Victoria-born choreographer’s homecoming ‘surreal’

Is there anyone Paul Becker hasn’t worked with? He’s only 35, yet the Victoria-born director, choreographer and producer has already collaborated with a Hollywood who’s who, including Michael Bublé, Ben Vereen, Kenny Ortega, Angelina Jolie, Liza Minnelli, Robin Williams, Debbie Allen, Kristin Chenoweth, the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and even the Muppets.

Not bad for a kid who began to realize he had all the right moves when he took classes at Kim Breiland’s Stages Dance studio in his youth. No wonder the former street dancer says his June homecoming to shoot scenes for Descendants, the Disney Channel movie he’s choreographing with director Ortega (Dirty Dancing, High School Musical), was as sweet as it was surreal.

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“These kids were so nervous, and I knew what it was like growing up in Victoria,” said the former Spectrum Community School student, recalling 400 local dancers who recently lined up for a rare open casting call at Breiland’s Stages Performing Arts School studio for the comedy about the sons and daughters of iconic Disney characters.

“It was insane. Ninety per cent of them had never auditioned for anything professional, and this movie came to town and I got to give back. Kenny really wanted to give everyone an equal opportunity.”

The busy Los Angeles-based choreographer, whose specialties include hip hop, ballet, tap, martial arts and multimedia, credits Breiland with “really helping me out when I couldn’t afford to pay” and “instilling a lot of professional qualities in me.”

Descendants was just one of several projects Becker and Ortega have done together since he first met the director-choreographer during a chance encounter at New York’s FAO Schwarz toy store in 2005. It inspired their first collaboration — The Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds 3-D concert movie featuring the Jonas Brothers.

“A movie’s vision starts with Kenny because he’s the director and we just jam off each other. It’s amazing working with him,” says Becker, who considers his mentor as much an idol as Gene Kelly.

“Kenny’s a man with a wealth of ideas. He’s a waterfall, and I was honoured he trusted me enough to collaborate with him.”

Descendants wasn’t the first hometown movie experience for the dancer, who headed to Las Vegas before getting his big break — choreographing a Japanese soap commercial on which he was hired to be Kate Beckinsale’s dance partner.

He first appeared as a backgrounder here in Digger in 1993, and returned to stage dance scenes for the Lifetime flick Sorority Wars six years ago.

“It’s euphoria,” Becker says when asked how he remains so prodigious. “It’s stressful because it’s high stakes, but it doesn’t feel like work. I just love creating.”

Indeed, his output — more than 100 movies and TV shows — is staggering. Call him Mr. Versatility for the breadth of his work as an actor, dancer, writer, designer, director and movement master.

Notable credits include Becker’s choreography for the CW series Hellcats, episodes of Psych, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Mirror, Mirror, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, Sucker Punch, RV and Bublé’s music video Just Haven’t Met You Yet. He also produced Canada’s Got Talent, and was judge and choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance Canada.

On screen, Becker danced in The Music Man and for director Rob Marshall in Chicago. Recent gigs include choreographing Montreal filmmaker Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright, a vehicle for Meat Loaf billed as “Scream meets Glee,” and putting Jeremy Renner, Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix through their paces for James Gray’s The Immigrant.

After choreographing an episode of Once, Becker will be back in L.A. to continue editing Last of the Showmen, his “docu-musical” about his idol Ben Vereen that features Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine, David Foster, Usher and David Copperfield.

He’s also re-teaming with Sable, his writer for a new Ringling Bros. Circus extravaganza.

He says he never takes his success for granted, noting “only one out of every 50 films” needs a choreographer.

Once described as Walt Disney Co.’s adopted son because of their creative history, Becker says he loves working with the Mouse House.

“It’s energy. It’s just fun, and you get to be silly,” he said. “And it’s nice having a company behind you that believes you’ll deliver.”

A self-taught “computer geek,” Becker has also benefited from his technological expertise, as when he helped design Steadicam shots for his Twilight wedding sequence.

Another thing he says he has learned is that comedians such as Andy Samberg (Hot Rod ), Robin Williams, Chris Kattan and Ed Helms often take direction better than trained dancers.

“Robin will give you stuff you wouldn’t even think of,” says Becker. “They’re not afraid of looking like fools.”

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