Kenny Ortega is the man behind some of the most memorable dance moves in pop culture history— Madonna's iconic "Material Girl" video, Dirty Dancing's steamy sequences and High School Musical's high-energy moves, just to name a few.
Now, the director and choreographer is releasing his most heartbreaking—and inspiring—project yet in honor of Michael Jackson, his friend of 25 years. Michael Jackson's This Is It is an unguarded look at the King of Pop's final days as he prepared for a series of comeback concerts in London. "We were about eight days away from leaving to London to do our final technical and dress rehearsals," Kenny says. "We were about three weeks from being ready."
Kenny and Michael met in 1984. "For the last couple of years, we had been talking about finding the right project. That it had to have meaning, real purpose behind it for him to want to do something. And when he called me, he said, 'This is it.' That's where the title came from," he says. "He wanted this so much for so many reasons. For his children, who are now old enough and really, you know, curious [about his performances]"
The last time Kenny saw Michael was 14 hours before his death. He says working on the film has helped him begin to heal. "I didn't know that I could get through it. When the news first came of Michael's death, I had the hardest time," he says. "Being there with the material just gave greater value to the history that I shared with Michael, a greater importance to how lucky I was, honored to have him in my life."
During rehearsal, Kenny says he worried about his friend's health, especially his weight. "He was like: 'I'm at my fighting weight. I'm at my dancing weight,'" he says. "We looked after him. We were family. And as families do, [we asked]: 'Are you hungry? Did you eat?' We had a refrigerator stocked full of healthy drinks and food. As a family, [we] did our best to look out for each other, especially Michael."
In fact, Kenny says Michael outlasted dancers half his age. "It was as if he was the music," he says.
Despite reports that Michael was addicted to drugs, Kenny says he never saw any sign of drug abuse. "I saw fatigue at times, and he did have sleepless nights," he says. "I'd say: 'Michael, we need to get you to sleep. You need to be healthy. You need to take care of yourself.' He was like, 'I'm working on the record,' and he was being a dad, and then he would have these ideas for the show. So it just kept him up."
Though it's been an emotional journey, Kenny says he's honored to be able to pay tribute to the real Michael. "He's so present in the film," he says. "You can forget that he's still not with us."