Kicking off the 2011 show season at North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center is the much-acclaimed Billy Elliot the Musical, the story of a winsome young boy who trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes.
Billy’s story is set during the coal miners’ strikes in Northern England in 1984-85. Motherless Billy, 11, is taking boxing lessons when he discovers a ballet class and becomes intrigued by the beauty of dance. While his brother, father and neighbors are on strike, Billy spends the money for boxing on ballet lessons. He is the only boy in the class.
But when his boxing instructor tells Billy’s father he hasn’t seen Billy in months, Billy is forbidden from attending the ballet class. Seeing his great potential, the ballet instructor secretly gives Billy private lessons at the studio for free, and encourages him to try out for the Royal Ballet School in London. Billy’s covert dancing doesn’t stay secret for long, though, and the inevitable clash of expectations leads to a number of high-energy dance scenes and a powerful finish.
The Broadway production received 15 Tony Award nominations in 2009 (tied with The Producers for the most nominations ever received by a single show), and it won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The music is by Sir Elton John, and Academy Award-nominated director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader), who also directed the 2000 movie Billy Elliot, has brought his vision to the stage.
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SouthPark Magazine chatted with all five young Billy Elliots, all 12-14 years old, to find out their backgrounds and passions, how they juggle schoolwork and performances, and what it’s like sharing the role with four other boys. (Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Daniel RussellAge: 14From: Australia
Tell me what it’s like sharing the role with four other people. How does that work?Daniel: We’re all great friends and we all help each other with the role, so having the chance to share the role is great, especially since we’re living together. It’s great fun because the role is impossible to do on your own. The role is so demanding, and doing it eight shows a week would destroy everything. You couldn’t do it. It would be too hard on our voices, on our bodies. And it’s just so emotionally involved that you need a couple of days to rest after the show.
Do you do anything to de-stress when you’re resting?Daniel: I like to sleep in the morning after the show.
What’s your favorite scene or number in the show?Daniel: In Act II, there’s a scene where we get to partner with Older Billy and go up on the high wire. It’s scary at first, but once you get used to it, it’s geat fun.
Who is your favorite Broadway performer?Daniel: Jeff Horner. He performed the role of Older Billy in the Sydney production and on Broadway. He lives about 20 minutes from where I’m from. He’s moved to L.A.
Is there anything specific you like to do to prepare yourself to perform?Daniel: I like to look through all my notes I get from the rehearsal so I know I’m ready for the performance.
Who are you most excited to see in the audience?Daniel: My family. I can’t wait for them to watch my show. They’re in Australia at the moment.
What do you miss most about home?Daniel: I live on the beach, so right now, at home in Australia, it’s the summertime. I miss going to the beach in the summer.
What’s it like working with such a renowned director as Stephen Daldry?Daniel: When you first meet people like that, it’s not intimidating, but you kind of censor yourself when you’re working with someone so important. But once you get in rehearsals, you realize they’re down-to-earth people and you just have to take their corrections. He’s a great person. He gave me some really nice compliments, which made my day. We did a scene from the end of the show in Act II, and he said the scene worked really well with me and that I was doing an excellent job with the scene. Boy that made me feel good.
Michael Dameski Age: 14From: Australia
What’s the first thing you did when you found out you got the role?Michael: My first audition was in 2006. I was really young, really small, and I had long, curly hair. I had no ballet or tap training, so I just went in there for fun to see what they had to say about me. They really liked what they saw, so they wanted me to go away and train. I went to another audition two years later, and I was a bit taller and much better with everything. A couple of months later, I went to the office of the producer and they told me I got the part.
What was your first reaction?Michael: I couldn’t believe it. I had my hands over my face. I was just getting all red because it was so exciting.
I know life on the road must get stressful. How do you handle the schoolwork? Michael: The most important thing with the show right now is rehearsing and getting it up and running. So when we’re not doing anything or if we’re not needed, we get thrown into tutoring. We have to have 15 hours, at least, for the whole week. What is your dream role?Michael: Well, before this, Billy Elliot was my dream role, and I don’t know if there’s going to be another show like this. I don’t know if I’ll stay in theater. I’ve gotten into pop culture and I love to sing and stuff, so maybe one day I’ll just produce my own song.
So what do you really like about the musical? Michael: There’s this part in the show, the number “Electricity,” and it’s my favorite number. Billy has had this terrible audition process at the Royal Ballet School in London. Billy wants to show the number he prepared for the audition, but (the judges) just wanted to see his technique so they just give him basic exercises. This whole process goes bad. Billy punches a boy, and they have this meeting with his dad, and at the end of that meeting, that’s when it turns into the number “Electricity.” It’s so emotional. By the end of the song, Billy breaks out into this crazy number. That’s obviously the number that Billy prepared, and so he was like “I don’t care anymore.” That’s why I like it, because all of us Billys have different electricities and they’re all unique, so we get to show off our best abilities in that number.
Do you have anything in common with Billy? Michael: When I was younger, about five or six, I played soccer. But when I would go home, I would see my sisters playing around and dancing around and I would just tag along with them. In the end, I realized dancing was my favorite thing to do, so I quit soccer and went into dance. I’m lucky enough that my parents supported me.
Guiseppe BausilioAge: 13From: Switzerland
Your parents run two ballet schools in Switzerland. Was dinner-table talk always about dance? What else do you like to do with the family? Giuseppe: We would mostly talk about dance. My brother, my sister and I would sometimes play Monopoly and table games, family stuff.
Who are you most excited to see in the audience?Giuseppe: My mom and dad. Especially my dad because he’s running the (ballet) school back in Switzerland and I don’t see him too much. My mom switches off with him sometimes, but most of the time, my mom is here. They both come over sometimes, and when they both watch, I really explode on stage.
I hear you know kung fu and karate. Did learning those help you with your dance?Giuseppe: It helped me a lot, especially with the power of the dance because you have to have power for kung fu and karate. For ballet, it helps me jump.
And you also speak five languages?Giuseppe: I speak Italian, French, English, Portuguese and German. When I was four, my mom taught me different languages because she came to Switzerland knowing only Portuguese and then she picked up all the languages. She would buy me those little books and say, in English,“This is a dog, this is a cat,” things like that. Then (she would do it) in French the next night. I really enjoyed it. Did anything surprise you about the U.S.?Giuseppe: Everything is really big. In Switzerland everything is really contained and small and perfect. If you go to a barbecue restaurant (in the U.S.), they give you a huge plate. In Switzerland, they would give you a really tiny plate with fine cuisine.
You met Elton John when you were in the Chicago Company of “Billy Elliot.” What was that like? Giuseppe: He was really nice. He was very emotional when he saw the show. Oprah Winfrey was at the opening, too. We met her and went on the show in Chicago, and I was like, “Oh my God, is this really happening?”
What was it like on Oprah’s show?Giuseppe: I met Russell Crowe. He was really nice. He gave Oprah the bow and arrow from “Robin Hood.” I am so surprised when I meet people like that because when I started ballet, I never thought I would meet all those people. It’s really incredible – me, a boy from such a small town, suddenly traveling around America with a show.
Is this something you want to do for the long term?Giuseppe: Probably yes, and movies or (TV) series. If any of that doesn’t work out, I’ll go to ballet. And if I had a broken foot for a time, I’d like to do pizza (laughs).
Pizza?Giuseppe: Baking pizza. Making the dough, putting sauce on it, playing with the dough, throwing it up in the air, spinning it. I love to cook.
Lex IshimotoAge: 12From: California
I hear you’re in a street hip-hop group. Tell me about it. Lex: It’s called Kreative Movement. We dance in the streets. We go to a lot of competitions and we have a lot of support in each other. There’s at least 30 or 40 (group members). Some people leave, more people come. You get to meet a lot of people, so it’s really, really fun.
Is that how you got your start?Lex: I got really inspired by my sister and a lot of movies like “You Got Served” and “Stomp the Yard.”
What does your sister do?Lex: She’s in the same group, Kreative Movement. She does tap, hip hop, jazz ballet, lyrical and modern. She’s 13.
Is this the first time you’ll have been in North Carolina?Lex: Yes, it is.
Is it nice to be touring in your home country?Lex: Oh yeah. And this is my first time actually doing a musical. I’ve never experienced this sort of thing before.
So what was difficult about getting used to doing musicals?Lex: One of the things that was different was the tap because I used to be a sort of like a clogger. I’ve never trained with a musicality with arms and faces with tap.
Do you have a mentor on the show, someone older who has taken you under their wing and helped you out?Lex: The other Billys. I’m the youngest Billy on tour and they really support me and inspire me to get along with them. And we hang out a lot.
What kind of stuff do you do when you hang out? Lex: We hang around and talk and we play games. We play soccer and football. We make videos, take pictures and we sometimes even make music.
What kind of music?Lex: Electric and a lot of beats.
What sort of videos do you make? Lex: Fun videos, like us messing around with each other.
So you’re not doing too much dancing when you’re not rehearsing. You guys must need a break.Lex: Yep. (laughs)
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?Lex: I just stay calm. I sometimes meditate before I go on. I don’t want to get too nervous; I don’t want to get too excited.
Kylend Hetherington Age: 13From: MichiganWhat’s your favorite scene or musical number in Billy Elliot?Kylend: My favorite scene to do would have to be “Dream Ballet” because I get to work with Older Billy. Max Baud is the best Older Billy I’ve ever seen, and he’s a beautiful dancer. He’s very graceful and powerful at the same time. It’s an honor to work with him, and we have this relationship where we can just have fun and enjoy ourselves.
Do you come from a family of dancers?Kylend: My dad plays music, but that’s pretty much it. He plays the guitar and the ukulele around the house.
Do you have any hobbies other than dance?Kylend: I play soccer and I play some football with my family in my spare time. I have a younger brother who’s 9.
I hear you’ve been working with the “Billy Elliot” producers since you were 9 years old. Tell me about that. Kylend: When I was 9 years old, I had my first audition in Florida. They said “We want to see him in six months.” So we went to New York in six months, and they said, “He’s still too young, so we want to see him again.” So we went back. Then they said, “OK, we want to put him in training.” They started paying for all my classes, and I kept coming back for every audition I could and working and working and working. Then they said, “We want you to come to New York and play Tall Boy and understudy Michael on Broadway.” So I did that. Then I finished my last audition and they called me and said they wanted me to play Billy on the second national tour.
What was your first thought when you heard that you’d finally, officially gotten the role?Kylend: I cried. I was so happy. It was one of the happiest moments of my entire life.
The musical is set in the 80s. These days, we’ve got football players on “Dancing with the Stars.” What do you think has made dance so much more acceptable for men? Kylend: Just the fact that it helps with everything. Dancing helps your balance and it helps your coordination, so it’s really a great thing for any sport. I think that people have started to realize that.
Do you watch any of those dance shows?Kylend: I watch “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars.” I watch them occasionally, and they’re absolutely amazing.
What do you miss most about home? Kylend: I miss my family and hanging out, being up at my family’s cottage, with the stars and all the lakes around me, just being in the woods and having space to be free.
What’s it like sharing the role with four other people?Kylend: It’s great. It’s amazing having these other boys who are so identical yet so different. We all have our own strengths. We all help each other and we goof around. We’re just like brothers; we’re one big family.