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Joan Acocella on Michael JacksonNew Yorker (7/27/09)


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#1 bart

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Posted 23 July 2009 - 01:21 PM

Joan Acocella has a piece in the latest New Yorker: "Walking on the Moon: Michael Jackson in Motion."

http://www.newyorker...ancing_acocella

She says some interesting things about his career, but I was most struck by a couple of paragraphs about what Jackson's dancing was actually LIKE.

He didn’t have a lot of moves. You can almost count them on your fingers: the gyrating hips, the bending knees (reversing from inward to outward), the pivoting feet (ditto), the one raised knee, the spins, and, above all, the rotated or raised heel, which is what he gets around on. These steps are generally done staccato. He finishes the phrase and freezes, then finishes the next phrase and freezes. He also has some moves so natural that one hesitates to call them steps: lovely, light-footed walks, struts, jumps, and runs.

He made at least one important innovation in music-video choreography—the use of large ensembles dancing behind the soloist—but beyond that he created very little dancing that was different from his own prior numbers, or anyone else’s. Yet many people were happy to see him, again and again, do the thing he did. Long after the critics soured on his music and his videos, they still liked his dancing.

Sometimes they had to take the dancing on faith. Jackson, who had a thorough knowledge of the movie musical, revered Fred Astaire. He records in his memoir how thrilled he was when Astaire praised him. The old master even invited him over to his house, where Jackson taught the moonwalk to him and his choreographer Hermes Pan. (Astaire told Jackson that both of them, he and Jackson, danced out of anger—an interesting remark, at least about Astaire.)

But despite Jackson’s awe of his predecessor, he never learned the two rules that Astaire, as soon as he gained power over the filming, insisted on: (1) don’t interrupt the dance with reaction shots or any other extraneous shots, and (2) favor a full-body shot over a closeup. To Astaire, the dance was primary—his main story—and he had it filmed accordingly. In Jackson’s videos, the dance is tertiary, even quaternary (after the song and the story and the filming). The camera repeatedly cuts away, and, when it comes back, it often limits itself to the upper body. Jackson didn’t value his dancing enough.


I have added paragraphing and put the last sentence in boldface.

So, what do you think. Is she right?

#2 dirac

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Posted 23 July 2009 - 02:03 PM

Thanks for posting, bart. Alastair Macaulay made some of the same points about Jackson's steps and style in his Jackson article. My hunch is that Jackson probably knew what he could and couldn't do as well as anyone and presented his dancing accordingly. Astaire was primarily a dancer, who also sang and introduced many hits, but Jackson was a musician and singer, priorities at least as important for him.

Alastair Macaulay made some of the same points about Jackson's steps and style in his Jackson article. I don' t think that Jackson 'didn't trust' his dancing enough. I'd say he probably knew what he could and couldn't do as well as anyone and presented his dancing accordingly. In addition, the context of music video and short films is quite different from creating dances to be presented in a feature film in a specific dramatic context.

The alleged 'anger' remark from Astaire is interesting, if true. I haven't read anything like that from Astaire, his colleagues, or friends elsewhere, but there could be something out there. Not clear to me that Astaire would have much to be cross about. He went to work at an early age, yes, and his professional future looked problematic for a few years in the early thirties, but he had a loving mother, a devoted family, and a charmed career lived among the elite and rich in society and entertainment. Many people observed that he was fussy - his sister called him Moaning Minnie - and could be cranky, but those are not characteristics that necessarily indicate subterranean anger. (I can certainly see why Jackson would have been angry.)

Jackson was not the only contemporary pop entertainer that Astaire praised highly. He was a great admirer of Sammy Davis, Jr., thought him a marvelous performer. He loved John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and could do a spot-on impression of him, according to friends.

#3 stinger784

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Posted 25 July 2009 - 12:16 PM

I've read this article and left it quite confused. What was her intention in this article? I can not tell if it is just random observations or mindless babbling. She can not seem to make up her mind whether she liked his dancing or not. This article reminds me of bumbling commentary by a novice.

#4 bart

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Posted 25 July 2009 - 01:11 PM

I've read this article and left it quite confused. What was her intention in this article?

I was also a bit confused. The essay is structured as a chronological overview of the dancing elements of his career, and she has obviously looked closely at a number of his videos from 1969 (the child) to the early 90s.

When it comes to reviews, a dancer can't do much better than the following:

-- "Most amazing is his musicality, his ability to respond to the score faithfully and yet creatively, playing with the music, moving in before and after the beat." (as a child on the Ed Sullivan Show)

-- "At this point, Jackson has just about everything you would want in a dancer. he is verey fast, and, now that the adult musculature has come in, his whole body is 'worked."" (Thriller, 1982)

-- And, right before the end: "He was still a great dancer."

On the other hand, the two paragraphs I quoted in the opening post focus on a the relative narrowness of his movement movement repertoire.

Possibly the confusion comes in because this "great" -- or potentially great -- dancer, capable of producing so many fleeting images of free and magical movement, worked mostly in a medium, music video, which is quite different from an extended dance performance.

Acocella is writing about a dancer who, in some senses, can't be compared with the dancers she usually writes about. Jackson's video legacy is mostly one of snippets of movement, carefully woven together by an editor for the final product. This makes it almost impossible to evaluate him, for example, Astaire or another stage and film performer. Jackson and Astaiare are both dancers, of course, but in very different mediums.

I'd really be interested in hearing from other dancers of what they think about Jackson's skills. If things had worked out differently in his career, if he decided to pursue fully a career as a dancer, what do you think he would have been like?

#5 stinger784

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Posted 25 July 2009 - 05:25 PM

As a dancer, I have always been a fan of his dancing. I think it is unfair to say his repertoire of moves is small when he has had no formal training, yet in all his music videos he is able to learn the choreography needed and do it better than any of the "real" dancers. To compare his stage performance of Billy Jean to a choreographed music video are two very different things. When he performed on stage, everything was just what his body was telling him to do and the steps may have been redundant, but it was all natural and no one has yet to move as naturally as he can while singing and dancing at the same time. When it comes to choreographed steps he could still do it with his own flair. I think he could have made it as a dancer and have his own voice as he already had. If he put as much drive into his dancing as he did his music and singing, imagaine what he would have been like as a dancer.
So Joan's essay or whatever you would like to call it has no intention. I can not draw any conclusion from what she wrote other than ramblings and no tie together. What was the point of her writing it at all? Was it something the editor put on her desk and was forced to write and she only put half interest into it or what? I just don't know.

#6 kfw

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Posted 25 July 2009 - 06:07 PM

So Joan's essay or whatever you would like to call it has no intention. I can not draw any conclusion from what she wrote other than ramblings and no tie together. What was the point of her writing it at all? Was it something the editor put on her desk and was forced to write and she only put half interest into it or what? I just don't know.

Stinger, when Acocella writes that Jackson's musicality and "ability to respond to the score" at age 11 are "amazing," I think we can assume that as a dance critic, she's interested. :)

Further into the article she writes about what he was capable of as a young adult, what his influences were as a choreographer, the range of his ability as a dancer, how his conception of the nascent form of music video was instrumental in the rise of MTV, in what further way his choreography for video was innovative, who his creative collaborators were, and how, in her opinion, he failed to learn an important lesson from one of his dancing heroes. She then charts what she sees as his decline.

This reads to me like a career overview, just what the editor probably ordered and just what most fans, serious and casual, would want upon his death.

You write

I think it is unfair to say his repertoire of moves is small when he has had no formal training, yet in all his music videos he is able to learn the choreography needed and do it better than any of the "real" dancers

Acocella too remarks on that amazing facility. I think the two of you are on the same page.

#7 stinger784

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Posted 25 July 2009 - 08:55 PM

I don't know... I just had trouble figuring out what she was writing about. Called me old fashioned, but I just could not find intent. I figured coming from the New Yorker there would be some sort of opinion or conclusion. It was just a very strange article.

#8 bart

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Posted 26 July 2009 - 04:59 AM

Maybe at this stage, Acocella figures that there IS no definite conclusion to the story. Jackson achieved a great deal but not all that he was capable of. It's a common story, even for those of us not as talented as he.

Regarding Jackson's relationship to choreographers. Acocella writes, citing one of Jackson's choreographers:

[Michael] Peters said that Jackson's meethod was to put together some steps and ideas and bring them to a choreographer, who would then organize them into a coherent dance.

This sounds like a collaboration, with the choreographer working within the limits of what Jackson did best and was most comfortable with, and making a larger dance sense out of it.

A question: I imagine that Jackson's style of movement has been very influential in the world of music videos. Has it also had an influence among young dancers and/or choreographers working in what might be called "contemporary ballet"? If so, any specific dancers, works or choreographers one can think of?


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