Ortega also choreographed 'Dirty Dancing,' and has directed and choreographed the upcoming Disney Channel movie 'Descendants'

By Stephanie Schomer
Updated July 31, 2015 at 04:18 PM EDT
Credit: Jack Rowand/Disney Channel
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Kenny Ortega’s Disney Channel movie Descendants revisits some of the studio’s most notorious villains — and introduces their born-to-be-bad kids as they navigate the wicked world of high school. Ahead of its July 31 premiere, the 65-year-old director and choreographer recalls the moments that shaped his career, from parties in the gym to dancing with Gene Kelly.

Let’s start with your latest project, Descendants. It’s such a clever concept — meet the kids of Disney’s classic villains and heroes. How did it come to be?

It had been a while since High School Musical, and [Disney Channel president] Gary Marsh reached out and said he wanted me to work on something that had real purpose. I read the script in one night and called him the next morning. I was like, sweating. The “yes” got bigger and bigger as the days went ahead and so did the challenges. All of a sudden I started to realize that I had this responsibility — here are all these Disney fairytale heritage characters — and an opportunity to be a part of building brand new Disney characters.

When did you start working on this?

Almost two years ago. And again, these are sacred characters — many created by Walt Disney himself. So that this was turned over to me, it comes with responsibility. The fun part of this movie is, it’s once upon a now. Twenty years after happily ever after. Where’s everyone been? What’s it been like for Maleficent to be trapped on an island with a protective barrier over it for 20 years, still looking for that crack in the ceiling, that way out? And it wasn’t like revisiting High School Musical, even though a lot of things connect between the two in terms of spirit. But they are different stories and we approached them in different ways.

But like HSM, the cast of kids is pretty fantastic.

We really put the actors through a process. At the end of the day it’s a combination of intelligence and theatrical ability, and you hope for a fine actor who’s going to bring something to the party, who’s going to get excited, do the research, and come in every day with ideas and be a partner — and all of these kids were ready for that. We had a magnificent workshop and put all of this together and on its feet in three weeks, including recording the music, rehearsing the choreography, rehearsing the script. It was a lot of sweat.

Did you revisit the films these characters were based on?

Our cast is as young as 14 years old, so not all of them had even seen all of the movies! So I’d invite everybody over and we’d have movie night and eat pizza. They had to know where Cruella de Vil came from. We also watched some of the great old musicals, like West Side Story. My biggest goal is to create an environment that feels safe and comfortable and fearless.

So let’s jump back to how you got here. At what point did you realize you wanted to be an entertainer?

The earliest memory I have is watching my parents dance in the living room of our modest home in Redwood City, Calif. I was maybe 3 or 4, and this happened not once, but many times. My parents — they were WWII babies, and they loved to dance. Jitterbug, swing, Latin. The would put on the vinyls and my dad would twirl my mom and dip her and they would laugh and her hair would fly. There was so much love and good spirit and beauty. And not long after, my cousins were in dancing school and my mom brought my sister and me to watch them in a class. I jumped right off the chair and ran into the middle of the floor. The teacher pulled my mother aside and said, “You know, I’d love a boy in my class, I’ll give him a scholarship.” And that was the beginning for me. I fell in love with dance.

Did you go to performing arts schools growing up?

I didn’t, I went to Sequoia High School in Redwood City. It had a gorgeous theater and it still does. We put on plays four times a year, and had a summer workshop where we did big musicals like Camelot. And outside of high school I was auditioning up and down the San Francisco Bay Area. I was working as an apprentice at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, and a lot of touring productions came in, big shows. The original cast of Oliver! out of London was touring, and they stopped for a limited engagement. They needed to replace one of their kids, and all of a sudden I was on stage with this incredible royal company, singing “Consider Yourself” every night. I was on stage with Georgia Brown, one of the greatest stars of the West End. That was it for me. From that point on I was pretty focused.

So what came next?

Well I went to junior college for a bit, but I ended up in the tribal love rock musical Hair in San Francisco. I did that for over a year and then joined the national touring company, which took me out of California for the first time in my life at age 19, and traveled me all over the US and Canada. Can you even imagine the education I received? Traveling with that show to the south? When I came back, there was something bubbling inside. Hair really broke the fourth wall — actors spoke to the audience, climbed over chairs. And after that, I didn’t want to go back to just doing theater. I wanted more. And be careful what you wish for.

That sounds ominous. What happened?

I met a rock & roll group called the Tubes, and I’d spend the next 10 years of my life working with them and traveling with them. They were a fantastic group of artists and musicians that pioneered early music video, and we were the first people to really bring theater into our concerts. We became a headlining group, produced 10 records, traveled all over the world. And I became their artistic director as well as a performer. Our shows were subversive, scary, shocking, beautiful. Mick Jagger came, Elton came, Bowie came — the list of artists that came to see these shows was endless. It’s where my directing and choreography really took off. When I eventually landed in L.A., I had all of this early experience in dance and theater, traditional theater, and then Hair, traveling all over. I had a nice bag of stuff that I was carrying with me. And then I met Gene Kelly.

Which I imagine, given your background, was a pretty mind-blowing experience. How did that happen?

Well, I was working on a little tiny movie called Xanadu — it was just supposed to be a little roller skating movie. And I got a phone call that it was going to be a little bit more, because Olivia Newton John was in. And then I got a call that Gene Kelly might be in — but he wanted to meet the choreographer first. So he gets out of his car and Gene says, ”Where’s the kid?!” And I’m panting and sweating. And everyone points at me and he says, “Where’s the room?!” So we get into this little room and he said, “I’m not gonna dance, you know.” And I said, “I know, Mr. Kelly, you just wanted to meet me.” And he goes, “What if I was gonna dance, what would you have me do?” So I started showing him a few things, and he loosened up and laughed. And then he held on to the side of the chair and started doing a little tap step, and I jumped in next to him and joined him. It evolved from there. He agreed to do the picture, and it was the beginning of a relationship I’d have with him until he passed. He taught me the art — his art — of choreographing for the camera. He put his viewfinder around my neck and his stopwatch in my hand and gave me the greatest gift.

And after Xanadu came Dirty Dancing. When you were working on that set, did you and the team have any idea it was going to be such a massive hit?

Not at all. But we did have a sense that it was special. In junior high, we used to have Saturday night parties in the gym. The chaperones would make announcements before the dance and say, “if there’s any dirty dancing the lights are going to come on and the music’s going to stop.” And it’s not that dirty dancing was a genre of dancing, they just actually meant, if you’re grinding, if you’re touching, if you’re lewd, that’s it. And we never got through a dance! Not one. It was a time of exploring, it was our sexual awakening. And that’s what I brought to this movie. When I talked to [director] Emile Ardolino about the music and dance, I took [writer] Eleanor Bergstein in my arms and started to show them some steps, and they said, “That’s it.”

Who had the original vision for that final dance?

Eleanor imagined it on paper. Sometimes you’ll read a script and it will say “and they dance.” But Eleanor imagined this fairytale ending. The Cuban rhythm was something I brought to it. And my partner, Miranda Garrison, and our partner Doriana Sanchez — it was a real choreography partnership with these ladies that enabled us to come up with this mix of traditional ballroom, dirty dancing, Latin rhythm, popular dance, and lifts. And Patrick [Swayze] — who was a ballet dancer — all you had to say to him was “lift” and he was like, which one of 20. And one day in rehearsal I walked in and he said, “Look! Watch! Look!” He had Jennifer [Grey] over his head and I said “Oh my god, that would be perfect.” And Eleanor came in and said, “Yes, that’s what I was imagining!” So it was the coming together of many hearts and minds.

After Dirty Dancing, you really started moving into directing, in addition to choreographing the projects you work on. What was your first directing gig?

John Hughes got me my Directors Guild card. We worked on Pretty in Pink together, and then he called me up and said, “I want you to work on a movie called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. You’re gonna direct a musical sequence that’s going to happen in a parade.” It was my first job as a director. He gave me 12 cameras, a lot of space, and we created that wonderful sequence.

I have to ask you about Newsies, which is possibly my favorite movie you’ve ever directed.

One of the greats, I love it with all of my heart. Working with Christian Bale and Robert Duvall and Ann-Margret and all of those amazing kids! We threw everybody into a sound stage and put up a bunch of crates and wagons and wheels, and we created all of that in like, four weeks, and put that musical on its feet. Working with Alan Menken was such a joy, and to see it now have success as a Broadway musical — Tony Award-winning at that — it’s just wonderful. I’m proud of all my Disney Work. Hocus Pocus is another that’s really had legs. Still, people always say, there’s gonna be a sequel! One day hopefully there will be.

Your various Disney projects obviously led you to Descendants, but first I think we need to talk about High School Musical.

This is another that was like Dirty Dancing, really. Just a phenomenon. You can’t predict them. You know when you’re in the midst of them that something special is happening, but you also know that it’s going to take a whole lot of people to not just get it out there but to know how to represent it so it can take wing. And it did. I remember when we were doing the finale of the first High School Musical, I was so overwhelmed with what was in front of me and how exciting the moment was with these kids dancing in this gymnasium that I just stopped. I had to. I pulled everybody into a circle — Monique Coleman loves to tell this story — and I said, “You guys, something’s happening here and I’ve felt this before. And I really believe that we’ve done something here with this little movie that can be game changing for all of us. And I just want to thank you for putting your hearts and your souls and your efforts in every single day.” And then the rest is television history. It was such an amazing cast, an amazing group of writers and composers. All of us looked back on that. I just talked to Zac [Efron] a bunch of times this week, Vanessa [Hudgens] and Ashley [Tisdale] and I have been in touch. All of us, when we do talk, talk about how this remains a significant memory in our lives.

In the midst of your production of the three HSMs, you worked on what would become Michael Jackson’s last project, which led to the creation of the film This Is It. Can you tell us a bit about what that experience was like, and how you navigated the tragedy of his death?

When I talk about Gene Kelly and John Hughes and all of these people in my life, one of the most significant — if not the most significant — is Michael. We first worked together on his Dangerous world tour, and from there, anytime he asked me to do something, I said yes. He was electric. His ideas, his process, his imagination, his enthusiasm. It brought me back to where I started — the theater. Michael was like a real showman. He had respect for the stage and knew that there was a responsibility when you stepped on a stage. And that responsibility was to entertain. It was so important to him that we brought something new and special and original to the audience — they were so important to him. It was a thrill to be able to work alongside a man that was not only so inspired but also had such an extraordinary work ethic. This Is It was a devastating sort of ending for all of us.

Were there plans to make a film about the tour before his death?

Michael had hoped to film the concert and package it for fans with behind-the-scenes interviews. So we always had the cameras rolling in rehearsals. That ended up being this sort of sacred material that we had, and it was my hope to be able to puzzle it together in a capacity that would give the fans an opportunity to get a glimpse at what it was he was hoping to accomplish. And I think it did much more than that. And it was, it reminded us of his heart and his genius. And I was really grateful that at the end, without a script and without having had a plan, we were able to scrape together this material to offer such a clear picture of this man’s incredible talent.

Descendents airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET on the Disney Channel.


2015 Disney TV movie
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  • 112 minutes