LAS VEGAS — 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."