Before a show last week in Syracuse, on the second leg of her State of the World Tour, Janet Jackson arrived to the venue in a nasty mood. “We were like, ‘Ooh, let’s stay away from her!’ ” says the tour’s creative director Gil Duldulao, who immediately picked up on Jackson’s “salty” energy: “You know if you ask one question and she doesn’t answer you, and then she gives you that look. So I just walked her through her staging, and I didn’t say a damn word.”
But once Jackson kicked into action during the concert, something came over the pop legend. “She started laughing in the show, she started making jokes. And then after [the show] she was smiling so hard,” says Duldulao, 39. “The stage is what brings her alive and what makes her feel alive. It’s such a special place for her.”
Jackson, 52, will be sharing her “special place” with thousands of fans when she headlines Day 2 of Panorama Festival at Randalls Island Park on Saturday. It will mark Jackson’s first festival appearance in the New York City area in her four-decade-long career.
And it continues the midlife career mojo the superstar has gotten since giving birth to her first child — son Eissa — at age 50 in January 2017. Eight months later, she had whipped herself back into road-ready shape for the State of the World Tour kickoff last September.
“I think after giving birth, she just wants to work, whether it be festivals or tours,” says Duldulao, who, in addition to working with Jackson for more than 20 years, is the music royal’s best friend. “I just really feel that she’s in a new sort of work space in her life, that she just wants to keep going.”
Jackson’s work on the stage has provided a sanctuary for the singer in some tough times, from the breakup of her marriage to third husband, Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana, a few months after their son’s birth last year, to the death of her father, Joe Jackson, last month. Just 11 days after her dad’s passing, the diva was back onstage headlining the Essence Festival in New Orleans.
“It’s therapy for her. It’s a place for her to let things out, because the show’s very emotional,” says Duldulao, noting that there is a photo remembrance of Joe Jackson projected onstage when Jackson performs her 1998 No. 1 hit “Together Again.” “She keeps going no matter what is going on, and that is just so inspiring to me.”
Duldulao has been drawing inspiration from Jackson since he saw her 1993 “If” video, and that motivated him to move from his native Hawaii to Los Angeles to pursue his dance career. In 1997, he landed a coveted spot on her dance squad for “The Velvet Rope” album and tour.
“We didn’t really interact for the first year and a half. I was so shy,” recalls Duldulao, who, at the end of the tour, finally worked up the nerve to ask Jackson how she was doing: “The minute I asked her if she was OK — because I could tell something was going on — that’s when our friendship flourished.”
Along the way from dancer to choreographer to creative director for Jackson, Duldulao has witnessed her work through the “highs and lows” of her personal life in her art. “With every album, there’s always something that she’s going through. I’ve seen a journey through every project,” he says. “I look back at her life and all that she has gone through [back to] her childhood. It wouldn’t be easy, you know?”
Like her late brother Michael, Jackson is notorious for her work ethic. “Janet lives and breathes her craft. Nothing’s ever good enough,” says Duldulao. “Down to the last minute before a video shoot or before a performance, she calls you in to keep going through it, to rehearse it. She doesn’t want to stop. Sometimes we have to tell her, ‘You gotta go to bed.’ ”
Duldulao, who will sometimes stay on the phone with Jackson until 6 in the morning “talking creative things,” says that the socially conscious State of the World Tour was inspired when Jackson was observing US problems from her vantage point of living in London. “She was just like, ‘Is that really what’s going on in America right now?’ ”
Putting together a Janet Jackson show, with all of its moving parts and intricate choreography, is like a military operation. “Me and her have to watch the show from top to bottom at least 20 times to get the feel of how you want your audience to feel,” says Duldulao of their pre-tour run-throughs. “There’s so many ways to approach it, but you have to try everything in order to figure it out.”
All of that hard work continues once the show hits the road, but they make time for some fun along the way. “Sometimes we’re in cities where there’s not really much to do, so she’ll rent out a room or a balcony in the hotel, buy a couple of games, and we’ll just play,” says Duldulao. “Or sometimes we go bowling. It’s very playful that way. And she’s been sort of getting out of her normal ways, doing things like walking without security.”
Since Jackson has had a child in tow on tour, Duldulao says, “I think she just began to let go, because sometimes when you have a lot going on, you just have to let go.”
Duldulao says that it’s this freer — but still fierce — Jackson that you’ll see at Panorama: “With all that she’s been through, seeing her now so happy with her child, she’s really in a great space in her life. And we just wanted everyone to enjoy that.”
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