by Juliane Godfrey
I earned my Equity card as a tapping chorus mouse under the dance direction of Christopher Gattelli circa 2012. And now, six years later as his Dance Captain and a swing in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, I stand by what I knew then: If there's one thing that sets Chris apart from other Broadway choreographers, it's his versatility. Not only does he have an extensive technical background in many styles of dance, but he also happens to be a brilliant, smart, and innovative storyteller. Hence, it's no wonder that his body of choreographic work extends across practically every genre of musical theater: From Sunday in the Park With George to Newsies and now SpongeBob SquarePants, for which he just received his fifth Tony nomination (Oh yeah, and he's also the kindest and most humble human on earth).
That's why he and our fearless director Tina Landau make the perfect team to define the movement of a wacky, atypical universe like that of Bikini Bottom. Rather than focusing on pure spectacle or hiring only tall, leggy dancers who can kick their face and do a million turns, they always put the story first and assembled the most unique and multi-talented ensemble on Broadway to tell it, from hoofers and physical comedians to breakdancers and pro-skateboarders. What's more, they have fostered true collaboration and creativity with this "unicorn" ensemble in a way that I've never experienced during any other show. Our ideas are not only heard, but encouraged. Chris constantly asks his dancers what feels comfortable on their particular bodies, and is always eager to hear their ideas, even though his are generally the best in the room.
I originally auditioned for the show four years ago when it was still known as The Untitled Tina Landau Project in addition to participating in a dance lab early on in SpongeBob's development with Tina and Chris. In every room that we shared, the emphasis was always on play, on cultivating the perfect balance between simplicity and the power of imagination. Tina and Chris encouraged us in the lab to find ways to make ordinary objects extraordinary. Hence, cardboard boxes became menacing lava rocks; we strapped kitchen sponges to our hands to make superhero tableaus; and we tapped with eyeballs on our hands and feet to explore how a group of sea anemones could sell a Broadway production number. That's perhaps what makes performing Chris's choreography so distinctly satisfying--even in its final Broadway format, it's not incredibly technical, yet deceptively complex and beautiful in its execution. For instance, in the gospel song "Super Sea Star Savior" written by Yolanda Adams, a cult of "sardines" utilize tutting, an intricate sequence of finger movements and angles, to praise their newly found savior, Patrick. Chris and his associate Lou Castro found a way to make a street style of dance into a precise, unifying language that is extremely effective when 15 people "speak" that language with their hands in perfect unison.
There are so many numbers that I love in our show, but my favorite of Chris's staging is definitely Squidward's four-legged tap extravaganza "I'm Not a Loser" (written by They Might Be Giants). In it, Gavin Lee (our Tony-nominated Squidward) has the unique challenge of tapping with an extra pair of legs i.e. 8 taps in all, surrounded by hot-pink, glittery, sequined sea anemones with feathered headdresses (all designed by the fabulous David Zinn, our Tony-nominated set and costume designer). Chris always calls it our "Rockette" number since "Loser" is the only piece in our show that gives a nod to traditional musical theater and has that kind of Golden Age precision and finesse. Gavin is simply stunning as Squidward, and it's such a treat to watch the audience go nuts over his incredible footwork and comedic genius in a teal top hat and tails every night. If ever I had an idea of what Broadway looked like, it would be him beneath a giant, light-up "Squidward" sign in the middle of that gorgeous, sparkly, chorus kickline. It's incredible.