The choreographer for the “This Is It” tour testified Tuesday that he had no doubts about Michael Jackson’s ability to perform in the series of comeback concerts after seeing the singer at rehearsal in the days before his death.
“I thought he was on his way to the goals he had set for himself,” Travis Payne said, adding that he and others were impressed while watching Jackson rehearse at Staples Center on June 23 and 24, 2009.
“He was not at show standards but he was rehearsing,” Payne said. “He was processing — he was having his process. I didn’t expect him to be as he would be in front of a crowd.”
PHOTOS: Jackson-AEG wrongful-death case
Jackson died on June 25 after receiving a dose of propofol administered by Dr. Conrad Murray, who is now serving jail time for involuntary manslaughter.
The wrongful-death trial in which concert promoter AEG is accused of negligently hiring and controlling Murray is now in its third week; testimony has offered insight into Jackson’s last months of life. While the case, filed by Jackson’s mother and three children, does not seek a specific amount in damages, it could be worth millions, even billions.
Payne, who was called to the stand by AEG, said that the singer often missed rehearsals and that when he did show up, he never ran through an entire show.
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“It ebbed and flowed,” Payne said of the music legend's performance. “Some days were good, some days were not as good.”
On the less than good days, the singer would appear “loopy” or groggy, the choreographer said.
“My understanding was that preparing to returning to the stage and to the public eye, Michael was undergoing sort of personal cosmetic procedures so that he could feel great and do a great job,” Payne said.
Payne said he noticed that Jackson looked thin but was satisfied with the singer’s response.
“He said, ’I’m getting down to my fighting weight,' which I took to mean that he was preparing for the performances,” Payne testified.
At one point the choreographer said he suggested Jackson get a physical therapist and that Kenny Ortega, the director of “This Is It,” arranged for one who worked with Olympians to fly in from Salt Lake City.
“At the last minute we realized that Michael was not going to go through with it,” Payne said. “He was just not comfortable with the invasion of personal space.”
When Jackson needed to be layered in blankets and required a heater to be comfortable, Payne said, he believed Jackson was merely fighting a cold.
Payne, who had worked with Jackson in the past, said he was usually hired by MJJ Productions and that the concerts represented the first time Jackson didn’t have full control.
He testified that there was a delay in his contract with AEG because the salary was not in line with his standard charges, but that things worked out after he had a conversation with Jackson. Payne also said he believed AEG was paying Murray’s salary, not Jackson.
During cross-examination, Payne was shown several photos of premieres for the documentary “This Is It.” In one, Ortega and AEG executive Randy Phillips flank Jackson’s manager, Frank DiLeo, who has a cigar hanging out of his mouth. All three are grinning.
Brian Panish, the attorney for Jackson’s family, remarked that everyone looked pretty happy.
Things became heated when Panish inquired about a text message Jackson's hair and makeup artist Karen Faye sent to Payne that accused him of lying to the media. Payne said he didn't recall such a message. He said that earlier Faye had approached him in an "aggressive" way about her concern for Jackson's health but he told her to take her concerns to Ortega.
Panish reminded Payne that he had testified in his deposition that AEG was trying to protect its “investment.”
“I don’t have a dog in this race so I’m not on either side,” an aggravated Payne countered. “I’m just saying I don’t want to be painted as somebody who’s trying to mask anything.”
Payne, who was an associate producer on the “This Is It” documentary, said the footage of Jackson had not been retouched or altered.
He also testified about Jackson’s relationship with his three children and mother, Katherine, who on Tuesday was greeted by fans outside the courtroom with calls of “God bless you” and “You look very beautiful.”
When rehearsing with Jackson at his Holmby Hills residence, Payne said the singer clearly delighted in being a father. Jackson encouraged his son Prince’s dreams of being a director, allowed son Blanket to attend his dance rehearsals, doted on his daddy’s girl, Paris, and shared meals with all three.
“I saw the beauty of their relationships,” Payne said. “I saw their loyalty to their father, I saw his loyalty to them.”