Travis Payne has been dancing since he was nine years old. He has choreographed, danced, and contributed to music videos and tours for megastars Madonna, Sting Faith Hill and Britney Spears.
He worked with Michael Jackson on his Dangerous Tour and was the Associate Director as well as the choreographer for the This Is It concerts until Michael’s untimely death. He serves as Associate Producer for the movie Michael Jackson’s This Is It, along with Kenny Ortega and Michael Bearden, and was intimately involved in the making of the film.
I spoke with him about his memories of the King of Pop.
Do you think Michael would have been happy with everyone seeing him do the unfinished show that wasn’t polished and complete?
The Michael Jackson we were working with this time had evolved in a way that his priorities were different, he was a father with three young children now. This Is It was to be not just a return to the stage, but a challenge to the audiences of the world to really think about humanity and conservation.
A message which had been woven through his art for so many years, but I think that in recent years had become much more important to him because he was a father and he wanted to do everything he could to ensure as healthy a planet possible for his young children and their children.
We told him, ‘It’s okay that you’re not perfect, all you have to do is be Michael Jackson. Have you process, don’t feel you need to come in at 100 percent on day one.’ So to see him kind of exhale and just allow himself to go through this process was great. Because the messages were there, they became the priority to us as they were to him.
We’re fortunate to have realized that goal for him in a different way, the messages will get out there. There would have been 50 shows in London, which would have been fantastic and set records in itself, but now 50 shows worth of people can go see the movie every day, so the audience has grown and the platform is much greater.
I was happy to see the original choreography from Thriller and Beat It were in there.
He would always tell you, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And don’t tease the audience. They want to see what they know. They want to come and hear what they know.’ If people can come and see what they’re familiar with, they can identify and appreciate it and grab hold of it.
If you come with some fancy, new interpretation of it, it’s going to take people awhile to figure out what it is, and by then you’re halfway through the song and you’ve lost them. You’ve not had the impact that you could if you stick to the original. He’d say, ‘You go and see James Brown, you don’t want to see James Brown not be James Brown.’
He thought like that, and that was his mentality when approaching his art. Certain things stayed sacred.
What amazed me about the dancing in the film is nobody knew this was going to be a movie and every single rehearsal they gave their all.
Most of these dancers are between 19 and 29, so they grew up listening to Michael Jackson, and learning from him. And it wasn’t just a job, it was their dream job, so they were excited to be there and he was so welcoming and so gracious that it made everybody instantly so comfortable and, yes, they wanted to impress him.
When he’s there you just want to give it to him, because you know he’s going to give it to you back.