,” “Re-Invention,” “Confessions” and “Sticky & Sweet” tours, the latter standing as highest grossing tour ever by a solo artist, at $408 million.

From Madonna, says King, he learned the power of honesty in performance. “The artist’s essence needs to weave through the show, the good, the bad and the controversial. That’s what I design the show from — and then I make it extra sparkly, extra large. And that’s how a fan can walk away from the hugest show they’ve ever seen, feeling like they just shared an intimate experience with their favorite artist.”

Oh, and remember when Madonna kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera? That was King’s idea.

Other past tours King has put together include Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again” and “The Circus Starring Britney Spears” tours; Rihanna’s “Last Girl on Earth” tour, Aguilera’s “Back to Basics,” Celine Dion’s Taking Chances tour (second-highest grossing tour of all time by a solo artist), the “Return of the Spice Girls” tour, Rain’s “The Legend of Rainism Tour,” plus three world tours for Martin.

While his approach to each artist is different, King’s process is always the same. In his initial meeting with a performer, “I ask a lot of questions, as I was taught to do by Prince. I found out what their latest songs really mean to them, and where they are coming from. And then I let the images form in my head.” King’s goal is always, he says, to create a show he would love to watch as a fan.

Then he sits down with his associate director and his team, and they get to work putting together a crew: set designer, lighting designer, costume designers and a musical director.

“I plant the seeds of ideas, but once I have my crew it’s all about collaboration.”

The next step is putting together a creative script, breaking the typically 90-minute show down into sections.

For Spears’ Femme Fatale show, for example, King thought “let’s do femme fatales through the ages,” resulting in the amazing sight of Britney Spears on stage in a giant longboat as Cleopatra in a gold bikini, being fanned by taut-bodied slaves.

With Rihanna, on the other hand, “I based her show on the layers of a woman’s personality, I did ‘fun,’ ‘sex,’ ‘loud’; the layers that make up a woman, because Rihanna can be funny and sexy and loud and loving also, and I really wanted the audience to see the different sides of her.”

King often will insert inside jokes into a show, the kinds of details sure to delight the hard-core fans. Madonna’s “Confession” tour, for example, took place shortly after the singer’s horseback riding accident — so King created an equestrian theme at one point. While she was singing “Like a Virgin” sitting in a saddle, x-rays of fractured bones and images of people falling off of horses were beamed from the video screens behind her. Naturally, King handpicked the x-rays himself, making sure the injuries were almost identical to Madonna’s.

“My goal always — and I learned this from Princ
e and Michael Jackson — is that giving the fan a personal experience is everything,” says King. “That’s what will create longevity with an artist’s career.”

BILLION-DOLLAR TOUR DIRECTOR: JAMIE KING
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