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

By Adam Hetrick
January 31, 2014

Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week we speak with Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli.



Perhaps best-known as the choreographer of the Disney juggernaut Newsies, which is filled with athletically demanding, muscular choreography that keeps its cast airborne for much of the performance, Gattelli is also know for his character-driven musical storytelling, including his Tony-nominated work on the 2008 Tony-winning revival of South Pacific.

His credits run the gamut of subject and style, from the Latin-kissed Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the kid-packed musical 13, a sophisticated Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George, Godspell (featuring actors bouncing on trampolines), as well as the acclaimed Off-Broadway production of Dogfight, the long-running Off-Broadway boy band musical Altar Boyz, Jonathan Larson's tick, tick... BOOM! and the cult musicals Silence! and Bat Boy.

Below, Gattelli shares his insights on the contemporary world of Broadway dance and how to catch a choreographer's eye at an audition.

What are the first things you notice about a performer at an audition?
Gattelli: Energy, openness and eagerness. I'm also looking at posture, the way you walk and the way that you hold yourself. I can tell by the way people walk into the room if they are excited to be there, if they are prepared and if they are confident. The way you dress is also important. Is it appropriate for the job you're walking into? I would never say wear a costume, but know that if you're auditioning for a period piece, don't look too contemporary. Just at least give the impression of what you’re going in for. Oh, and also the way you talk to the accompanist. Be kind and clear.

What are some common mistakes performers make at an audition that stand in the way of them booking the job?
Gattelli: Showing lack of confidence, or overthinking instead of just trying to be who you are. Just be the best that you can be for what the job calls for. Be prepared. Have your book ready with different song choices in there if we ask for different options. I also don't think it's important to have sides memorized, but ideally be familiar enough with them so that if we ask for adjustments, you can do them with a little more ease. And for dance calls, really listen to the details. I don't expect things to be perfect in the audition, that's what rehearsals are for, but I want to know that someone can be on the same page and apply details quickly.

What is proper attire for a dance call? How does it differ depending on choreography, choreographer or show?
Gattelli: I would say use good judgment. If you're going in for West Side Story and you know the guys dance in jeans, I don't think it's unacceptable to go in jeans since that's how you're going to move in the show. It's going to affect how you move, affect your line and may help you embody the choreography. But also, we need to see your line and technique, so sometimes jeans aren’t the best attire for that. If you're wearing something that limits your movement or something baggy like big, big sweatpants, it may hinder your ability to move well.

Are there dos and don'ts for dance attire?
Gattelli: I would always rather see the line, but I think it depends on a show-to-show basis. Try to do as much research as you can and fact-finding before you get in the room. If you know it's a revival, listen to that cast album, look at old production photos. Try to find anything that you can so that you have some sense of what you're going to walk into. If it's a new musical, see who's involved. See who the composer is, who the director is, and what they've done in the past – it could give you an inkling of what type of movement, or what you might be expected to do.

But it also changes for each show. I'm working on a show called Amazing Grace and some men and women wore dance shorts and bare feet, and for that audition I loved it. I loved seeing their lines and the way their bodies moved easily. So that was really helpful. But for something like Newsies, I wouldn't necessarily say that tight shorts were the best thing because they break your line. For that specific show, any kind of dance pants are fine as long as it helps you move easily.

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.

Christopher Gattelli
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Do you have any tips to help non-dancers pick up choreography at a dance call?
Gattelli: Go to any class just to throw yourself in as an exercise. Especially since a class isn't an audition, there really isn't anything to lose. You gain experience and you flex those "learning/picking up" muscles because those are muscles that need to be flexed. It may sound silly, but even going to something that's a not dance class, but maybe an aerobics class, or a yoga class, where you still have to pay attention and follow instructions and follow format and order. That can be helpful because it's not a dance class where you might feel a little more insecure.

When choreographers give auditioners the chance to improv, is it beneficial to show off all you've got? How far is too far?
Gattelli: I think it depends on the show. For example in Newsies, if you know you're going to get that one shot and I say, "Okay, the second time you do this combination, take what I gave you and add your own skills," then go for it. Throw in certain jumps that make you unique or things you've been working on. But I do similar things at the South Pacific calls, asking singers and dancers to improv based on a situation, such as being sailors on the beach for example. It is interesting to see what people come up with. Are dancers able to cross that line and think like an actor and not jump into the splits and do 20 turns? Can they come up with something like what they would really do on a beach? When you're asked to improv, look at what you're being asked to improv about.

How important is having "tricks" in your arsenal?
Gattelli: I don't think it's essential. We all have those little things that make us unique and the more things that you are able to do, you are able to give the creators a few more options of how to utilize you. For Newsies, yes those guys can flip and tumble, but it only helps add to the mix. If you are a singer and also play an instrument, you're probably going to be in a better position to be in Once. I wouldn't even say it's about tricks and jumps, it's anything - if you twirl a baton, if you juggle... Any of those things that you accumulate through your learning. Anything you bring to the table is helpful.

For example, in South Pacific we didn't tap in the audition. It was just one of those things that, after looking at everyone's resumés, many of those performers tapped, so we ended up doing a tap number in the follies section because people could do it. And one of the girls was on pointe because she could do it. It added to the texture of a show and to the variety. Even if you don't use it, it just adds to the options for the creators to think about. I wouldn't say it's necessary because at the end of the day, it's the basic three things: act, sing and dance, in any order.

And, in a bigger example, Kara Linsday played a huge part of how "King of New York" was created in Newsies. Originally it was for the guys to celebrate the first step they took against Pulitzer and that they had their picture on the front page of the newspaper. But because Kara showed us she could tap in her audition, it helped us add story to the number as a way for the boys to accept and trust her. It gave us a much richer number because of that one flash of a moment in her audition.

Christopher Gattelli
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Where do you recommend taking classes? Are there certain classes (or teachers) that dancers should make sure they are attending/working with?
Gattelli: The classics are probably Broadway Dance Center, Steps and Alvin Ailey. There are so many now and that's great. I think that the need for dance and the want for dance is so high that there are studios that I don't even know about. There are many great places to study. But I will drop a name because she's still teaching and I feel that you don't get much better. Her name is Suzi Taylor. I was with her when I was 15 or 16 years old. Her warm up is phenomenal. It's all done in center, it's all technique, it really just grounds you and it's emotional as well. There's a beautiful art to her warm up that is really human, yet it makes you work. By the time you're done, you know that you are stronger. Period. I feel like when you dance with her, you really become something. You become a character. It's a really complete class, and when I was studying with her I grew very quickly because it was complete. I don’t want to take away from the tons of others, because everyone has so much to offer and variety is also great. Also, remember that if you just take class with one teacher that can be good in one sense, because there is a consistency and you can find a way to progress, but to throw yourself into other peoples classes, just to try different styles that you might not be so comfortable with is essential, too. You can get stuck thinking, "I know I look great in this; I'm just going to do this because I look great," instead of trying that hip hop class or that new tap class. To walk into a class with new people - there's nowhere to hide. I think that’s brave and exciting.

Do you have tips for dancers to stay healthy and take care of their bodies?
Gattelli: Definitely properly warm up before anything. It makes me a little nervous when I see people walk into an audition, or even some rehearsals to be honest, and they think that they can just jump in. Your body is very deceiving, you have to really take care of it. You have to take care of that instrument and you have to take care of your body. Honor what you're given to work with. That includes really giving it the proper amount of time to warm up. Getting that massage when you need it. Take time to rebuild and replenish.

Can you give some tips on what you look for when casting Newsies. What are some vital things to know when auditioning for that particular musical that might help a dancer book the job?
Gattelli: Definitely know your type. It is about newsboys not about newsmen. Commit to the acting. Every one of those moves in Newsies we tell them, "You're outside Pulitzer's gate. You're drawing your foot on the line. Also, at the end of the day there is strong technique that you have to have to be a part of that show. Mainly it's so that the dancers feel safe. It's for my piece of mind, too, so that when I hire a person I know that they are going to be fine doing that show eight times a week. It's not just about the dance numbers like "Seize the Day," "King of New York," the opening number, or the bows. The cast are also climbing a bunch of stairs in the towers, they are having to walk upstairs to the dressing rooms, it's a cumulative effect on the body. For Newsies get into ballet. You should be able to act the combination and not have to think technically. That really separates the men from the boys in auditions. In auditions I can see people thinking through their bodies, and that should be secondary. You should be able to turn around and take that first step forward and feel confident, cocky and prideful and all of those things that you have to do at that moment in the show and not worry about, "Oh God, that double tour or jete is coming. What am I gonna do?"

I also want to add that as much as people talk about the audition itself, I also find that right after the audition is just as important. I feel so many times people go in for something and never really know why they did or didn't get the job or get a callback. You hear so many stories such as, "Gosh, I thought I really did great in there," or, "Oof. That was not my best day." At the end of the day, ultimately, the result isn't a reflection of your talent. It's a bigger picture of what the overall show needs. And I say that with the hopes that more people will have greater confidence, and will continue to presevere, knowing that they did a great job. I've seen many people over the years give up because they felt like they weren't getting anywhere. But now that I get to sit on the other side of the table and I see that there are so many other factors that go into casting something. Many times it doesn't have to do with how that specific audition went. It's hard not to take it personally in this business because we are our work/art. So when there is rejection, it's tough… I think we've all felt at one time or another. So basically, all that boils down to: Just prepare for your audition as much as you can, so you can walk out feeling like you did everything you could, and then let it go.

(Adam Hetrick is the editor in chief of Playbill.com. His work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com, as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillAdamH).