The pop legend that Daniel Celebre rehearsed with gave no hint that he'd be dead within a day
By Richard Ouzounian Theatre Critic
Published On Tue Oct 20 2009
What was Michael Jackson's state of mind 13 hours before he was pronounced dead?
"He was happy, he was smiling, he was laughing with us," remembers Daniel Celebre, who was a principal dancer in the superstar's This Is It comeback tour.
Celebre had been rehearsing with Jackson in Los Angeles "for three months, eight hours a day and he always danced full out. His energy was amazing, man."
In fact, on June 24, the last day of Jackson's life, director Kenny Ortega staged the show and "we ran through the whole thing and finished at about 1:30 in the morning," Celebre, a dancer based in Toronto, recalled in an interview yesterday at the midtown BDX dance studio.
"The feeling was unbelievable. Michael was at the top of his game. People who had known him for years said he'd never danced better.
"We even ran `Thriller' for the first time in costume and the people from wardrobe were in the audience crying. They told us `You guys don't understand how amazing it looks.'"
When asked if Jackson seemed tired or under strain, Celebre shook his head emphatically. "Every day he looked fly, but that day, he was better than ever. He looked young, man. His form was so perfect."
Every evening Jackson and the dancers would say goodnight to each other. That night was no exception. "We always hugged. I said `Hey Mikey, I love you,' and he said, `I love you too, bro.'"
And that's the last Celebre ever saw of Jackson.
The next day is a hard one for the 24-year-old to remember, because it ended a longtime dream.
Celebre was born in Nobleton, Ont., from "a large and close-knit Italian family." His mother took him to jazz and tap lessons at the age of 4. Soon he was into hip hop, breakdancing and his favourite, electric boogaloo, "which I tried to do just like Michael Jackson."
He did lots of club, promotional, TV and movie work, playing opposite Hilary Duff as the dance double for the male lead in the climactic scene of The Lizzie McGuire Movie when he was only 18.
But in 2007, "I stopped dancing, for personal reasons. I wanted to be the best dancer I could be and all people wanted were the stunts I could do. `Can this guy spin on his head? Can he do the flip?' Of course I could, but I knew I could be so much more than that and so I just walked away."
His father had taken over La Salumeria, the Italian deli on Yonge near Davisville, so Celebre joined him there. On April 10, he was "slicing some mortadella" when he got a call from his agent in California.
"I know you've been turning down every job I've offered you for two years, but you always said the only person you'd come back for is Michael Jackson. Well, you've got an audition for him tomorrow. Get out here."
At first, Celebre resisted, but his father said, "Daniel, you're going on the plane tomorrow. Hurry up."
He was giddy with excitement, rather than nail-bitingly nervous.
"Everybody else on the line was stressing out. I just kept dancing. `What are you nervous about, people?' I'd tell 'em. `This is Michael. Let's have fun.'"
They whittled the dancers from 500 to 250 and finally to 10. After he made the last cut, he met Jackson.
"I shook his hand. It was huge, man. He had the glasses, the hair, the black suit. We stood there and I thought, `You're nothing but love, man.'"
Celebre loved the rehearsals and hard work that made everybody better and better. And then came June 25.
"We were all sitting in our dressing rooms, ready to start rehearsals. I was watching a clip of Mikey doing `Ease on Down the Road' from The Wiz on my computer.
"We never had the TV on, but somebody had put it on 'cause Farrah Fawcett had just passed. Then we started to get the news about Mikey…. People were running down the halls screaming. Some fell to their knees. Everybody was crying. Everybody."
The rehearsals were filmed and will now be released as the much-anticipated movie This Is It on Oct. 28, but Celebre hates recalling the funeral, the memorial, "all those things that rub my nose in the fact that he's gone."
Celebre prefers to recall the first day of rehearsal.
"He told us he was taking us on an awesome adventure … and he did."