Booking It! Tony-Winning Newsies Choreographer Christopher Gattelli on Nailing Your Dance Call

By Adam Hetrick
31 Jan 2014

Christopher Gattelli
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Are there certain qualities that you look for in a dancer?
Gattelli: I look for a combination of individuality and acting because ultimately, it's probably not an all-dance show. Even if it is an all-dance production, there is always acting involved. I feel that my job as a choreographer is to support the director's vision of the show and to find dancers, who won't just stick out as dancers but will be characters in that overall vision and complement the actors.

At auditions, I try to give a combination that checks all the boxes. I put steps in that cover technique, but I also give them a situation or story to dance to and then see what they do with that. I usually say to them, "Take what I've given you and throw it all away and use that as a base, and feel free to make it your own." At the end of the day you want real people on that stage. Everyone is going to dance a little differently. I can tell a lot about a person from my combinations, like if they're going to be playful in the room, if they're going to be collaborative, if they're going to be creative. Giving them that freedom and opening that door for them really helps me a lot. I really want to see what's behind the eyes first.

I'm looking for who's really listening and watching where they are putting their energy. Are they looking in the mirror, or focusing on themselves too much? Are they acting conscious of their line, or are they in the combination and are they acting it? Are they thinking about what they're doing emotionally rather than self-correcting themselves in the mirror? That happens a lot. It's hard. I want to give dancers the opportunity to see themselves in the mirror because they're usually learning new combinations, but I really want to close the curtain sometimes because I think it's just natural for a dancer, well for anyone, to want to keep an eye on yourself and correct, but I think sometimes that goes a couple steps too far and then people can't get their eyes off of themselves in the mirror. It prohibits them from taking that next step to creating the character.

But technique is also a major factor. I say this in my Newsies dance calls all the time. I absolutely need to see that technique because the performer has to maintain that show eight times a week, and it's very physically demanding. It's for protection, so that I know they can do eight shows a week and I know that their bodies can do it, and I can be confident that there won’t be any injuries. Thankfully there aren't. We built the choreography for Newsies using that foundation.

Can you speak a bit more about motivating choreography with acting?
Gattelli: I usually try to set up a combination by saying, "You're here. This is the time. This is where we are in the show. This is where we're trying to get to." I try to give you all the answers on the test. Now you just have to execute. I will also say that if you choose to interpret it differently, please go down that path and let me see a different story, because that only enhances the show by different points of views and different ideas. Don't be afraid to question me. Ask me why we're doing that step. What does that mean? I should have an answer. On the other hand, sometimes we just really need to see something technical and we have to do a quick cut and see if people can do something specific. But regardless of the combination, there should always be something behind the eyes – intent – even if you have to create it yourself.

What is the best way to succeed at a dance call when you're primarily a singer-actor who moves?
Gattelli: Just go for it. Try your best. I'd say that 80 percent of the shows I've done are "musical staging." So when I'm conducting a movement call, I just want to see how game you are. Yes, it's a matter of technical ability, but at the same time, I feel everyone can dance. I don't expect someone at a South Pacific call to whip off what those boys in Newsies are doing at all. Bring the character to the combination you're doing and try to perform it the best that you can. I'm totally aware that it might not be something that you do every day, but if I can see that if you're game and that you're going for it – I love that. I have so much respect for that. Also remember that sometimes we might test you and say, "Come to the dancer call just to see how far you can go." It's not to make anyone feel uncomfortable, only to gain information so that when we are doing the show, I can say, "Okay, well that person can cross over into other numbers." I know that I can put that person in a certain number because I know what they can handle. I only want people auditioning for me to feel great and supported in the room. We all want them to get the job.