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The biggest stars in the entertainment world are grieving over the sudden and shocking death of Michael Jackson.
The King of Pop seemed driven and upbeat in the weeks, even hours, before his death as he rehearsed rigorously for a series of 50 concerts in London that were to begin a late-career comeback.
Friends and colleagues said Friday that Michael Jackson appeared in recent months to be rejuvenated by the prospect of performing again.
After years of seclusion following a child sex scandal, the pop icon was heavily involved in all aspects of the concert rehearsals. He had hired a personal trainer and was practicing with backup dancers and choreographers several hours a day, they said.
"He was working hard, setting the example, overseeing the choreography, kicking butt and taking names," said Johnny Caswell, president of CenterStaging Musical Productions Inc., a Burbank sound stage where Jackson rehearsed until late May. "He was ready to blow everybody out of the water. This was going to be the biggest extravaganza, entertainment spectacle ever."
Jackson was involved in all areas of planning, including watching auditions and choosing the backup dancers who would appear with him, said Maryss Courchinoux, a 29-year-old dancer from Paris who sought a place on stage with Jackson.
Courchinoux said she had been selected as a backup dancer for the London concerts and had been fitted for a costume. She had been invited to Thursday's rehearsal in Los Angeles to meet Jackson and watch the practice to help prepare for her role, she said.
On the same day, Jackson was pronounced dead after collapsing at his home in Holmby Hills, a swanky neighborhood near Bel Air.
Courchinoux recounted how Jackson was in the audience as she auditioned in April, when she performed a set routine and then was asked to do freestyle dances — a hip-hop style called "pop-ins."
From the stage, she could make out Jackson's profile and his glasses where he sat in the empty auditorium. Friends later told her that Jackson jumped up and applauded after her group performed.
"I knew it was him, and I knew I was in his presence," she said. "In a way, I feel blessed that we got to dance in his presence, and I was looking forward to meeting him yesterday," she said, choking back tears.
"It was my dream since I was six years old. I guess there was a different plan."
Rehearsals for the tour began in late March, Caswell said.
Jackson and his choreographers, band and dancers took over about four of the 11 studios at Centerstaging. Jackson would wander in and out of the studios, keeping tabs on the work and would often sit on a large black leather couch and listen to the band practice.
He frequently offered band members suggestions and took an interest in the mixing levels for the concert's soundtrack, according to those who worked with him at the sound stage. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they had signed confidentiality agreements.
Caswell and other workers at the studio said Jackson would arrive in an SUV, with another vehicle following, about four or five times a week. One of the SUVs ferried Jackson, but the second was to fake out the paparazzi and European fans who flocked outside the studio's doors. Jackson, an infamous recluse, would always crack a window and allow fans to pass CDs in for him to autograph.
"There would be tons of fans — European fans — they weren't sharing the information with anyone else that he was coming here with anyone else. They didn't want to spoil the exclusivity," Caswell said.
Max Miller, a dispatch manager at the studios, said he saw the singer work on a transition routine between two songs.
Miller's team aimed a spotlight at the stage area as Jackson, wearing a black suit, practiced the moves with no music and just a metronome clicking.
"He was totally dancing like top-notch. He seemed totally good," Miller said. "He seemed totally cool and really focused."
As focused as energized as he was in Burbank, Jackson seemed even more excited about his comeback as the concert date approached.
He recently moved his rehearsals to The Forum, the Los Angeles Lakers' former arena in Inglewood, and ultimately to the Staples Center, where he was rehearsing daily, sometimes for hours.
Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of Grammy Awards, said he met Jackson there on Wednesday for a business meeting and spoke to him for about 20 minutes before Jackson invited him to watch him rehearse.
Ehrlich, who has known Jackson for years, said he was amazed by the singer's vitality and focus as he practiced moves with backup dancers and a handful of choreographers.
The choreographers walked him through moves and gave him stage directions. They also introduced him to some new props and appeared to be working with Jackson to incorporate them into the show.
"Michael was digesting it all. He was learning, but even with that, there were times during the songs where his singing was full out," Ehrlich said. "I would watch him move across the floor like the Michael of old. I was convinced (the comeback) was going to be the Michael of old."
Ehrlich said he left after watching Jackson work through five or six numbers, but got chills from watching him — a memory that seems especially precious now. The star showed no signs that he would die less than 24 hours later, he said.
"There was this one moment, he was moving across the stage and he was doing these trademark Michael moves, and I know I got this big grin on my face, and I started thinking to myself, 'You know, it's been years since I've seen that,'" he said.
"There was that Michael that was just like no one else and no one else could touch," he said. "The shame is that new generation won't see that — but we all came close to being able to see it again."