Making dances that earn Tony nominations

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Christopher Gattelli, a Bristol Township native, has been nominated twice for this year's Tony Award in choreography. The awards will be announced Sunday night.  (Provided)

Christopher Gattelli, a Bristol Township native, has been nominated twice for this year's Tony Award in choreography. The awards will be announced Sunday night. (Provided)

A Bristol Township boy named Christopher Gattelli was 8 years old when his parents dropped him off at Knecht Dance Academy in Levittown, where his little sister was taking her lesson. “That looks like fun,” he said to himself. “Why can’t I do that?”

So he did.

And when he was 39, Gattelli won the Tony Award for choreographing the Disney show “Newsies.” In that show’s most memorable number, a large group of striking newsboys dances defiantly around the stage on sheets of the newspapers they’re supposed to be selling. Now, six years later, he’s nominated not once, but twice, for this year’s Tony Award in choreography, to be announced with the rest of Broadway’s Tonys on Sunday night.

The nominations are for the exuberant — lavish, at times — dancing that Gattelli created for the current revival of “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center, and for his improbable choreography of  “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical,” in which the actors and chorus dance as though they were illustrations, not humans.

For Gattelli, who now lives in New York, on the morning the nominations were announced last month, “I really wasn’t expecting anything. I knew that there was the possibility of being recognized, but I didn’t want to assume. So I just left the phone off to the side … and I figured, if the phone starts buzzing, it’s probably a good thing. And it started buzzing.”

His nominations for two very different musicals underscore Gattelli’s versatility. On the sweeping stage of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, one of the 42 houses that compose Broadway, one of his “My Fair Lady” dances moves as a sort of conga line that carries the hesitant Alfred Doolittle ever toward his wedding, getting him to the church on time. It’s the sort of contagious dancing you wish you could be part of. In the wacky  “SpongeBob,” Gattelli says he learned about a form of dance new to him – it’s called tutting, as in King Tut — that helped him turn humans into undersea cartoon characters.

For instance, the “SpongeBob” director Tina Landau asked Gattelli to come up with movements that would make an audience believe sardines were singing and dancing.  “It came down to small gestures and hand movements,” he said. Tutting, a form of movement in 90-degree angles, inspired “this language that is done by wrists and elbows, that we applied to this number.” It’s one of the show’s many highlights.

As a teenager, Gattelli began on a trajectory that took him to Radio City Music Hall, then to Broadway dancing in “Cats” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and into choreography. People he’d worked with asked him to create the opening number of a benefit for Broadway Cares, a major effort of the Broadway community that’s raised millions to support AIDS service organizations, breast cancer programs, the Actors Fund and other charities.

From there, he focused on choreography, including “Adrift in Macao,” whose dances he made for the Philadelphia Theatre Company world premiere in 2005, and the off-Broadway hit “Altar Boyz.” He reprised his choreography in 2009 for that show’s production at Bristol Riverside, the professional theater in his hometown.

His job, he said, “always starts with the storytelling, and how am I able to support the character or character’s journey through this particular moment and lead it forward through dance.”

You, too, can dance (a somewhat modified version of) one of Gattelli’s Tony-winning numbers – the aforementioned one from “Newsies,” the first-act closer danced to the song “Seize the Day” on sheets of newsprint. And Gattelli himself will teach it to you, with an introduction by Michelle Obama.

To listen to an excerpt of a conversation with Christopher Gattelli, click on the audio at the top of this article.

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