Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Interview With LaVelle Smith Jr.

His resume is extensive. He’s worked with Diana Ross, the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Beyonce, Teena Marie, and Michael Jackson to name only a few. He’s won numerous awards, including five MTV awards and an Emmy. He’s talented, down-to-earth, genuine, thoughtful, kind, direct yet gentle, and funny. After his first audition for one of Michael’s videos, he was invited to choreograph and tour with Michael on his Bad tour, and was invited back for Michael’s Dangerous and HIStory tours, as well as numerous awards shows, films and other appearances.  He created a new dance routine for BBC’s Move Like Michael Jackson, a show which aired in December 2009, geared to “find Britain’s best MJ-inspired dance act.”

Meet LaVelle Smith Jr., Michael Jackson’s longtime friend and choreographer. LaVelle recently received his Dot in the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. I had the opportunity to speak with LaVelle, who graciously agreed to do an interview with us answering some questions the MJTP Team asked, and tell us about his experience with Michael. After spending some phone time with LaVelle, I can see why Michael and he connected so quickly, and why Michael called him a friend for over 20 years.

Valerie:  How did you first get started as a professional choreographer?

LaVelle Smith Jr:  I got started as a choreographer by being an assistant to a choreographer named Barry Lather. Barry Lather got the Rolling Stones tour and couldn’t do it, and so as an assistant they asked me, if they paid me the same money as a choreographer, would I come and do it. And I said, of course I would. And that began.

And also Janet Jackson, about the same time, let me do a number in her Rhythm Nation telefilm.  I did “The Knowledge.”  

And that’s kinda how it started.

Valerie:  You first danced with Michael in the “Smooth Criminal” video in 1987. What was that experience like for you?

LaVelle:  I had just moved to Hollywood about three weeks before the “Smooth Criminal” auditions.  And I auditioned, and got the job.  

I don’t think I really understood the magnitude until I walked onto the sound stage. We were on the same sound stage where they shot Gone with the Wind. It was massive, and we were there for three months. But it changed my life. And Michael said that from the minute he saw me dance that he wanted me to be on his tour.

Valerie:  What was it like to work with and tour with Michael, and what length of time for rehearsal was normal in the course of a day?

LaVelle: Touring with Michael was amazing. I got to see the world. But rehearsals were really hard!  As a concert dancer first, I’m used to hard rehearsals. But this was more than that. We would actually do full-costume dress rehearsals three times a day, and we’d do that for six weeks. And then we went on tour. And Michael’s thinking behind that was, if we can do it three times a day, one time a day is gonna be nothing. And it got everybody a chance to work out lights, special effects, costume changes…it was perfect.

Valerie:  What was it about Michael’s approach to dance that made him stand out as above and beyond all the others?

LaVelle:  Michael’s approach to dance – and of course I adopted the same approach; I love dance to be really organic. I like it to come from a real, real place. It’s really simple to put on music, get up and do some steps. It’s easy. The challenge is to test yourself and not jump at the first thing that comes to your mind. Take a thought, take an idea, and play with it over and over and over again, until it becomes just the right step for that moment of music.

Valerie:  What do you feel is the greatest or most important thing that Michael taught you?

LaVelle:  Michael taught me so many things. I’d say the most important thing is to really not let your ego get in your way of your work. It’s hard.  I’m still working on that!  I am human.  But he taught me that’s something that really has no place in artistry- in true artistry. Leave your ego aside, work with everybody and anybody, learn from everyone, and contribute as much as you can.

Valerie:  What do you think is Michael's greatest legacy?

LaVelle:  I think Michael’s greatest legacy will be his children. But his greatest legacy in entertainment will be his music and the way he revolutionalized dance. Michael changed dance and the way dance is seen on the face of this planet. That is amazing to me.

Valerie:  What moment in This Is It best reveals the true Michael? What scene from the movie is the most representative of Michael’s character and personality?

LaVelle:  I think a great moment in This Is It is…Michael, he wants it right. If it’s not right, he’s gonna hear it and he’s gonna see it. And you really can’t hide from that. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. 

Valerie:  Can you share a personal experience you had with Michael, or something you witnessed, that would personify Michael’s greatness? Is there a profound, touching, enlightening or even funny experience or conversation you had with Michael the man or Michael the boss, which you can share with us that stands out above all others?

LaVelle:  Once again, there’s so many moments in my and Michael’s relationship! After 23 years?  Many, many things have happened. Many great things; many funny things.

Something that really showed me who he was though, on stage once, we were at a dress rehearsal for I think an award show – I’m not sure, America or Europe. But I had a costume that…blew up in the beginning of the number. And unbeknownst to me, I caught on fire! And all the sudden I see Michael running toward me, throws me over, and starts patting the fire out of my back. And I’m standing there –I’m laying there actually on the ground smoking – you know, just fire coming, you know…smoke coming off of my body. He’s like, “Didn’t you know you were on fire?”

I’m like, “Nope.”

And he’s like, “You were really in the moment!”

And that was kinda funny to me – scary, but funny! That showed that, you know as much as he is a true performer, he’s human. My friend’s on fire, I’m gonna put the fire out.

That’s a moment.  Let me think of something else…

Gosh!  There’s so many. I mean, we used to share so many laughs. I mean, I love to laugh and so did he, and so that made it a lot of fun to work. And sometimes it made it kinda hard to work, because once you start laughing it’s kinda hard to stop.

But, yeah - just goin’ to the ranch – I remember going up to Neverland Ranch and being there for about two weeks, just dancing! And the studio’s open 24 hours. Whatever we needed was there, you know…and if it wasn’t there he made sure somebody got it for us.

And, I think that’s the kind of person he was, and those are the kind of things that stick out. Just generous, loving, funny.  Great to be around.

Valerie:  What would you like the world to know most about Michael?

LaVelle:  I would like the world to know that Michael was a great man. He was funny. He was very human. The same things that bring us joy as humans of course brought him joy. The same things that make us laugh made him laugh. And that work was who he was, and he taught me that it’s a gift, and with that gift there’s a lot of responsibility. You have to share that gift, and he shared his gift with me of dance and music. I try to do that now with anybody that really wants to know.

Valerie:  Imagine Michael looking down on us. What do you think are some of the things he would appreciate the most since his passing?

LaVelle:  You know, I think that Michael would appreciate looking down on us now, just the outpouring of love, and I think dance now is on the forefront. It’s everywhere, and I think he’d really appreciate that because – he would never admit it, but he’s a big part of the reason that dance is such a big part of American culture – videos, obviously. I think he’d get a kick outta that.

And it’s a shame that we don’t share that kind of love and appreciation of a person when they’re with us, so it’s a shame that he has to be looking down as opposed to standing here with us. I think he’d really be appreciative.

Valerie:  If you could say one more thing to Michael now, what would it be?

LaVelle:  Thank you. If I had one more thing to say to Michael it would be thank you. Thank you for everything. It changed my life. It’s allowed me to work with – obviously him – but so many more beautiful artists, and I take everything he taught me and I try to share that with artists on any job I do, commercials, video - whatever I’m doing – film, it’s important to share. I would just say, thank you, thank you, thank you. It changed my life.

Thank you, LaVelle, for sharing this with us.

From June 20th – June 24th of this year, individuals, dance studios, teams and teachers can attend the LaVelle Smith Dance Camp at the Odham County Schools Art Center in Kentucky, USA, and dance with LaVelle and special guest teacher Eddie Garcia, another renowned and talented choreographer who toured with Michael on the Bad and Dangerous tours.

To see the video of LaVelle’s interview, laughs included, please click here. (Thank you, Mary Jane).

By: Valerie, Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait Director of Operations & Administration







© Valmai Owens, 2011
Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief
Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive


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