Tweens, teens and their parents may find it hard to believe, but there is more to Kenny Ortega than the “High School Musical” franchise and Miley Cyrus’ recent Hannah Montana concert triumph. In fact, Ortega has over the years grafted his talent onto all manner of spectacle, from Olympic opening ceremonies to Super Bowl halftime shows to Las Vegas dancing fountains.
What all these ventures have in common, though, is an appreciation of movement and its integration with music, which became even more refined after Ortega struck up a strong friendship with the great Gene Kelly. Their initial contact came during the filming of the camp classic “Xanadu” (1980), which starred Kelly and was choreographed by Ortega. But it didn’t end there.
“Gene took Kenny under his wing and taught him the intricacies of shooting dance on film,” recalls Patricia Ward Kelly, the dancer’s widow. “He gave Kenny a viewfinder and a stopwatch and explained the unique demands of choreographing numbers for the screen. It really was an old-fashioned mentor/ protege relationship, with an immense amount of respect and affection on both sides.”
Respect for his talents and affection for the man himself seem to be constants in Ortega’s life, and he has pleased and endeared himself to some extremely exacting folks, including hotel impresario Steve Wynn.
“When we have something theatrical, something particularly delicious, we go to Kenny,” says Wynn. “The opening of the Bellagio was one of those things, and he’s now working on the opening of Encore, my latest hotel.”
Ortega is also crafting a new three-minute show for the Lake of Dreams at the Wynn in Las Vegas. Inspired by Albert Lamorisse’s “The Red Balloon” (1956), the installation — Wynn calls it “the most fanciful we’ve done together” — involves two floating globes interacting with music by “Ratatouille’s” Michael Giacchino. “They’ll dance on the water as if blown by a breeze, change color and paint the lake,” Wynn says, adding, “Kenny and I will be working on another project, but I’m not prepared to announce it yet.”
None of this should surprise anyone who recalls Ortega’s work with Don Mischer, who for 30 years has produced some of this country’s greatest extravaganzas. Together, Mischer and Ortega produced the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City as well as Barbra Streisand’s celebrated “Millennium” concert on New Year’s Eve 1999.
“His mind constantly works to come up with something new and different,” says Mischer, who first worked with Ortega in 1982 and last did so in 2005, on Super Bowl XXXIX. “He has innate talent. You might use the word gifted. He doesn’t settle. He never says, ‘That’s good enough.’ You want someone to push, to make it look better and sound better, and that’s his approach. He really cares about everything he does. It’s never been just a job for him; it’s always been a passion. I have higher expectations when he’s involved. We may have to compromise, but in the end it’s going to be worthy, every part of it.”