Kenny Ortega, an incomparable Emmy Award-winning choreographer, who’s captivated generations with his fancy footwork, beginning with his mentor Gene Kelley in “Xanadu” to Madonna’s “Material Girl” video. Numerous had “the time of their lives” with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing.” Kenny’s movies possess an unmistakable, breathtaking imprint, possessing its own magical quality! Countless, including me got lost in the rhythm, song and dance during Gloria Estefan’s “Into the Light,” “Evolution,” “Live & Unwrapped,” and “Live & Re-Wrapped” World Tours. If you’ve ever attended a Gloria Estefan concert, then you’re fully aware how Kenny does an extraordinary job literally transforming the stage it into a Cuban dance hall. It’s one big party with majestic dancers adorned with magnificent, colorful costumes, toe-tapping to steps created by Kenny.
The “Hocus Pocus” and “Gilmore Girls” director was also the creative choreographer behind Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous,” “HIStory,” and “This is It” World Tours. Kenny has entertained us with choreography for the 72nd Academy Awards, as well as, some of Disney Channel’s most memorable films, including “The Cheetah Girls 2” and “Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert.” Believe it or not, he’s just a few months shy of approaching the 10-year anniversary mark for the making of the trilogy: “High School Musical”, “High School Musical 2”, and “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”. Undoubtedly, this HSM franchise set the mark for musicals on the Disney Channel. As Kenny looks toward the future, he’s eyeing “Descendants” as a possible contender with its promising cast. After watching this film, I could instantly see Kenny’s enchanting imprint. It is magical with singing, dancing and a message that kids will understand.
I recently caught up with Kenny, for a brief Q & A regarding his latest project, the Disney Original Movie, “Descendants.” He explained why this movie helps him reach his “happy place”:
I’m very excited about the movie. I think it’s a wonderful twist to your traditional Disney fairytale villains. It’s a nice change-up and answers the question of what does happen to the villains if they have families and teenagers. I think it’s wonderful.
It was really thrilling and exciting gift to be given the script. And in saying, “yes,” I realized that although I knew it would be a great deal of fun, and a great creative venture. There was a lot of responsibility there, too: with these characters that we’ve all grown up with from the man, himself. How to bring a freshness to them, and to bring a contemporary fairytale storytelling. And, still keep them accessible and honoring what they meant. So, it was really a lot of investment for me to get things right in casting and guiding the actors.
But, I’m really excited. We had so much fun. We’re finally starting to share it with people. I’ve been present for a couple of screenings. I don’t know who has bigger smiles leaving the theater: the adults or the children. The adults really seem to be getting the movie, which is so thrilling for me because we always hoped and we always went for creating a movie that went for the family. That the family could sit down and enjoy this together. So, I’m excited about that part of it as well.
The teens experience several journeys in “Descendants” can you share your thoughts on a few themes? What do you believe is the overall message of “Descendants”?
It’s those messages, those reasons that sit in the center of an idea that grab me. And, give me a reason to get behind a project such as this. The one that I came away with most: certainly the kid in me wanted to work with Cruella De Vil. The kid in me wanted to work with Maleficent. The kid in me wanted to develop brand new characters for a new generation in a Disney movie. The adult in me, the artist in me is always looking for purpose, “raison de l’art.” The reason to get involved was I loved this whole idea.
Most of us are fortunate enough to make choices in life that determine our destiny: that determine who we become regardless of where we come from. That we can make choices that steer us in our own unique directions. I really loved that. It was something that I wished I had a little bit more of growing up. What I’ve discovered in sharing this movie that the adults can grab that. And even children. There have been kids that have seen this movie: 13- and 14 year-olds who grab that, appreciate that and like that. It’s like, “Hey, we’re not all lucky. We don’t all come from the same kind of background. But, it doesn’t mean that we all don’t stand the same kind of chance to make choices in our lives that can land us in a really good place.” I think that put that topper on it for me!
When deciding on projects. I’m sure this script with its empowering theme was definitely a drawing point for you?
At the end of the day, well that’s the engine. Everything else is the color, and the fun, and the entertainment aspects of it. But at the end of the day, there’s something there that stands out! That resonates. That lives. It’s about something that’s important. We want to entertain, we want people to get up and dance. Learn the songs and laugh. Certainly, we want this to be a piece that entertains. It’s always fun when there’s something at the end that isn’t preachy, but impacts in a positive capacity. I really loved that about the movie.
When you dissect the “Descendants” script, how did you compare it to the “High School Musical” franchise in your approach toward casting? Did you do anything differently?
Well, I didn’t. In other words, the characters in “Descendants” require a skill that is unique but the process was similar for me. I was working at Disney Channel, which is a company that I’m comfortable working with and have a language that we share. I have Judy Taylor (“Back to the Future,” “Sister Act”), who’s the head of casting there: who’s so brilliant. And puts together all those casts, and helps to find all those incredible kids. The same casting directors, Jason La Padura and Natalie Hart, who did all the “High School Musicals” went out and looked in Great Britain, and looked out across the United States, looked in Australia, looked all through Canada. And they came back to me with a mountain of talent. Then, what I look for is young people of course that are going to be easy to guide, steer, inspire and direct. But also that are going to become your partner.
You have a very short amount of time to accomplish these movies. In order to create something that is lasting, moving and touching, you want kids that are intelligent and bring something to work with like their imagination. I like to create an environment that makes people feel safe and courageous. And then, I like to let them go. A lot of what we arrive at, a lot of what becomes important in the fabric of the end result is what these kids bring to the day. It’s really important that you’re making good choices because you have a limited amount of time with them. And, you want team players. You want generous people, bright people, brave. And, they are all that. I’m very proud of all of them. They did a fantastic job! All of them!
I can tell because they have nothing but praise to say about you. I noticed too, that the costumes were just amazing. Over 1,000 costumes were created!
KO: Yes, Kara Saun (“Project Runway,” “So You Think You Can Dance”). She’s like my new favorite star! She’s so talented and lovely! We had so much fun conjuring up these ideas together. Along with the Disney Channel and our Production Designer, Mark Hofeling (“High School Musical”), and my Producing Partner, Wendy Japhet (“The Italian Job,” “Pain and Gain”), we came into rooms together and all of us sort of found the language of the movie. This is a contemporary fairytale. This is 20 years after happily ever after. What a great opportunity for a costume designer! Her experience in fashion combined with her newfound love and interest in costuming I think made for the perfect person to come up with the wardrobe.
TIM: How long was production on “Descendants”?
KO: We did 31 days of shooting, three weeks of rehearsal, but before the movie was fully realized, ramped up, designed and completed, it took probably about 14 months. Our writers are so special. These women that came up with this idea, Sara [Parriott], and, Josann [McGibbon] (“The Favor,” “Runaway Bride”) did such a unique story. So many people have come up to me and said, “Why didn’t anyone think of that before?” And Gary had to really go in there and gain all the permissions to explore a story with all of these fairytale characters. Disney doesn’t just give everyone permission! It’s a real honor and privilege to be able to helm a movie that featured so many of them.
What were your particularly favorite dance numbers?
All of them are special for me. In that, we had a very short time to realize them. They came together quickly – organically – exuberantly. Not all of our cast came to us with dance experience. Mitchell Hope (plays Prince Ben, “Down the Way”) and Dove Cameron (portrays Mal, stars on Disney Channel’s “Liv and Maddie”) – neither of them came from any trained dance experience. And some of the other kids as well like Jedidiah Goodacre (“Tomorrowland”) who plays Prince Chad Charming. But like I said, when selecting this cast, I was looking for brave and courageous young people. I knew that whatever situation I took these people into that they were going to come out the other side. And they did. To watch Mitchell champion the song that he does on the tourney field (“Did I Mention”). Or, to watch the four villains in “Rotten to the Core,” the opening music number, and know what it took to get them to be able to attack that movement to be able to do what they did.
They are the “special place!” But, I would say, just my music history, my life, the things that I love and the projects that I come from, I think “Rotten to the Core,” probably holds the most “special place” for me. In that it’s very theatrical! I love that it exposes the environment. It introduces you to the characters. You get a real sense of the world through this musical number. That it does all that you hope a musical number can do as an aspect of storytelling!
When I spoke to both Sofia Carson and to Booboo Stewart, they mentioned “Rotten to the Core” as one of their favorite numbers!
Well, Mitchell’s (“Did I Mention”) is such a special piece. I love our hip hop “Beauty and the Beast.” And the finale (“Set It Off”) is really great fun under the sky of fireworks behind the castle. It was all great fun to put together. I had a great choreography team; Paul Becker (“Mirror, Mirror”), who’s currently back in Toronto doing the Pan Am Games’ closing ceremony. I had an amazing choreography partner, and tremendous assistants that were mentors and dancers in the movie. It was a fantastic team.
What’s next for you?
KO: Definitely more at the Disney Channel! Gary Marsh (President and Creative Officer for Disney Channel) and I are talking about a few things for next year. I’m going to do “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for the Fox Network. It will be in celebration of 40 years of the movie! I’m really excited about a project that Simon Cowell and I are going to be doing together. We are in the process of developing a music-driven feature for Sony Motion Pictures. I’m a big fan of his and what he’s accomplished in television and in music is just unbelievable. He’s really impacted a generation like a few other people. He called and asked me to be his creative partner and I couldn’t be more thrilled. That’s happening. And, a number of other things it’s a busy time for me. It’s an exciting time for me. We put a lot into “Descendants.” I have to say, I’m somewhat obsessed with it.
I wholeheartedly recommend this movie for the entire family! See how magical this new Disney fairytale is when the Disney Channel Original Movie “Descendants” airs on Friday, July 31, 2015. The “Descendants” DVD is available beginning Friday, July 31, 2015, through www.disney.com/descendants.