"For me it was questionable - I'm trying to find the right way to say it - if they really were pushing him to do this..."
Exactly one year ago, Michael Jackson officially sold out 50 dates at the O2 arena. Twelve months on, Charles Thomson catches up with Kriyss Grant, the first dancer Jackson hand-picked to join him onstage in London.
March 2010 , Sawf News
At 21 years of age, Kriyss Grant has achieved a lot. As a teenager he reached the final sixteen of P Diddy’s ‘Making the Band’. At 20 he was hired by Beyonce Knowles to choreograph her ‘I Am...’ world tour. Nowadays he’s known worldwide as one of the principal dancers for Michael Jackson’s ill-fated This Is It concerts.
His big break came shortly after leaving ‘Making the Band’, when he had a chance encounter with choreographer Frank Gatson.
“I was in New York and I’d recently got kicked off the show,” he recalls. “Frank and I ran into each other in a store. We exchanged contacts and he kept in touch with me.
“He called me around a year later. Beyonce was starting up her tour and he said he couldn’t think of a better person to audition because he wanted something new, something high energy. So I flew to LA and I danced in front of Beyonce. She loved it. She said I had to be on her tour.”
The pair bonded immediately due to their shared work ethic, says Grant.
“Beyonce is a very hard worker and she’s very hard on herself. It’s funny because we both think the same way. We never think what we do is good enough.
“Beyonce always enjoys doing what she’s doing. I mean, she doesn’t use the bathroom or nothing when it comes to work. She’s just always on it and she never wants to eat, she doesn’t want to do anything – she just wants to work, work, work.”
It was during Grant’s time with Beyonce that Michael Jackson announced his comeback concerts. When Gatson got word of the audition, he told Grant he had to go. A lifelong Jackson fan, he jumped at the chance.
“It was Beyonce who pushed me,” he laughs. “She told me she was gonna slap me if I didn’t go! She was rooting for me and so was Frank. If I didn’t make Michael’s concerts, I would have met up with the others and been one of the captains on the Beyonce tour.”
Grant sailed through the first audition and was invited to callbacks, where Jackson watched from the audience and hand-picked his principal dancers. But Grant says he didn’t let Jackson’s presence throw him off.
“I was very psyched about the whole thing – about him being there – but once the music came on and it was time to dance, I just let it go. When I perform I throw everything out of the window so it was kind of like he wasn’t there. Then after I was done I was like ‘Okay, I hope he noticed and I hope he liked it’.”
He did. According to Travis Payne, Grant was the first dancer Jackson hand-selected, exclaiming, “Look at that joker go!” After the principal dancers were announced, they got the opportunity to meet their hero.
“He shook our hands and everything. He has really big hands,” says Grant, who still speaks about Jackson in the present tense from time to time, quietly correcting himself when he notices. “He was just like a statue. His presence was so amazing and I just couldn’t believe it. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t because my body was in shock.
“Michael said, ‘You’re amazing,’ and he gave me a strong grip handshake that I will never forget. I never thought that day would come, you know? Being a little kid and hoping and dreaming of meeting this person and never thinking you’re going to get to. But when I finally did – there was just no other feeling like it. I can’t express how I felt.”
Dance rehearsals began the next week and were ‘intense’, says Grant, with only one day off per week. The group rehearsed without Jackson for several weeks, perfecting routines before they joined him onstage.
“We would use the time to bond with each other, just building the chemistry between all of us so we could look good together onstage," he recalls. "Michael would pop in from time to time to watch us and give us feedback here and there, but he was very shy in the beginning.
“The first thing we rehearsed with Michael was They Don’t Care About Us and a lot of us were messing up because we couldn’t stop looking at him. I was really thrown off but I was keeping myself together. I had to keep whispering to my dance partner Dres [Reid], ‘Let’s just focus, keep it together’, and he was saying, ‘I can’t – it’s Michael!’
"After that first time I was okay. I just made sure I stayed focused and stayed on my game.”
Rehearsals with Jackson were sporadic, says Grant, because he was juggling so many roles.
“He had a lot of other stuff to do as far as his vocals, getting his voice right and he had a lot to do with costumes," Grant explains. "He couldn’t just stay at rehearsal all the time. He had a lot to do with the tour – putting the whole thing together.”
Having mastered the routines early on, Grant says the dancers often performed full run-throughs of the show without Jackson, with special effects and ‘slow numbers for Michael’ being inserted around the dance heavy tracks. When it came to choosing slow songs, Grant recalls Jackson facing a dilemma over whether to include Human Nature or Stranger In Moscow as his first ballad.
“I remember watching Michael sing and rehearse Stranger In Moscow. He was trying to work out which one to do – if he wanted to do it as a medley, if he wanted to just throw them both in there or maybe include one as an encore. Michael was just trying out different songs, seeing what feelings he had for the songs, which ones were the fan favourites but also which one fit within the whole set list for the tour. There was a lot of that.”
Although Jackson was present and involved, Grant raised eyebrows when he stated in a recent interview that he felt early on that Jackson was being ‘taken advantage of’.
“I just felt like sometimes they questioned Michael about stuff and I didn’t understand that because Michael is the artist,” he tells me. “I felt like anything Michael says about entertainment, we should all just listen and follow his feelings. If he doesn’t feel right about something or if something’s not right, I felt like it should just go. He should just have that right to do that.
“For me it was just questionable - I'm trying to find the right way to say it - if they really were pushing him to do this or if he knew what was supposed to be done. I just felt like at the bottom line, as an artist, you should have your say. If you don’t feel right about anything you shouldn’t do it.
"But I guess people are people, you know, and sometimes you run into little situations. But at the end it was pretty much solved. Michael got his way and things were sorted out. I didn’t mean anything else by it.”
During the final two rehearsals Jackson really kicked into gear, says Grant.
“I guess he really felt it coming together. We all really felt it coming together in those last two rehearsals. It was just a different feeling those last two nights. Michael was very into it, very open-minded about things. He was just living on the stage. His whole vibe was just different. It was like he was really connecting with us and the music. It just felt done. It was like, ‘Okay, I can sleep tonight’. He gave you a warm feeling those last two days. We all left with a smile on our face.”
He describes the final rehearsal as fairly unremarkable; just another day at work.
“The last routine that I remember doing with him was Thriller. He did other things, other songs, and we ran through the whole show. I had a problem with my mask that day – my Thriller mask. It was very tight on my face and it was hard to breathe, but I got through it. It was a very good rehearsal. Before he left he said he would see us tomorrow and ‘good rehearsal’, with a smile on his face, thumbs up.”
The next day, says Grant, seemed like any other until word reached rehearsals that Jackson had been rushed to hospital.
“We were just rehearsing and waiting for him to come in,” he says. “Then people started getting phone calls. A lot of people just cut their phones off because it was getting ridiculous. My phone never blew up so much in my life. We were all praying separately and then when we finally all started to get together to pray together, have our last prayer, they came in and told us that he was already gone.
“We all just broke down. A lot of us just split up and went into our own corners and it was like the entire stadium was crying. It was just the worst. It was one of the worst days of my life. It was the ending of something that was going to be so great and so amazing.”
Within days the dancers were back in rehearsals, this time gearing up for Jackson’s memorial, where they performed Will You Be There with Jennifer Hudson.
“It was something beautiful and we thought it was appropriate for his funeral,” says Grant. “We wanted to do something that came from us.”
The song was originally rehearsed for the This Is It concerts, but its inclusion was never confirmed.
“We rehearsed it but not in the sense that we did it over and over,” he says. “We did it a couple of times and he was just smiling. He was just getting back onstage so I guess he was reminiscing about certain times. It was a good feeling. It was like a walk through with the music playing and stuff. He sang a couple of lines but the thing with Michael is that he would always tell us not to do it so full out. Save it for the fans. Save it for the audience.”
Rehearsing the routine for Jackson’s memorial was an emotional experience, says Grant.
“It was when we were rehearsing with Jennifer Hudson that it really dawned on me - ‘Okay, this is... really... he’s not here. This is not a dream.’ That’s when I really broke down. I just started crying. I couldn’t hold it in. I’m the quiet one in the group – they pick on me because I’m so quiet – so for me to start crying like that made it OK for everybody else. Mekia [Cox] started crying, then Dres started crying and then other people started. I remember Jennifer was looking at us like, ‘Wow’.”
It is clear that Grant was deeply affected by Jackson’s death. His voice becomes hushed and sombre as he remembers the aftermath.
“To this day, it’s hard for me because I have to answer so many questions when I bump into people. My friends and family understand so they really don’t ask me a lot about it, but it’s hard to talk to fans sometimes. I still haven’t got over it. I still have it, you know. It hasn’t been closed. I have dreams about it.”
Grant also felt conflicted when the dancers were asked to act as ushers at Jackson’s private funeral.
“Me being so young – I don’t deal with death and funerals easily. The whole funeral was very emotional for me. But at the same time, I had to keep a smile on my face for the family or keep a smile on my face for the others or the kids to let them know it’s going to be okay. I was grieving but I felt out of place because I felt it should be their time with their son. I had a lot of mixed emotions.”
The release of This Is It also inspired mixed emotions. At the time of release he gave an interview saying he would wait for the DVD. Today he says he still finds it difficult to watch. He is also bemused by some of the choices that were made regarding what was and wasn’t included.
“It’s funny because those bits you see, he’s not doing the full out still. There were times where he was really, really doing it, like full out. There are a lot of things that weren’t shown in This Is It. I really don’t know why that stuff was left out.”
One thing Grant and his fellow dancers weren’t prepared for after the release of This Is It was a barrage of hate mail from fans who blamed them for Jackson’s death.
“You have certain fans that make it seem like it’s our fault,” he laments. “Like we’re just supposed to know how Michael is, or like we were supposed to stop it. We were supposed to do this. We were supposed to do that. It’s nothing like that. We have no control over that. We’re brand new dancers walking into this whole thing. We’re just as shocked as the world is.
“One time I just broke down because they just don’t understand how it was. Sometimes I even thought about not having a Facebook and things like that anymore but I can’t do that just because of some fans. It’s not all fans, just some fans. They are so deeply involved that they just blame all of us. But I’m quiet and I just let them do whatever, because I can’t... it’s not worth fighting for. A lot of people have their own opinions about it and you can’t change that. People are going to say what they want.”
Grant says that although the dancers still receive negative messages, it has become less of a problem in recent months. Nowadays he primarily gets emails from curious fans, including a couple of ‘crazy questions’.
“I guess the craziest question I had was what type of underwear Michael wore. You know, that’s a crazy question. I don’t know that!”
In recent months Grant has been following Jackson's example, he says, by performing in a number of charity shows.
“I did a couple of things here in West Palm Beach for different schools, trying to raise money for different causes like children that have AIDS, abused kids and things like that. Then recently Frank and I went back to his high school in Milwaukee.
“We’re trying to keep the arts living on and let the kids know that they can do what we’re doing if they stay focused, stay positive and work hard. Nothing is impossible. I started just like these kids. Right from when I was 14 or 15, I just kept going. Sometimes I got discouraged but you have to just keep going.
“I feel like with kids they just need that person, no matter who it is. If their mum or dad isn’t there for them, they look up to artists. They look up to anyone who will give them time and speak with them. They will cherish that. I know we changed a couple of kids’ lives in Milwaukee by encouraging them to pursue what they want to do.”
With an album in the works, an invitation to choreograph Kelly Rowland’s next tour and a couple of record deals on the table, Grant says he now wants to make it big in the music industry.
“My dream now is to become an entertainer. Just like Michael was. I just want to entertain, have my own music videos, music. Not even do it for the money, just do it for myself and for people who actually appreciate it. That’s always been my long-time dream. My other dream came true; meeting Michael, dancing with Michael. Now my last, ultimate dream is to become a successful entertainer and to keep his legacy living on.
“He changed me right from when I was little but now he’s taught me that anything is possible. Whatever you do, just go for it and always give it 125 per cent. No... 180 per cent! Just live on the stage. If this is your passion then just have fun onstage. If you’re frustrated then let it all out. Connect with the music. Connect with the audience.
"I just learned so much from him on a professional level, just by watching him, listening to him. He was an amazing man when it came to that. I just want to take that on and use him like a father figure.”
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