Friday, 19 April 2019

Mirror men

By Milan Gagnon | Prague Daily Monitor |
15 July 2009

At 12am in the PM Club, the joint was all sweat and smoke and that unselfconscious sex that teenagers secrete when they’re high on Red Bull or just drunk for the first or 10th time in their lives, and someone puts on a soundtrack of hits that charted before their births. Equally object and architect of the moment, Pavel Janák – a revivalist performer, not to be confused with the modernist designer who died in 1956 – opened his shirt, exposing a slight paunch as he worked his pelvis to familiar beats. Burning that disco out, Janák, greased curls dangling from a fedora that also hid the top of his face, paid tragic tribute via medley and movement to Michael Jackson, whose visage played in a slideshow on a big-screen. The performance had been booked before the King of Pop's death, but it clearly took on a special meaning for the group of boozed-up adolescents. Or maybe the kids were just wasted.

Janák says his phone has been ringing nonstop since Jackson died on 25 June, with media and instant nostalgics looking to book a moment or a night. He seems to have internalised his off-the-wall role. Before the concert, I met him in front of the club, where he was pacing 20 or so metres from the entrance, hiding his long black hair under a ball cap and ducking under an umbrella from the rain and the gaze of the kids who were already lined up. "You're not going to photograph me out of costume, are you?" he asked. Out of costume he was, perhaps; in character, though, for sure.

It was hot out, but wet. He didn't want anyone to spot him, so we sat on the faux-fur seats of his car, where it was just hot. "I'm not afraid of people," said Janák, who gave his age as "around 30" and said the Jackson shtick is his lone labour, unlike those imitators who leave their King of Pop costumes in the closet when they go to day jobs. "I try to make sure people don’t know that I'm the one they're waiting for. When there are a lot of people, for instance, expecting for Jackson to show up, I have others carry my stuff, or I go through the back entrance. I don't want fans to see me, to lose that surprise."

The Czech Republic has a wealth of tribute acts, called revivals or imitators: In a given week in Prague, you might catch versions of the Rolling Stones, Nirvana and Aerosmith. Many acts have focused on gone-too-soon musicians including Freddie Mercury-era Queen, Elvis Presley (of course) and the Beatles – well, half-gone at least – but there are also takes on comparatively new bands such as Queens of the Stone Age. Still, it seemed eerie to me – though clearly not to the eager youth at the PM Club on 30 June – to watch the resurrected work of someone so recently expired.

Janák said that after Jackson's death he'd booked a steady stream of shows, from Moravia to Slovakia to the PM Club, "and then I'm taking a vacation". Two nights after Janák's performance, Luboš Hejda, an 18-year-old high school student from North Bohemia, took the stage at Friends, another sweaty and smoky basement club. Bad news has meant bittersweet attention for these dancers.
"The world's changed," Hejda said a few days before his gig. "For me, this is an inconceivable loss: I've lost the purpose of my life, the best person and artist I know of. From today, I'm going to try to put everything I've got into each performance so that it will be the best. And it'll be as if Michael were watching from above, proud that we are carrying on his legacy."

Hejda comes from Bílina, a town of about 17,000 residents 13 kilometres south of Teplice. The place bucks statistics by having two Jackson impersonators. The national average, according to a hasty and informal estimate, is about one King of Pop or fewer per million inhabitants.

Twenty-five-year-old Honza Moflár is Hejda's in-town colleague. Moflár, who bills himself as the “Breath of Michael Jackson”, has played this role for 14 years and ranks among the top five European impersonators, an honour he received from fan clubs that voted on performances and videos. Moflár, although not surgically enhanced, looks unnaturally young, much as his hero did. Like Jackson, he has seemingly genderless features and effortless, if well-practiced, manoeuvres when he does his thing, which, of course, includes plenty of crotch grabbing; like Jackson, he's a right crowd-pleaser. "The responsibility of an imitator is, at present, to be conscious of bringing pleasure to the people, just like Michael did," said Moflár, who is supporting himself as a welder until he can dance full-time. "The audience will now see things a bit differently, and there’ll be people coming who might not have in the past. But the King of Pop has died, so I think that when they come to the show, they are also paying their respects."

These men self-identify as imitators and often refer to the audience rather than the art. This ain't interpretive dance. The evaluative task compares better to judging a gymnastics contest and gauging who was most faithful to textbook techniques than, for example, criticising how or why a troupe has performed Richard III. By keeping the faith, Jackson revivalists ensure that small-town discos and company Christmas parties will catch what remains of the King of Pop. If we still hear Smetana covered in Prague's churches, squares and concert halls 125 years after the composer's death, we ought to expect a century – or several – of Michael Jackson performed by tribute artists. Janák, for his part, is grooming his 6-year-old son to perhaps take over the family business, or at least join the show for now. "I'd like to have a little Jackson," he said. "The performance would start with him for a minute or half a minute, and then there'd be smoke, or maybe something like 'boom, boom, boom', and then it'd be me." Or: A-B-C, 1-2-3, here's Daddy.

The important thing, for now, at least, is to bear the torch and keep entertaining audiences even in the face of an irreplaceable loss for pop and pop culture. "For a Michael Jackson imitator, this means a huge responsibility. Your task is always to preserve Michael's memory by presenting the beautiful dance he gave the world now that he cannot do it himself," Moflár said. "I think that my performances will be more emotional because, before every single movement, I'm going to think about Michael."

At the PM Club that Tuesday night, Janák's half-hour performance ended abruptly, all bang and no whimper, straight-up dancing and no pesky banter. The revival was hot and short, like a good gig ought to be. The next-best-thing-for-now slipped his hat farther down his face and slid off the stage. Some dude from the club grabbed the mic and said, "Michael Jackson!" Applause. And then what? A few kids stayed on the floor to dance, others retired to the bar's corners to kiss and grind, and those who'd had enough ascended the stairs to street level, where the bouncer made them drink up or pour out. Outside, cops checked the IDs of almost everybody exiting. In order to comply with the age of consumption, after all, you needed to be born during or before the year Dangerous was released, and not just know the record from re-presses.