As crews unload 35 trucks filled with video screens, fog machines, lights, an extendable stage with conveyor belt, mock-up gates of Neverland Ranch, enormous penny loafers, and a giant white glove for the Cirque du Soleil traveling show Michael Jackson: Immortal at Philips Arena from June 29-July 1, the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery across town will be hanging photographs taken by Jackson's personal photographer Todd Gray for a very different sort of show about Jackson called The Gray Room, opening July 6. When considered side by side three years after the King of Pop's sudden death, the unrelated shows reveal the strange dichotomy that made Jackson such a fascinating public figure.
"To me, there were two Michaels," says Gray from his home in Los Angeles. "He was this very fierce, immensely creative, sharply focused performer. But when he didn't have a mic in his hand or there wasn't a camera rolling, he was very quiet, very demure and really like a fun-loving man-child."
It's the second Michael that's the focus of Gray's exhibition and his one-man autobiographical performance piece Caliban in the Mirror to be performed in the gallery July 13. Jackson and Gray first met at various awards ceremonies and concerts in the mid '70s when Gray was an entertainment photographer assigned to cover such events. Jackson appreciated Gray unobtrusive presence, and eventually hired him as his personal photographer. Gray traveled with Jackson, followed him on tour, and photographed him at his home from 1979 to 1984.
"He lived an unusually solitary, almost monk-like life because of his fame," says Gray. "Disney World would open at one in the morning just for him when we were in Florida. They would put the rides on, and he'd be the only one there." Gray's performance, an intensely personal work, reflects on his time with Jackson. "It talks about how I participated in the mythology as a co-conspirator in his image-making," he says.
If the private, troubled, reclusive Michael is the center of Gray's show, then Michael the outrageous, over-the-top, ecstatic showman is certainly the focus of Cirque du Soleil's.
"We're loading in the largest arena show in the world in a matter of eight hours," says artistic director Tara Young. Immortal is a giant, swiftly moving machine, traveling through two to three U.S. cities a week this summer before starting on a major European tour in October. "Over 200 people travel with us: cast and crew and management. ... It's a huge extravaganza, it's an event."
Cirque's creative team held its initial brainstorming meetings at Neverland in 2010. The opening scene depicts the Neverland gates, and Jackson's famous "Giving Tree," a large tree on the estate where he wrote music, is a major set piece. The show uses 30 songs by Jackson along with Cirque du Soleil acrobatic performance, elaborate props and sets, to create a huge concert experience.
"Michael Jackson is the heartbeat of our show," says Lee. "Though you don't see him, you feel his presence. ... When 'Smooth Criminal' starts, you see the audience of 10,000 people scream and lift out of their seats. It's a great feeling."
Gray, who says he's made a conscious decision never to see Immortal, contends that his performance has a very different aim: to memorialize Michael as he knew him and to spark contemplation of the man himself in all his complexities. "What I'm hoping with my exhibition is not just to present Michael Jackson as another element of spectacle, but as someone we can think about in relationship to pop culture, American culture, black culture, African culture. We can look at the photographs and see how they reflect us at large."