In 1986, Michael Jackson became a Disney park attraction in Captain EO, a $30 million “space opera” that was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and executive produced by George Lucas. Besides a nifty 3-D component that made it a real gas to watch — was that massive space rock really going to drop in your lap? — the film featured two of Jackson’s songs (“We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me”) and a unique blend of jazz and street moves that hadn’t been seen since, well, “Thriller.” Here, dancer/choreographer Marlene Lang Clayman of Los Angeles — who, at 19, was a relative novice in the Hollywood dancing community when she was chosen to perform alongside Jackson in the film — reflects on the experience.
After Thriller, every dancer wanted to be in something Michael was involved in. The audition…I can’t even tell you, it was like a cattle call, thousands of people. I was such a young dancer, and a lot of the dancers were in Thriller with him, so it was old school for them. I was so paranoid the director and choreographer [Jeffrey Hornaday] would hate me. And then they put me right next to Michael [Clayman is the blonde in yellow who’s dancing just left of Jackson in the clip below]. Jeffrey, who was doing A Chorus Line at the time, was a genius. He would watch Michael and choreograph steps off of Michael’s way of dancing. So that’s how we learned it. There was this one big move at the beginning where we’d bring our arms out; it looked like a karate kind of move. I literally nailed Michael in the head, and he fell to the ground. I was like, “Oh God, I’m fired.” He just said, “You’re strong” and laughed.
It was electrifying, the energy you felt off of him. He gave 100 percent, every time. There was no, “I’m tired, let’s just mark it.” And the day we shot…the people who came to the set! Gene Kelly, Sophia Loren…they all loved Michael.
I had no idea what was going to happen to the film afterward; I was just happy to be there. I was dancing in front of Gene Kelly next to Michael Jackson! I would have paid to do that. It still follows me, honestly. I’ll choreograph and do shows, and someone will find out I did Captain EO, like, 20 years ago, and it gives me this moment of respect. Every dancer is now talking about how, without Michael, they would not have been a dancer. It’s crazy how his death is affecting the dance community. Everybody respected him so much.