Before Kenny Ortega made a name for himself with such franchises as Disney’s “High School Musical” and “Descendants” and created show-stopping videos and stage shows, he sang and danced flamenco with his Spanish-born grandmother around the kitchen as she prepared meals.
Ortega would stand in front of his family’s black-and-white television and memorize “anything musical,” he says.
Eventually, his parents, whom Ortega describes as “World War II kids … who pretty much met on a dance floor,” enrolled him for lessons. He couldn’t contain his excitement and jumped off a chair to join the action when he went to watch a class.
Then, as now, he was “Kenny,” never “Ken” and, with the rare exceptions including Diana Ross, with whom he worked on her 1988 tour and “Experience” music video, not Kenneth.
On July 24, Ortega, who has collaborated with Cher, Madonna, Gloria Estefan and created shows for the Olympics, will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Meanwhile “Descendents 3,” which he directed, premieres Aug. 2 on the Disney Channel.
Ortega’s appreciation for, and study of, all aspects of the art form began in those childhood classes. The steamy hip-locking he choreographed for director Emile Ardolino’s 1987 cult classic “Dirty Dancing” was based on a style called the grind. He remembers that during his adolescence, its popularity could shut down a school-sanctioned celebration.
Thanks in large part to Ortega, the move continues at many a homecoming dance or bar mitzvah reception.
His relationship with filmmaker John Hughes included “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Hughes insisted Ortega choreograph and serve as second unit director on “Bueller’s” famous parade sequence. Featuring star Matthew Broderick singing atop a float, the scene had to be shot seamlessly because it was being filmed during a real parade. The assignment got him entree into the Directors Guild and gigs directing films including Disney favorites “Newsies” and “Hocus Pocus.”
Part of Ortega’s appeal might be that he understands what it’s like to be before and behind the camera. He began doing theater at 13 and appeared in stage productions such as the original San Francisco and national touring productions of “Hair.” Ortega notes that by the time he switched to choreography he “had a dance background, but also had an acting background.”
“I have this ability to communicate with actors and not throw them off their center and not intimidate them with movement,” he says. He has a knack for “finding an organic way of getting them to move.”
Ortega’s talent was noticed early on by others. Choreographer and musician Toni Basil banged on his dressing room door after seeing his band the Tubes perform at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip.
Ortega says he stood there “half naked” with “black mascara dripping down my face,” as she insisted he direct a show she was developing. It was also Basil who also suggested Ortega serve as choreographer for director Robert Greenwald’s 1980 musical fantasy “Xanadu,” where he was mentored by the film’s star Gene Kelly.
Prolific producer-director Don Mischer’s relationship with Ortega stems from the mid-1980s when they collaborated on an NBC pilot called “Jump!” that featured, Mischer says, “young people who loved to dance.”
The show didn’t take, even though they made two versions of it, but Mischer says he was struck by how “unbelievably creative and innovative” Ortega’s choreography was and mentions a performance set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” that was filmed in what looked like a rainstorm with water slowly drenching the dancers.
Their partnership continued and they have collaborated on such noteworthy events as Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s memorable 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, and the opening ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. (That last one earned Ortega the first two of his three Emmy Awards, one for choreography and the other for directing a variety, music or comedy program).
|Kenny Ortega went the “extra mile” for “High School Musical” says Vanessa Hudgens.
Courtesy of FRED HAYES/DISNEY CHANNEL
“When you’re doing those kinds of big events, it’s a tough job and a lot of things can go wrong and Kenny always had a positive attitude,” Mischer says.
Ortega is also fiercely loyal. He wrote a touching Instagram tribute to “Descendants” actor Cameron Boyce after the 20-year-old’s death earlier this month. It spoke of the young star’s talent as well as his “kindness and generosity.”
Boyce stars in “Descendants 3,” Ortega’s latest directorial effort, which premieres Aug. 2 on the Disney Channel. This third installment of the modernized fairy-tale-focused films will be dedicated to Boyce’s memory.
Ortega was also the creative partner and director for three of Michael Jackson’s world tours, including the prophetically named “This Is It.” Ortega turned footage of that tour into a posthumous documentary to honor Jackson after the King of Pop’s death in 2009.
Even now, given the recent controversy surrounding Jackson and his legacy, Ortega says, “It’s not uncomfortable at all for me to talk about my friend Michael.
“Every time the phone rang and it was Michael on the other side and he invited me to partner with him on a creative project, I said yes before I even knew how I was going to do it,” Ortega says. “At the end of every journey with Michael, he took me places where I have never been as a creative person.”
Learning from every collaboration, Ortega went through the famously taxing auditions for the Disney Channel smash “High School Musical.” Involving multiple call-backs, hundreds of young actors tried out until director-choreographer Ortega settled on his cast.
“When it comes to doing a musical, you need someone who’s willing to go that extra mile,” franchise star Vanessa Hudgens says. “Kenny never had an issue with stepping in and showing this kind of move that he was thinking of … he really set the tone for me to be a collaborator because of how safe he made me feel and how he made
me feel like my ideas and my opinions are valid.”
It’s easy to assume that Ortega must have a fondness for working with young people, not just through his work with Disney, but also through a new overall deal with Netflix that includes kid-centric fare. These include a movie musical adaptation of Elise Primavera’s book series “Auntie Claus” and “Julie and the Phantoms,” based on a Brazilian television series about a teenage girl.
“The boy who fell in love with music and the Mouseketeers still lives inside of me,” he says.
But Ortega also recalls how prickly life can be for a teenager navigating through adolescence, and those memories, some joyful but others painful, have inspired his activism, especially against bullying.
“I went through too much of that in my life. I was gay when it could not be spoken,” he says. “I was interested in music and theater and dance at a time when that wasn’t considered manly and, when my parents split up, I was living without one of [them].”
Ortega spent his childhood looking for ways to “avoid conflict” and “theater and music and dance saved me.”
There’s no one particular style of dance that Ortega calls his favorite. He’s just as much a fan of such musicals as “A Chorus Line” and “In the Heights” as he is of salsa and ballroom. He’s still amazed when he sees performances from younger dancers just graduating from college. “I love dance that tells [a] story and when movement is used as the language.”
He’s also delighted when he sees his work referenced, such as in the “Dirty Dancing” lift in the 2011 Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone rom-com “Crazy Stupid Love.”
Ortega even had the thrill of watching a whole stadium of baseball fans roar with delight when the “Ferris Bueller” parade sequence was played during a seventh-inning stretch at Dodger Stadium recently.
“It was the greatest sensation,” he says.