- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - Choreography is a mystical endeavor, elevating the common act of movement into high art.

Joshua Bergasse is a leading practitioner of that art. His work is perhaps most widely known from two seasons of “Smash,” NBC’s Broadway-musical-within-a-melodrama for which, week after week, he devised brilliant dance routines (and won an Emmy).

This April saw the Broadway opening of “Gigi,” which he choreographed.

And since last fall, the revival of “On the Town” at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre has truly certified him (to borrow from its signature song) as a helluva choreographer. Indeed, Sunday night, viewers of CBS’ Tony Awards telecast (8 p.m. EDT) can savor a dance number from the show and find out if Bergasse will be taking home the Tony for best choreography.

Earlier this week, though, he had no time to dwell on Tony what-ifs. In a rehearsal space on (where else?) 42nd Street, he was running a troupe through its paces for Monday’s one-night-only charity performance of “Bombshell,” the Marilyn Monroe musical whose backstage gestation formed the heart of “Smash’s” TV narrative.

Then he heads to California’s La Jolla Playhouse to prepare a new musical, “Up Here,” for its July opening.

Bergasse, 42, has come far since first donning tap shoes at age three to start lessons at the Detroit dance school his mother still runs after 35 years.

Animated but easygoing, with a trim beard and sturdy build, he didn’t let his 5-foot-6-inch stature hold him back when he hit New York (“There were some who took a chance to have the little guy in the show”), with his first dance job touring in “West Side Story.”

Now Bergasse’s achievement in choreographing “On the Town” - a gem that first gleamed in 1944, featuring music by Leonard Bernstein, and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green - is a proud career milestone, having earned him plaudits from The New York Times’ Ben Brantley for “the dreamiest dream ballets I’ve seen in years.”

But how did Bergasse do it?

“To create the movement, I looked at the storytelling,” he begins.

The “On the Town” story is as expansive as it is simple. At dawn of a remarkable day, three sailor chums begin their 24-hour shore leave in circa-‘40s New York City, that “helluva town” receiving them with untold wonders and, with any luck, romance.

Much of the tale involves an unlikely-except-in-musicals pursuit by Gabey (played by Tony Yazbeck) to meet his dream girl, “Miss Turnstiles,” whose picture he sees plastered in the subways. This leads to one of the show’s many delights, a bewitching dance by this “Miss Turnstiles” (played by Megan Fairchild, principal dancer with New York City Ballet).

“It’s a dream,” says Bergasse. “It’s what Gabey is thinking she must be like, so it lets the audience get to know what his vision of her is. There’s a lot of storytelling there, and that makes it easier for me as a choreographer, because then you have a reason to dance. When there’s no story, sometimes I don’t know what steps to take.”

Thanks to the story, the needed choreography made clear its demands: “It wanted to be a mix of beautiful balletic moments and then silly, zany, funny moments,” Bergasse says.

“Ultimately the show is about sex, and when you watch beautiful dancers dance together, it IS sexy. I wanted to make sure we kept the sex in it with this beautiful dancing, so the audience never forgets what these sailors are really looking for.”

To build a dance sequence out of nothing but story, ingenuity and ripe-for-anything dancers, “you try to see it as a whole, then create it in tiny pieces,” Bergasse says. “You’ll run a 30-second section, and you’ll stop, make fixes and change spacing. Then you go back and run it again, and then again. And as you’re creating those pieces, you see that the whole may have changed. But as you learn more about it, you realize there’s more than one way to do it.

“And then, when you have a rough draft of the whole thing, the really hard work begins: figuring out how to make it better.”

As Bergasse looks ahead to Sunday’s Tonycast and his future projects, he has no problem saying what drives him as a choreographer.

“It’s wonderful to tell a story and convey emotion and character through movement,” he explains. “And to be in a room with great dancers is a fun place to be, so you love coming to work.”

There’s only one hitch to his behind-the-scenes role: not enough movement for him.

“The more I choreograph, the less I dance,” he says with a wry smile. “I demonstrate something once and then I sit and watch. The dancers are so fit! On my day off, I go to the gym.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore

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Online:

http://www.cbs.com

http://onthetownbroadway.com

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