West Palm Beach dancer once a part of Michael Jackson’s concert troupe now appears at tributes for the late pop star
This week, Kriyss Grant will make his big-screen debut behind the man whom some called music’s greatest entertainer, in the season’s most eagerly awaited film.
Around the world Tuesday night, excited throngs will rush to midnight showings of its premiere, and locally, hundreds will attend Grant’s live pre-movie performance at the Muvico Parisian 20 in CityPlace, and then everyone will stream into the theater.
Everyone but Kriyss Grant.
"I’m not looking forward to seeing it," he says of This Is It, the documentary culled from footage of the late Michael Jackson’s planned series of 50 concerts in London.
"I was there and experienced what I experienced, so I want to see it on my own. People will be watching me watch it. I can wait for the DVD."
When the 21-year-old West Palm Beach resident talks about Jackson, he sometimes speaks haltingly, softly. Sometimes he refers to the late singer in the present tense, like you do when you lose someone you’re close to, and for an instant you forget they’re gone. A lot of people think of Jackson that way, but when Grant talks about him, he’s not just waxing nostalgically about an icon.
He’s talking about the man who was, briefly, his boss.
And when he talks about This Is It, he’s talking about a lot of should have, could have and never will be.
"I don’t know. I have mixed emotions about it," says Grant, one of 12 dancers who were to have appeared behind Jackson in London. "It was supposed to be a tour. But it ended up being a movie."
The graduate of G-Star School of the Arts was supposed to have spent the summer appearing in the most hyped show on earth, performing with the man he considers his first teacher, whose magical Moonwalk first made him want to dance.
He was supposed to have interpreted the legend’s music in front of the entire world, but the closest he got was dancing at Jackson’s televised memorial service at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, behind Jennifer Hudson and, later, the entire Jackson family.
He also appeared with his fellow dancers and Janet Jackson, Michael’s sister, in a tribute to the late icon at MTV’s Video Music Awards.
"It was hard for Janet, and hard for us," he says. "But this whole thing was for him."
In a way, Grant’s whole career has been inspired by Michael Jackson. No one who knows him is surprised that he wound up working for him.
"His dream was just to meet him, but he never dreamed of being able to perform for him. He just wanted to meet him!" says Grant’s mother, Tabitha Pizarro. "I’m just happy he reached one of his goals. And it was at a significant time – who knew Michael was gonna pass (away)?"
Kriyss Grant center performs at the Michael Jackson public memorial service held at Staples Center on July 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. AP
Choreographer Sean Green of local studio Sean’s Dance Factory, who added Grant to his crew when the dancer was just 14 years old, says Grant "never wanted to be labeled as someone’s backup dancer … but to be Michael Jackson’s backup dancer was OK!"
Born in The Bronx, Grant moved to Palm Beach County with his mother when he was 12. By then, he had been dancing for a decade.
"He started dancing when he was 2, on beat, with all the grown-ups," Pizarro says. "I knew dancing was gonna be his future. And at the age of 6, he really began to idolize Michael. Everything was Michael. He would go into his room, watch the videos and taught himself to dance."
"I would just dance, dance, dance," Grant remembers. "I had just never seen anybody like him. He had such a presence on TV. I would see so much emotion there, and I wanted to be exactly like him. Everybody knew me as that Michael Jackson kid. Other kids wanted to be a Power Ranger or an action figure. I wanted to be Michael. Everybody called me ‘the Michael Jackson kid.’"
The icon was very much on Grant’s mind when he showed up at auditions for one of Green’s Dance Factory shows. Green says he had heard about this talented kid named Kriyss, who turned out to be "this little scrawny boy who said, ‘Can I do a Michael Jackson part?’ I had never seen him dance before, but we cleared the stage and played the music – it was a medley, including Smooth Criminal. And he ripped it."
Grant joined Green’s troupe, performing at events such as Clematis By Night, and never failing to impress his leader. He didn’t like doing ballet – "he hated being in tights" – but he was "always so professional at that age, before his time. He was very sharp and detailed. He could be in a group of seven, and all eyes go to Kriyss."
After high school, Grant dedicated himself fully to his career by auditioning for, and landing, a part on MTV’s Making the Band, where he and other young hopefuls vied for a spot in a group produced by Sean "Diddy" Combs. Repeatedly pointed out on the show as the best dancer of the group, Grant was nevertheless cut when it was determined he needed to work on his singing.
That’s what he did, "going full out" by getting a vocal coach, while continuing to work on his dancing.
His next big break was also MTV-related. He appeared on Randy Jackson Presents: America’s Best Dance Crew with a group of dancers, but they got cut early.
In the meantime, he was teaching and choreographing, until yet another MTV opportunity presented itself, in the form of yet another Jackson – Janet. The network was developing a show with the singer that never happened.
But that disappointment "just made me work harder," which paid off when he was contacted by Beyoncé Knowles’ manager, who looked him up after seeing him on Making the Band. Grant worked with Knowles for about six months, and was planning to go on her tour as a dance captain, when he "heard all this talk about Michael coming back with a tour," he says. "I thought, ‘Hmm … I want to do that!’ I was getting paid fine (with Beyoncé), but she said, ‘You should do it!’"
With Beyoncé’s permission, Grant became one of about 380 dancers to audition for Jackson’s producers, including director Kenny Ortega, and stayed in the mix through two auditions as the field was narrowed. At his third, he and the other hopefuls looked out into the audience and saw a man dressed all in black, "walking in like the president, with six bodyguards. We were all like, ‘Who is that?’ But as soon as we saw the hair, we knew it was Michael. And we all started messing up."
Grant says he made a quick decision to "throw out the choreography" and just wing it – "Michael wants to feel you onstage," he says. "I just thought, ‘I deserve to be on this tour.’"
Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who thought so. He was one of the first to be picked for the final tour and, with the other dancers, went straight into rehearsals at the Staples Center. Grant says the choreography for the eight or nine numbers the dancers would have participated in was a mixture of new steps and ones from Jackson’s back catalog, including Smooth Criminal, Bad and Thriller.
The work was challenging, and the boss was exacting.
"In the beginning, Michael was very shy. He would come and just wave," Grant remembers. "He told us, at first, not to go full out – ‘Save your legs. Don’t give it away. Save it for the road.’ But as soon as the music would come on, he would hit it full out. … His moves were about passion and power, and the feelings behind them. He didn’t just want dancers. He wanted more than that from us."
Eventually, as Jackson felt more comfortable with the crew, his playful side came out. Grant describes him as "very funny, very loud. He loved to have fun, and he always told us, ‘If you’re not having fun, what’s the point of doing it? Don’t call it work.’ Kenny (Ortega) would be talking, and Michael would be behind him, moving around and mocking him like a little kid. Kenny would say, ‘Michael, are you listening?’ He was just normal."
Grant says that in those last days of rehearsal, he didn’t see anything in Jackson’s behavior or physical ability that would have signaled that his energy was flagging, or that he wasn’t up to the work. In fact, toward the end, Jackson was increasingly "giving it his all," Grant says. "Everything that people said about him not wanting to do this – none of that was true."
The young dancer had recently gotten some exciting news – he would be dancing as Jackson’s body double during the Dirty Diana number. During the morning of June 25, Grant was working with the female dancer portraying Diana, when he and the others began to hear rumors that Jackson was in the hospital. They shrugged it off and kept working.
Then the phone calls started – "Michael’s in a coma. Michael’s not breathing. Is he dead?" Grant remembers. "We started getting worried. It happened so fast."
Soon, director Ortega’s phone rang, and from a distance "you could see his whole body collapse. … Finally, his assistant said, ‘He’s gone,’ and started crying."
Grant pauses, takes a deep breath.
"I don’t like to talk about it," he continues, softly. "We felt he was gone. You know how it is when someone passes away. The whole Staples Center felt like there was a ghost there."
After Jackson’s death, Grant wanted "to run away" back to West Palm Beach, but his mother encouraged him to stay in Los Angeles to see the process through. He and the other dancers were asked to be involved in the memorial service, first performing the emotional ballad Will You Be There with Hudson, "which was hard for me. During the rehearsal, I just couldn’t do it. When we were doing the sad songs, I just couldn’t handle it."
His big performance was supposed to have been about celebrating with Michael.
"We were waiting for that first day, that first prayer with Michael before the show," Grant says. "But it’s all a lesson learned. We have to find our own lesson (in this) in our own time."
Even though time has passed, and though Grant is back in West Palm Beach working on his next career move, reminders of what might have been, including This Is It, are everywhere. Grant says he believes Jackson wanted the rehearsals shot as behind-the-scenes footage for the inevitable tour DVD, but that the performer never intended for most of it to be public.
In fact, he wonders what Jackson, a noted perfectionist, would think of all this.
"Michael doesn’t like his rehearsals to be out," he says. "He doesn’t like to show the process. He wants people to see the finished product. … I just hope (the movie) shows the real Michael, and isn’t (being released) just to make money off it. I hope it balances out and makes people understand, to feel what we felt. … In it, you’re going to see a lot of involvement from Michael, him being in charge."
Grant is taking charge of his own career. He’s still taking vocal lessons, is working to start an indie label and is recording what he calls "a mix tape. … I learned from Michael not to let people distract you."
And even though he doesn’t want to wind up as someone’s backup dancer, he is very grateful for the time when, briefly, he was.
"I want to show what I learned from him, his teaching me that anything is possible," Grant says. "I made it this far, to meet the greatest. … I always said I was gonna dance with him. And I finally did it."