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By Sylviane Gold
Christopher Gattelli had gazpacho on his mind. Not the zesty combination of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions that goes into the cold Spanish soup. More like the mix of flamenco, mambo, the 1960s, and the 1980s from which he was planning to build the dance sequences in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown prior to its opening this month at the Belasco Theatre.
“I'm kind of whirring it all in the blender,” the choreographer said, “to create the movement for the show.”
The inspiration, of course, was Pedro Almodóvar's antic comedy from 1988, about a Madrid actress whose life goes haywire when her lover leaves. The movie is bright as a cartoon and wildly idiosyncratic, with a bevy of fiery women, a clutch of hapless men, an alarming array of flying objects, and, sitting in the fridge, a beautiful batch of gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills.
“It's Pedro's mind,” said Gattelli, “so nothing is on the nose. It's either heightened or tweaked or twisted.” So the dance would be “a fusion of flamenco and mambo and a bunch of Latin dances mixed with Pedro's love of the ’60s.”
Almodóvar, whose films one way or another all betray his deep passion for theater, gave writers David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane his blessing when they came to him for the rights. And he worked with them and director Bartlett Sher as the show took shape in workshops.
If those names ring some bells, it would be because Yazbek won Tony nominations for the songs in The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, also derived from film comedies. Lane’s Tony nomination was for the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels book. And Sher's luminous production of South Pacific won him the 2008 Tony for best direction of a musical and also garnered the best revival Tony for the show. Women’s women also provide street cred: Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott and Laura Benanti, along with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Danny Burstein.
A short two weeks into rehearsals, Gattelli was not teaching numbers worked out in advance with assistants. He was not drilling his ensemble in flamenco technique or Latin style, both of which he studied while preparing for the show. “The way Bart likes to work,” Gattelli said of Sher, “is he loves to just create on the spot. We did this on South Pacific also. He says, ‘Do your homework, do your own preparation.’ But he doesn't like to do pre-production or anything like that. He really likes to find what the story is in the room, with the actors, with his tools available.”
But on this day, Gattelli wasn’t in the rehearsal room either. He was in New Windsor, New York, at the set shop, checking out the possibilities of the four stage-length treadmills that would be shuttling scenery—and also characters—in and out of sight. He'd brought along a variety of shoes as well as some dancing feet with which to test the moving surface.
“It's gonna give us a whole new vocabulary of movement,” he said. “I'll be able to do such exciting things choreographically—like if a couple does dance-dance-dance-freeze, I'm able to keep them moving. Or a man can be turning on the deck while his partner's on the treadmill. Or the other way around. There are some really incredible options.”
Another thing that has Gattelli jazzed is having “the luxury” of knowing how the score will sound onstage. Usually choreographers hear only the piano version until late in rehearsals, when the orchestra gathers for he first time to play through the entire show. And then, he said, “You go, ‘Oh shoot, if I had known there was a trumpet…’.” Yazbek, he said, got his band together during the summer to record the songs, so Gattelli will have the real instrumentation to work with as he develops the choreography. “It's fun to hear what a composer comes up with and then interpret that, like a modern dance company.”
Another first for the choreographer is the opportunity to work with a true dance ensemble (its members include Julio Agustin, Nina Lafarga, Vivian Nixon, and Luis Salgado). On his previous Broadway shows, he’s designed the “musical staging” (South Pacific and the 2008 revival of Sunday in the Park With George) or devised moves for non-dancers (13 and High Fidelity). There’s even a slot for a “dream ballet”—it won't actually be a ballet, though it will be a dream—and the performer, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, is a trained dancer.
Gattelli himself began training at 10, following his sister to the Knecht Dance Academy in Langhorne, Pennsylvania—“I’m completely Mike in A Chorus Line,” he laughs. He got a scholarship to study at the Ailey School in 1989, at 15, and simultaneously worked on his tap at Dance World Academy in New Jersey. By 17 he'd gotten his first New York job, with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and before long he was dancing on Broadway. “I kind of follow whatever the path is to wherever it’s leading,” he said. And when he was performing in Cats, the path led him to choreograph the cast's contribution to an AIDS benefit, which led to another gig and then another. When he got the choreography gig for the off-Broadway show Bat-Boy, he hung up his dance shoes.
“I have a pretty good sense of when I’m ready to do something,” he said. “I miss dancing a lot. But I love the creative process so much.” Presumably, he has a taste for gazpacho as well.
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Women blends Spanish influences. Photo by Ethan Hill, Courtesy Lincoln Center Theater.