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The Natural

The Baltimore Sun

Who could have predicted that a student at St. John's Elementary School would one day beat out future-heartthrob Patrick Dempsey of Grey's Anatomy fame in an international juggling contest?

Or that the same boy would appear on The Tonight Show at age 11, leaving guest host Joan Rivers nearly speechless at his skill and adroit observations?

Or that he would juggle his way into history as the holder of a dozen world records and is now a featured performer with the Cirque du Soleil?

All of that happened to Anthony Gatto, a former Ellicott City resident who is touring with the Quebec-based circus, which opened Thursday for a three-week stint in Baltimore.

But none of it might have taken place if his step- father, Nick Gatto, hadn't introduced him to the art.

"My dad was a very advanced teacher," Gatto said last week during a break in rehearsals. "There is still this voice in my head, guiding me along."

The elder Gatto was a retired vaudevillian who decided to impress his three stepchildren with a few juggling tricks from his old act as he supervised them at his tobacco shop on U.S. 40.

Under his dad's tutelage in 1976, the 3-year-old often launched brightly colored balls into the air from behind the counter at Pipes and Things in the old Chatham Mall, though he wasn't tall enough to peer over it.

Anthony, who said he broke more than a few Meerschaum pipes while practicing, had unwittingly embarked on his career at an age when many children are struggling with potty training.

He practiced and practiced some more - with small balls, rings and hollow table legs fashioned for tiny hands by his stepfather.

"At first, Anthony's progress was normal," Nick Gatto said in a documentary made several years ago about the father-son jugglers. Recovering from a recent illness, he was not available for comment.

"But within several weeks, his progress became more and more rapid," Nick Gatto said. It soon became clear that Anthony was a natural.

By age 5, Anthony was a better juggler than his dad, a seasoned performer who had appeared many times at Radio City Music Hall in New York and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

So clear was the youngster's talent that his family moved to Las Vegas when he turned 9 to help pave the way for a career that seemingly was predestined.

"Anthony is the best in the world, yet he makes it look so easy," said Serge Roy, Cirque's creative director. "There is no one that can do what he can do."

Born in New York City, Anthony moved with his family to Howard County at age 3. He attended St. John's from 1979 to 1983.

The years have been more than kind to Gatto. At 35, he exudes a boyish charm and has the toned physique of a man 10 years younger.

Watching him juggle is like watching synchronization itself. Rings, balls and clubs seem to come to life, rising and arcing in a complex choreography. Sometimes the objects seem to linger in the air at his whim, and sometimes they downright loiter, seeming to defy gravity.

His arms repeat different sets of motions with a rapid-fire precision and fluidity. One false move or miscalculation can throw off the exquisite timing of it all. The circus tent must be sealed to prevent drafts, and Gatto must pay close attention to the conditions. For example, a rise in humidity can change the feel of the props, he said.

"Juggling requires you to have ice water running through your veins in order to keep your adrenaline down," Gatto said. "What you don't want is a surge of energy, so it's a battle with your mind to let your body do what it knows how to do."

With his errorless shows hovering between 60 percent and 70 percent - which Gatto says is high for jugglers - he apparently has mastered that balance.

"The trick as a performer is to know how far to push the envelope," he said.

When he joined Cirque du Soleil two years ago, Gatto asked to "step out of his routine a little bit," Roy said.

"We wanted to underline what a big talent he is, and when he comes out in his mirrored-glass suit that glitters like a disco ball to music created especially for him, his act is part of a bigger context" than when he was a solo performer, Roy said.

Gatto's wife, Danielle, has long been his assistant, but became dance captain when they joined Cirque du Soleil. Eight months' pregnant, she is traveling with the show but on leave from performing while awaiting the birth of their son. Her due date is April 14, Anthony's birthday.

Meanwhile, Anthony shows up to practice every morning and is on site nine to 12 hours a day, Roy said.

"He is very, very disciplined," the director said. "His act works like a clock."

Gatto acknowledges that he did not always want to practice, especially in the early years.

"But everything really solidified when I turned 8," he said.

That is when he defeated the odds-on juggling favorite, 15-year-old Dempsey, who didn't take up acting until later. Shortly after that, Gatto earned his first entry in The Guinness Book of World Records. Along the way, he has set several records based on duration and number of objects.

After many years of taking his solo act on the road, Gatto said, he is thrilled to be part of Cirque du Soleil.

He sees about seven more years of performing at the current level of intensity, he said, and is thinking about ways to change his show as he ages.

"There are a few people in this business that are so dedicated to their art, that they become the art themselves," said Dick Franco, a juggler who answered questions by e-mail while on a tour in Japan. "On stage, there is no one like Anthony," Franco wrote. "He doesn't defy gravity. ... He attacks it, chews it up and spits it out!"

Gatto said his work as a performer is never done. "I am always finding myself, when I'm on stage, listening to the audience response and tailoring my performance to what I hear. I want people to watch and think, 'Awesome! He really loves what he's doing.' Then I know I've done my job."

neighbors

Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at jholzberg76@msn.com or 410-461-4150.

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