Four mornings a week, an SUV with darkened windows bears Michael Jackson through the gates outside a nondescript building near the Burbank airport. He spends the next six hours on a soundstage in the company of 10 dancers and pop music's best-known choreographer.
The details of rehearsals for Jackson's upcoming concerts in London are closely held secrets, but what's at stake for him is not. The ambitious schedule of 50 sold-out shows could turn out to be the final, sad chapter of Jackson's storied career -- or one of pop music's all-time greatest comeback stories.
When -- or if, in the view of many industry skeptics -- Jackson takes the stage at the O2 Arena July 8, it will be his first extended concert run in 12 years. Doubters cite his long hiatus from performing, health problems, a onetime prescription pill addiction, age -- he is 50 -- and his reputation for flaking out on performances and business deals.
But the concert promoter, Los Angeles-based AEG Live, insists that Jackson is prepared mentally and physically and that the show, called "This Is It," will break new ground in both artistry and sheer cost. The production budget is "north of $20 million," a price tag that will include as many as 22 different sets, said Randy Phillips, the company's chief executive.
"It's going to be the biggest, most technologically advanced arena show -- and the most expensive -- ever mounted," Phillips said.
On Monday, the company announced that choreographer and director Kenny Ortega, the force behind the movie "Dirty Dancing" and the "High School Musical" series, as well as Jackson's Dangerous and HIStory tours, has signed on to direct and design the shows. Ortega agreed to work around his schedule as director of the planned remake of the 1984 movie "Footloose" to take on Jackson's shows, according to AEG.
In a statement, Ortega called Jackson "the greatest entertainer of our generation" and said he was eager to collaborate with him again. "My answer without a beat was nothing could keep me away," he said.
In Ortega, Jackson chose someone who has achieved what he could not -- continuous cultural relevance after great success in the 1980s. He tapped as the show's choreographer and associate director Travis Payne, who worked with Jackson in the mid-1990s. Payne's recent work includes routines for Beyonce and Madonna, as well as a "Dancing With the Stars" tribute to Jackson.
Also involved are younger choreographers who rose to prominence translating Jackson's style for a new generation. Todd Sams, who has worked with Usher, is collaborating on the show, according to a representative, and Rich & Tone Talauega, a duo who have choreographed Chris Brown's moves, were present for auditions last month.
The two-day casting call drew 700 dancers to downtown Los Angeles' Nokia Theatre. "They were from the elite agencies across the world -- London, France, New York," said Australian dancer Nandy McClean, who was not chosen. "There were hip-hop dancers and jazz dancers. You could tell a lot of them were crazy Michael Jackson fans who grew up watching him."
In the end, eight men and two women were selected. Jackson attended the second day of tryouts -- one agency head compared the experience to basketball players auditioning for Michael Jordan.
"Dancing for an artist who is so amazing and who everyone looks up to was the best feeling of my life," said Atlanta dancer Victor Carter, who did not make the cut. "He perfected the profession."
Jackson is taking a hands-on role in coming up with routines, according to Ortega and Phillips. The singer is developing a move that he hopes will be as distinctive as the moonwalk, Phillips said. "He's working on it," he said, refusing to say more: "I'm sworn to secrecy."
When the public last got an extended look at Jackson -- during his 2005 molestation trial -- he appeared in no condition for a grueling concert schedule. He was hospitalized during the proceeding, his clothes hung on his gaunt frame and at times he seemed to have difficulty walking. He later acknowledged an addiction to painkillers.
But AEG's Phillips said Jackson had "filled out" by last November, when discussions about the London concerts began. He said a four-hour physical with an independent physician this spring found no medical problems. In preparation for the shows, Jackson is doing aerobics with a personal trainer and has had no difficulty keeping up with dancers half his age during rehearsals in Burbank, Phillips said.
Those practice sessions occur in secrecy, thanks to security patrols and confidentiality agreements. There have been rumors, especially in the British media, that the production will include a duet with Jackson's eldest son, Prince Michael, a stage filled with Jackson look-alikes, and a cast of monkeys and elephants.
Beyond denying the last report -- "No animals. No animals!" Phillips said -- producers are tight-lipped about what the 20,000 fans in the arena will see. Jackson will perform between 18 and 22 songs. Some choreography will feature aerial dancing similar to routines by Cirque du Soleil, he said.
The singer has said he will sing his hits, telling a March news conference, "I will be performing the songs my fans want to hear."
The concert preparation has not been spared the lawsuits and threats of suits that seem to be a given in any dealings with Jackson. Last week, he was sued by his former publicist and the actress who co-starred in the 1983 "Thriller" video. On Monday, a New Jersey concert promoter sent a cease and desist letter, alleging the London appearances violated terms of an agreement to play a Jackson Five reunion concert.
Phillips said the claim was "meritless" and had not affected rehearsals.