You Might Not Know Kenny Ortega, But You Probably Know His Choreography

Jul 23, 2015
Originally published on July 23, 2015 3:10 pm

What do Michael Jackson, Zac Efron, Bette Midler and Patrick Swayze have in common? They've all worked closely with choreographer Kenny Ortega — a veteran song and dance man who has inspired generations of performers.

On July 31, the Disney Channel premieres his new movie Descendants, starring a number of young, new actors as well as veterans like Kristin Chenoweth and Kathy Najimy.

Ortega designed big concerts for Michael Jackson, auditioning dancers and overseeing the crew. He was working on Jackson's final tour before the singer died in 2009. Ortega choreographed the smash hit Dirty Dancing and directed all three of Disney's "High School Musical" films.

But Ortega's career really began in his childhood living room in California, where, mesmerized by Gene Kelly movies, he tried to follow all the star's steps.

Years later, Ortega not only met his idol, but actually got to direct him in the 1980 movie Xanadu. It flopped and was trashed by the critics, but you'd never know it to hear Ortega talk about it. Before Kelly signed on, he wanted to meet the choreographer, a day Ortega remembers well:

"He said 'If I were to dance — and I'm not saying I'm going to dance — but if I were going to dance, what would you have me do?' And so I just said, 'Well, why don't we just start with some of the steps that you've already done which, to me are, you know, classic and timeless.' And I got up and started doing some of his moves and he said 'Oh, that's the old Nora Bayes,' and 'That's not right, it's this way' and suddenly we were dancing."

Ortega may have directed Kelly in those dance numbers in Xanadu, but it was Ortega who got an education.

"He mentored me, and when the movie was over he continued to," Ortega recalls. "He would invite me to his home and we would look at his films together and he would talk to me about how he designed choreography for the camera which was the greatest education I had received up until that point."

Kelly inspired Ortega to experiment with choreography, to play with space, and levels — and even water. Dirty Dancing fans will remember the scene in the lake when Patrick Swayze is teaching Jennifer Grey the all-important lift. (If it's been a few years since you've seen it, you can refresh your memory here.)

One bit of movie trivia many Dirty Dancing fans may not be aware of: That lake was frigid. In fact, Ortega says Grey ended up going to the hospital for hypothermia. "You'd never know it from the glee and the smile on her face, but in fact it was not an easy scene to shoot," says Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote and co-produced Dirty Dancing.

But the cold water didn't deter Ortega; Bergstein remembers the choreographer got in the lake with Swayze and Grey. "He got in the water with them," she says. "He was terrific."

The movie is based on Bergstein's own experiences — dancing with her friends in basements in Brooklyn, just like you see in the movie. Turns out, Ortega had danced some of those same, evocative steps himself in California.

"Street salsa, Colombian style salsa, Cuban rhythm step, R&B and street soul," he remembers, "we were drawing from a number of different places to ultimately arrive at what Dirty Dancing became."

The movie was made on a shoestring budget. It was cold and rainy on location and Bergstein says none of the studio executives really believed in it. But she says Ortega was always upbeat with the cast and took every aspect of the filming seriously.

"He went over everything with me," Bergstein says. "You know, 'Did Baby dance on her father's feet when she was a little girl?' We went over all the basic subtext of how I wanted everybody to move in it because he wanted to know everything."

Ortega is the ultimate musical theater guy. He was in a professional, stage production of Oliver when he was a teenager and he starred in a touring production of Hair. So it was a no-brainer when he was offered the opportunity to direct a story about the making of a high school musical.

For a certain demographic, High School Musical is Disney's most popular property. Teenagers around the globe saw it, bought the soundtracks, the T-shirts and more. The trilogy launched the careers of Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale and Zac Efron.

"Kenny is the kind of mentor and sort of friend that never shows any limits. He never lets you know your limits," says Efron. (Here's a young Efron performing "Get'cha Head in the Game" in High School Musical.)

He was just a teen — and still pretty green — when he met Ortega and says it was a gift for him and for the other young cast members to work with the veteran choreographer.

"What he did with his aura and positivity and reinforcement — he was able to bring out something special," he says. "I can definitely say for a fact that I witnessed him speaking one-on-one with every person in the cast and uplifting them."

Ortega's ability to nurture future stars and create films that teens around the world want to see has meant gold for Disney. They're hoping he's done it again with Descendants, a film premiering next Friday on Disney Channel. It's a musical fantasy about the teenage offspring of some of Disney's most famous villains.

Ortega says he thinks he's found young actors who could become every bit as successful as Efron or Tisdale, and says he approached casting for Descendants the same way he approached casting for that first High School Musical.

"When you cast you want to make sure these kids are coming fully loaded," Ortega says, "because you have three weeks' rehearsal — which is not a long time — so you want to make sure you have collaborators and partners in these young people — kids that are easily going to be guided and steered and inspired."

So many years ago, Kenny Ortega's mentor Gene Kelly might have said the same thing about him.

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