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TV Interview

Lavelle Smith Jr ('Move Like Michael Jackson')

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Lavelle Smith Jr ('Move Like Michael Jackson')

Rex Features

Lavelle Smith Junior was the choreographer and lead dancer behind Michael Jackson's legendary 'Bad' and 'Dangerous' tours. He was also one of the collaborators Jackson was teaming up with when planning his aborted 'This Is It' shows. A close friend of the late popstar, Lavelle has launched a TV hunt for a dance successor to the 'Thriller' singer with BBC Three show Move Like Michael Jackson. With Michael's brother Jermaine and popstar Jamelia among the panel, the winner will be awarded a slot at next year's tribute concert. We caught up with Lavelle to find out what we can expect from the show.

Can you tell us about how Move Like Michael Jackson is going to work?
"We auditioned everywhere, all over the United Kingdom - to end up with 16 really amazing acts. We let them dance and do their routines, but we want them to have Michael Jackson moments in it. We will work with them on that. Then at the semi-final stage we will go down to four acts, who will all compete for the chance to perform at next year's Michael Jackson memorial event, which Jermaine is organising for next June."

What were you looking for at the auditions?
"We really weren't looking for lookalikes or anything like that. We wanted somebody who could capture the spirit of Michael's dancing. That passion, good worth ethic and natural talent. Pretty much just that."

From a professional perspective, how good a dancer was Michael?
"Michael was an amazing dancer, there was a natural talent, but he also used to research and study, study and study. He used to watch old movies with Fred Astaire and the Nicholas brothers. He had influences from all the greats. He also used to stand in front of the mirror, hour after hour after hour - just to perfect that one move. You could see that in This Is It - he was like that with his music and dance. After that kind of dedication, of course it is going to look good."

Jermaine Jackson is a judge on the show. Did that add extra pressure on you to find the right dancers?
"Who knows a brother better than his brother? Obviously it is a huge responsibility. The level of talent will have to be exceedingly high to impress Jermaine, so I have been aware of that all the way through this process."

What was your relationship with Michael like?
"I first worked with Michael when I was 20-years-old. And we remained close friends and had many laughs right up until his untimely death. We worked together for many years and many times. Obviously, he was my employer first of all, but after a certain amount of time, you become closer than that. We were good friends."

In This Is It he seemed like quite a tough boss. Did he demand the best?
"He was very serious. Very serious about his work. Friendship never got in the way of work with Michael. Somebody you count as a friend, you expect them to work harder. So that was never an issue at all. We would work hours and hours together at one time. If there was something wrong he would tell me, and I would have to fix it until it was right."

Michael's influence on popular culture was so large, do you still find it strange that he isn't here?
"Yeah, I do. Doing this job and doing interviews about the show - I find it odd that people use the word 'was' about Michael. I still say the word "is". When I have an interview and someone says 'Michael was...', I think to myself, 'What the frick!'. Yeah, it is real messed up. It is still really messed up. I am not particularly good with the whole death thing anyway, but when it is someone who you were close friends with for 22 years, it is especially hard to start using the word 'was' all of a sudden. He was with me for nearly half my life."

What do you think those final shows at the O2 would have been like?
"I want to believe that they would have been wonderful. Actually, I started working with him on those shows in 2008. I visited him in Vegas for about six months. We didn't know at that stage what it was going to be called or anything like that, but we just discussed new ideas, new moves and new thoughts.

When was the last time you saw him?
"Well, I went out to LA in February 2009, and I was there with him until mid-May, but then I had to leave because of other commitments. But then when I was away, I heard that Michael Jackson had suffered a heart attack. I called his assistant, who told me that it was all going crazy and they would call me back. So I just switched on the TV and watched it unfold on CNN. I was thinking hopefully that it was all one big mistake and a giant false alarm, but sadly that never happened. It was nuts."

How was he when you last met?
"He was still the same Michael. Every time you saw Michael, it was just like you'd seen him yesterday. There was no warming up period with Michael, he'd just be like, 'Hey! What's up? How's it going with you Lavelle?'. He always wanted to know what I was thinking, what I'd been working on recently and that sort of vibe."

Move Like Michael Jackson begins tonight at 8.30pm on BBC Three.

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