Kenny Ortega on working with Michael Jackson and choreographing Dirty Dancing

The 67-year-old talks us through the highlights of four decades of films, pop and the Olympics

(L-R) Actress China Anne McClain, Director Kenny Ortega and Singer Sofia Carson attend the Red Carpet Premiere Event for "The Descendants 2" at the Arclight Cinerama Dome, on July 11, 2017, in Hollywood, California. / AFP PHOTO / VALERIE MACON

Kenny Ortega may not be a household name of the same calibre as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but if you have been tuned into the television during the past 40 years, chances are you have seen the work of the prolific choreographer and director without even realising it.

Ortega has worked on pop spectaculars such as Michael Jackson's Dangerous and HIStory tours. He also collaborated with Jackson on his This Is It tour, which was curtailed by the singer's death in 2009, and then went on to direct the subsequent film Michael Jackson's This Is It, compiled from rehearsal footage for the tour.

The 67-year-old's music CV includes Madonna's glitzy Material Girl video, and his work in showbiz as both a choreographer and director includes seminal modern musicals such as 1987's Dirty Dancing and the hugely popular High School Musical series.

His next on-screen adventure will see him return to Disney Channel's Descendants franchise for a second film, due for release later this year.

Ortega was born in Palo Alto, California, in 1950 to a Spanish immigrant family, and he recalls music surrounding him throughout his childhood. "My earliest memories are my grandmother singing in Spanish in the kitchen cooking, and my mother and father dancing in the living room and playing records – there was a lot of love attached," he tells me.

By the time Ortega was a teenager, he couldn't get enough of films featuring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. By the age of 13, his aunt was taking him to auditions – he says that he was "hooked" on theatre and performing.

The early part of his career was largely unspectacular as he worked as a jobbing dancer and choreographer, but in 1980, he landed the role of choreographer on Xanadu – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Read more: A colourful career: Kenny Ortega's biography

The film starred Ortega's idol Kelly, and the star took him under his wing, becoming a mentor and teaching Ortega all the tricks of the trade.

“Gene Kelly really introduced me to the difference between choreographing for the film and the stage,” Ortega
explains. “He was kind enough to embrace me ... and share with me his techniques and the art form of designing choreography for the camera, looking at things from all sides and playing with great levels of depth and scale, sometimes locations. There are a number of differences, and Gene was my mentor and my hero for sharing the talent he had with me.”

Kelly's tips clearly worked – in the years immediately following the pair's meeting, Ortega added films such as St Elmo's Fire (1985), Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Pretty in Pink (both 1986) to his portfolio as a choreographer, then in 1987, he choreographed what remains to this day one of the most-adored musical films of all time: Dirty Dancing.

“It’s incredible that 30 years later that movie is still being celebrated,” he says.

"There are still all kinds of events that take place on the back of it, it's really become an enigma. Did you know it's based on a real person's story, and that person was with us during the making?

"I think when you make a story that has that reality and honesty at the centre of the story, you have a pretty great chance if you do it right – and Patrick [Swayze] and Jennifer [Grey] and all the cast did a great job of telling that story, and you have to give credit too to Eleanor Bergstein the author, and to director Emile Ardolino who lifted the story off the page so well."

In addition to Kelly, Ortega says there was one star in particular who stood out as the greatest talent he has worked with during his long, distinguished career.

"It has to be Michael [Jackson]," he says. "It depends on the genre of dance, and I've worked with some of the icons – Bette Midler, Cher, Gene, although that wasn't during Gene's golden era as a dancer by then – but in terms of the most naturally talented live performer, it's got to be Michael. He was one of a kind."

Despite working with some of the biggest stars of stage and screen, Ortega reveals that perhaps the proudest moment of his career came when he was asked to choreograph his first Olympics opening ceremony, in Atlanta in 1996, a spectacular that featured the likes of Muhammad Ali and Celine Dion, as well as choirs, orchestras and local talents.

“Being given an opportunity to direct an opening ceremony for the Olympics means that you’re given a responsibility to have a voice to the world,” he says proudly from his base in California.

"There are literally billions of souls all over the world watching, and I remember so vividly that moment when I was sitting in the booth looking down at the field as the clock counted down, and realising that all these years of work that we had put into creating this story that we were about to share with the whole world. It truly lifted me off the ground. It was one of the most incredible feelings in the world."

With such an illustrious career to date, he is very much still focused on the present. His mind is currently on the next instalment of Disney's Descendants franchise, which follows the lives of the offspring of some of Disney's best-known villains, including Cruella de Vil and the Evil Queen.

"Disney Channel actually gives you a similar global reach to the Olympics," he says. "More than 100 million people watched the last movie, so I hope we can continue that success with part two."

Descendants 2 will be broadcast on the Disney Channel this year

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