Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)

Part II. THRILLER

“THRILLER”

THERE ARE SO MANY ASPECTS TO “THRILLER,” the most important communal dance of the last three decades, that it’s hard to know where to start. But the root of the story is not Rod Temperton, who wrote the tune to Quincy’s specifications, or Michael, whose interest in horror films inspired the vision, or even John Landis, the clever Hollywood director who directed the video. The root is Michael Peters, who died of AIDS in Los Angeles in 1994, way too soon to have seen his choreography danced around the world.

Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to a black father and a Jewish mother, Peters was a product of the vibrant New York dance culture of the 1970s. He performed with legendary black companies such as Alvin Ailey and Talley Beatty while dancing on the weekends at the city’s many gay and black discos. Broadway was slowly beginning to open up to black dancers in white shows and black musicals in general, and there was a new sense of possibility among dancers and choreographers.

There are early examples of Peters’s work on sexpot dancer/singer Lola Falana’s mid-1970s television specials (which were reissued on DVD in 2009). Peters can be seen next to the lithe Falana, using some of the hip movements and leg lifts that would appear in “Beat It” a few years later. Peters got his first major break as a choreographer working on a video for Donna Summer’s erotic epic “Love to Love You Baby,” though that work was seen primarily in Europe, where music videos had been long established. In 1979 he got to work on a Broadway show called Comin’ Uptown, a black interpretation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that starred superb actor and tap dancer Gregory Hines.

What really put Peters on the map was his work as co-choreographer of Dreamgirls, the faux Motown musical masterminded by director/writer Michael Bennett. The show, which was Bennett’s follow-up to the classic backstage musical A Chorus Line, rewrote the Motown success as a love triangle. The Berry Gordy-like label head tosses aside an Aretha Franklin-styled soul shouter for a slender Diana Ross-inspired pop diva. Though the musical’s fictitious story line rankled Motown loyalists, the production’s innovative staging and choreography, a blend of classic R&B stagecraft with Broadway theatricality, made the show a smash.

The rave reviews for Dreamgirls are undoubtedly what landed Peters on Michael’s radar screen. “Beat It,” the video of which was basically a West Coast West Side Story set among Bloods and Crips, features Peters as one of the gang leaders. (The other gang leader, played by Vincent Patterson, would go on to choreograph “Smooth Criminal” and other Jackson videos.)

In retrospect, there’s not much actual dancing in “Beat It.” Michael flashes some quick moves on his nocturnal journey to the gang fight, but the big ensemble moves that symbolize Michael’s reconciling the two warring groups are only in the video’s last minute. Nevertheless, what was there was striking enough to make Peters a star in the burgeoning new field of music video choreography, where he’d do particularly memorable work on Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,” giving the gangly rock diva some new wave dance moves that worked despite her lack of rhythm.

But Peters’s entry into dance history was assured by the dancing zombies of “Thriller.” He took the stiff-legged, lurching walk of scores of zombie movies, particularly George A. Romero’s cult classic Dawn of the Dead, and created hunched-back turns, creepy head jerks, and slide steps graceful in their clunkiness. Campy by definition, Peters’s dance was silly fun that transcended generations and national boundaries, and, crucially, it was danceable by regular folks without any dance training or skills. In many ways, this dance is Michael Jackson’s most perfect pop product. It was good, pseudocreepy, dress-up fun that even folks in countries without a Halloween tradition could get into.

AT THE TIME OF PETERS’S DEATH, rebel cultures, hip- hop, and grunge dominated popular culture, with West Coast gangsters and angst-ridden rockers in flannel shirts all the rage. The blend of big Broadway gestures and modern dance Peters specialized in was not in vogue, having been supplanted in videos by slam dancing and new forms of street dance. That Michael’s reputation was deeply scarred by a child abuse scandal in 1994 made the “Thriller” dance seem even more passé.

But by the middle of the twenty-first century’s first decade, 1980s nostalgia was rampant in music, fashion, and design as the children of MTV, John Hughes, and Ronald Regan came of age. This retro aesthetic brought “Thriller” back in ways planned and playfully unexpected. In February 2008, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Thriller’s release, Sony records had flash mobs break into the dance in public spaces around the world. It was a canny piece of marketing by the multinational corporation, but a pale copy of a gloriously crazy Filipino prisoner video. Posted on YouTube by Byron F. Garcia, the warden of a maximum-security prison in Cebu, Philippines, the clip captures 1,500 male inmates dressed in orange jumpsuits (and a few in nontheatrical chains) doing Peters’s dance in the prison courtyard.

As a form of exercise and tension release among the prisoners, Garcia had been using elaborate dance performances for a while, with communal (and decidedly gay-friendly) tracks such as the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” and “In the Navy” in the mix. One of the elements that made the Cebu dance so popular was that Wenjiel Resane, an openly gay ex-pizza chef, played Ola Ray in a halter top and tight jeans with an appropriately frightened expression. At the time of this writing, the video had been watched by tens of millions and counting.

But my favorite manifestation of the “Thriller” dance circa the twenty-first century has its roots in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1997. There, sixteen-year-old Ines Markeljevic, who as a child had been fascinated by the video, was now studying dance. She convinced a teacher to show her the steps to “Thriller,” which at the time was being performed at Halloween parties.

Jump forward to Toronto circa 2006, where Markeljevic, by now earning a living as a Pilates teacher and dance instructor, organized sixty-two dancers to perform the dance. Inspired by the response, and with a nice feel for the pulse of global culture, she organized “Thrill the World.” Harnessing the Internet’s ability to coordinate masses of people for a single cause, she got groups of dancers around the world to do the dance at the same time.

Following Michael’s passing, “Thrill the World,” which had already caught on, was performed by more than 4,000 dancers in seventy-one cities—from Matlock, England, to Selma, California, to Austin, Texas, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Some of the groups had only eight people. Others numbered in the hundreds. Some folks had on elaborate costumes, and others dabbed on a bit of makeup and got into some scruffy clothes.

On YouTube one afternoon I sat and watched the “Thrill the World” folks dance to Peters’s steps, emulate Michael’s moves, and dress up like zombies from 1984. On one level this event was as hokey as it gets. But I felt the pathos as schoolteachers and businessmen, the serious and the silly, the graceful and the gawky, jerked around like movie monsters for fun and the memory of Michael. Indeed, this event was Michael Jackson’s perfect pop moment—we are the world with a pelvic thrust.