At 40, Jeff Kutash has achieved a career in choreography marked by popular success (four shows currently running in what he calls “the casino market” across the United States) and major honors (including an Emmy and a Golden Globe for an episode of the TV series “Taxi”).
He also qualifies as an innovator for bringing breakdance and other contemporary street idioms into the often bland and reactionary world of supper-club choreography.
Roland Dupree, long an authority on show dance, calls Kutash’s choreography “inventive in ideas and style, ahead of its time,” while Michael Peters, whose choreography for the Michael Jackson “Beat It” video has come to symbolize ‘80s pop dance, credits Kutash with “great concepts” and with making Las Vegas available to new trends.
“It’s wonderful that he’s updating Middle America’s idea of what’s going on,” Peters comments.
But Kutash doesn’t speak of himself as an innovator, an artist or a showman as much as a fighter--an outsider battling against being pushed around, ripped off and manipulated by the deal makers in the entertainment industry.
“I can’t say I haven’t a chip on my shoulder,” he declares, claiming that some of the biggest TV and film dance projects in recent years appropriated his ideas and choreographic style without credit. “I don’t care who you are, when you’re sitting at that table, they think they have the right to take advantage of you. When that changes, that’s when we’ll flourish.”
With tense fervor he speaks of making dance a business “and not just an art” (“Who makes money in dance besides Baryshnikov and Fosse?”), and reveals that he became a producer because “it was the only way to control my destiny. That was a lot easier than becoming a choreographer had been.”
As a teen-ager in Cleveland, Kutash was a Golden Gloves middleweight, so it seems no coincidence that he’s chosen the boxing comic strip “Joe Palooka” for his first Broadway project--an upcoming career move that he says puts him “right back where I started.
“Jumping from turf to turf is very difficult,” he explains. “For years I was told, ‘Your type of (rock street) dance will never make it in Las Vegas.’ But now that I’m trying to get to Broadway, I’m tagged as a ‘Las Vegas choreographer/producer/director'--and Las Vegas is like a dirty word.
“Give me a break. I have 90 dancers on my payroll in Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City, yet I’m still not considered prime-time material for Broadway (by the New York theater Establishment). What do I have to do?”
The question is purely rhetorical, for Kutash has never sat around waiting for permission to work. From 1965, when he walked into a Cleveland TV producer’s office and improvised an audition by dancing the Mashed Potato on a desk, to 1984, when he spent $20,000 of his own money on a presentation for a Riviera Hotel showroom aquacade, he’s taken risks, forged ahead and sometimes literally made waves.
“Splash,” the hit centerpiece of his casino show empire, grew from an idea of Meshulam Riklis (owner of the Riveria Hotel): “He wanted to have somebody in a champagne glass swimming around in the nude,” Kutash recalls.
A million dollars and seven months later, the show opened with a 19,000-gallon glassed-in water tank, a platoon of so-called “Olympic Synchronized Swimmers and Acapulco Cliff Divers,” a couple of sea lions, troops of showgirls dressed as assorted seafood, plus eruptions of fireworks, fountains, lasers, bubbles and rain--but no champagne glass and no nude.
More significantly, perhaps, it boasted dancers who broke the Las Vegas pattern: women who weren’t jeweled-and-feathered mannequins forever descending staircases, men who didn’t form a tuxedoed blur behind Mitzi or Shirley. Instead, the dancers dominated the show, defining themselves through contrasts in personal style and a competitive athleticism familiar enough on the street in ‘80s America but revolutionary on the Strip.
In his “Video Beat” sequence, for example, Kutash juxtaposed bold images of urban violence (including a police shooting and a hotel bombing) with lip-syncing by a Michael Jackson clone and hard-edged, hedonistic dances by gang toughs and their pop doxies.
Punching the air, falling into knee drops or eruptions of breakdancing, these raw, street-wise dancers seemed to belong to a different generation than their polished, anonymous counterparts in the Frenchified revues (“Folies Bergere,” “Lido de Paris”) that have become a Las Vegas staple.
Donn Arden, the director/choreographer responsible for the town’s most opulent and durable showroom entertainments, is quick to praise the energy of Kutash’s dancers--"Those kids really get out there and kick up a storm"--but is “not impressed” by the staging and the choreography of “Splash.”
Calling himself “the granddaddy of spectacle” and “as traditional in show business as ‘Swan Lake’ is in ballet,” Arden sees Kutash-style rock choreography as “very limited in interest” and quickly outmoded. “I will use it for a few moments in my shows,” he says, “but I can’t take that pelvis punching for long. It all looks the same, except for changes of costume.”
Though he remains dedicated to contemporary dance, Kutash cherishes no illusionsabout Las Vegas audiences. In his words: “People come to Vegas one week a year to go crazy, get drunk, lose their money and see a naked woman. You need to be focused on familiarity and basics or you lose them. So I try to give them a little bit of Vegas and a little bit of individuality in the dancing.”
Thus the influences in “Splash” stretch roughly from MGM’s Esther Williams extravaganzas to MTV’s visions of such rock icons as Prince and Tina Turner, with the dancers managing to look comfortable in every idiom, wet or dry.
Before “Splash,” Susan Sacca (formerly Nesbit) had been working her way up from corps dancer to showgirl to principal in Arden’s long-running “Lido” production at the Stardust Hotel. She left to join Kutash because “I was tired of walking around in those big headdresses, my (breasts) bouncing away. I wanted to dance. “
She remembers the resentment of the Las Vegas dance community then over the street dancing and other novelties in “Splash.”
“A lot of my friends were praying this wouldn’t work,” she says, “and others treated it as a big joke. I didn’t let a soul know I was going to the audition. I just told the (“Lido”) company manager I was going out of town. . . .”
Tim Searcy, lead male in “Splash,” had previously performed in many other Las Vegas shows and found working for Kutash a new experience. “He lets you grow in what you’re doing,” Searcy emphasizes. “He gives you the freedom to be creative.”
This freedom is “the only reason we work for Jeff,” according to Karin Smith, “Splash” lead female and a veteran of Kutash’s Dancin’ Machine company in the ‘70s.
“Jeff wasn’t a trained dancer,” Smith points out. “As a choreographer he doesn’t know how to count to eight. But he knows what an audience wants to see and what works. So we do the choreography and Jeff shapes it.”
“Half the time we’ll be kidding with him and do crazy stuff that doesn’t make sense, and he goes, ‘No, it works. Leave it in.’ ”
A Kutash dancer for 10 years, Jeff Marton agrees that Kutash’s choreography is “pulled from the people he’s hired” and continually evolves, unlike the usual prefabricated routines in Las Vegas shows.
“He doesn’t come to choreograph a song and say, ‘Here’s the first step.’ He’ll say, ‘Give me a piece from that number, do some locking here and let me see what it looks like,’ then he’ll change it and put it the way he wants it,” Marton says.
Interviewed separately, Kutash speaks of needing to psych up many of his Splashdancers for maximum performance, “splitting the difference” between the pros in the show and those company members he discovered in amateur breakdance contests or on the floor of rock dance clubs. Making them feel they created their material, he argues, bonds them to it and generates the energy he seeks.
“But choreography and staging have got to come from a source,” he contends. “Just like a football game, the plays have to be called. A lot of times I say to them, ‘Hey, enough is enough: You do it this way or you don’t do it at all.’ But we do try to instill in these people the idea that they are the show.
“There are moments when the kids really go off and are doing themselves,” he says. “In other moments they are just doing my choreography--choreography they don’t necessarily like or even relate to. But they’ll do it with enthusiasm because at some time they get to do what they feel they’re all about.”
Kutash wants the same sense of emotional involvement from audiences and goes after it shamelessly, with a fighter’s instinct for the perfectly aimed knockout punch:
“In Atlantic City (during his “SuperStars and Stripes” at the Atlantis Hotel), they bring up the Statue of Liberty on a lift from under the stage, looking like a million bucks. And next to her a look-alike, sound-alike dead-ringer for Reagan saying, ‘Sing along with me now. You all know the words: “A-MER-ica. . . “ ‘
“And the people start singing and screaming! It’s real : People are screaming for America!”
A nanosecond of what may be self-doubt flashes across Kutash’s face. “I don’t know if it’s theater, but I guess it is,” he says, smiling. “Anyway, it’s beautiful.”