By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
December 15, 2012
In 2000, the British film "Billy Elliot" generated a flurry of admiration on both sides of the Atlantic. Something about this story of an 11-year-old boy, who decides to study ballet even as it makes him a major oddity in his northern England mining town, touched a nerve.
Five years later, transformed into a musical with a score by Elton John, "Billy Elliot" became a runaway hit in London's West End. It went on to win a slew of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, after its 2008 Broadway premiere.
When the touring production of the show arrives Tuesday in Baltimore, the audience will include boys around Billy's age and just as enthusiastic about dancing. They're members of the Estelle Dennis/Peabody Dance Training Program for Boys, part of the preparatory division of the Peabody Institute.
Chosen by audition and awarded free tuition, the students, ages 9 to 16, are put through a rigorous training in classical ballet. It's the kind of training the fictional Billy embraces, resists and embraces again as he comes to terms with his gift.
The Peabody boys, who will also attend a master class with choreography staffers from the show later in the week, easily identify with the musical's unlikely hero. They've all experienced, one way or another, the realization that they need to dance.
"I went to see 'The Lion King' two years ago, and I felt like I didn't blink one time. I was staring at the dancers," said Terrell Rogers, 16. "Now I just can't stop dancing. I'll do a turn randomly in the grocery store."
Such a sight could be something right out of "Billy Elliot." Billy, unenthusiastic about the boxing lessons his father has insisted on, discovers a ballet class and finds himself drawn in almost instantly, as if his feet had been waiting for such a chance.
Billy faces the expected obstacles: knee-jerk opposition from his father and brother, concerned about the boy's masculinity (Billy does sense encouragement from the spirit of his dead mother); the challenge of affording dance lessons; and, especially, the trip to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London.
Set in the mid-1980s, the plot pits the child's struggles against a backdrop of conflict in the town, where the miners have gone on strike. In the end, thanks to the generosity of the local ballet teacher who first spots Billy's potential, and of the miners who decide to help out, the boy gets his chance.
Providing a chance is what the Peabody dance program is all about. The Baltimore-born Estelle Dennis started dancing at a tender age and kept at it, despite family resistance. She formed a community dance company here in 1934.
Before her death in 1996, Dennis arranged for a trust fund that would award scholarships to male dance students in Baltimore, advanced students ready to take bigger steps toward a professional career. When too few such students could be found, the fund's trustees authorized the creation of a dance training program for boys, launched in 2009 at Peabody Prep.
"Just as we were beginning, 'Billy Elliot' opened on Broadway, and it was so inspiring and beautiful," said Barbara Weisberger, the octogenarian artistic adviser for Peabody Dance and founding artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet. "We said something like 'Think Billy Elliot' in the release announcing the program."
Auditions were held in several Baltimore public schools to put together the first class. About 60 turned out; two dozen or so were chosen. Each year since, there has been a good response to the auditions. Currently, about 30 boys are enrolled in the program.
"Once we took the financial factor out of it, providing the free tuition, we discovered there are boys out there," said Timothy Rinko-Gay, one of the teachers for the scholarship program.
Those boys do not necessarily have any experience with ballet.
"I was a hip-hopper," said 13-year-old Gordon Lander. "Someone told me that ballet was the technique for all dancing, that it would help with endurance. And it has helped me."
Gordon looks thoroughly at home executing classic ballet steps — coupe, frappe, passe, plie, releve, sous sous (the boys learn a lot of French terms along the way).
"We are not trying to make them all princes in 'Swan Lake,' " Weisberger said. "We just want them to know that whether it's hip-hop or jazz or classical ballet, Broadway, modern dance, whatever, they can do better."
Asked after a class how many envisioned going on to pursue a dance career, nearly all the boys raised their hands. But 12-year-old Olivier Knopp, whose older brother went through the Peabody program and is now in the America Ballet Theatre's Studio Company, did hedge his bets.
"If I had to make a choice right now, it could be ballet," Olivier said. "But it could be soccer. Ballet helps with footwork and stuff."
There is considerable appreciation these days for the link between dance and sports.
"Great athletes are studying ballet; basketball teams take ballet classes," Weisberger said. "Pittsburgh Ballet had Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann on its board of directors. Ballet dancing is the highest form of athletics. It's not just physical; it's the total aesthetic. And it's not easy. You think everyone can do this?"
Meredith Rainey, a former soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet, is one of the teachers who put the Peabody boys through their paces, from exercises at the barre to increasingly tricky steps and leaps across the length of the floor.
He doesn't miss much in the rectangular, mirrored dance studio — someone grimacing ("It's going to hurt"), someone with eyes down ("You can't look at your feet and do this"). And the teacher keeps things going at a steady clip. There's a point to the urgency. Rainey knows how much these students have to do if they are to excel.
"I started late," he said. "I was 15. So I had to learn fast. And I didn't have a boys' class. I was the only boy taking dance."
Being outnumbered by girls in dance class is not an unusual occurrence for boys. That's something observed by Nora Brennan when she holds auditions for the lead in "Billy Elliot." For some boys, being chosen — four at a time rotate in the title role — means their first chance to work with peers of the same gender.
"It's helpful for the boys to know they're not the only one," said Brennan, the children's casting director for the Broadway production of "Billy Elliot," which closed last January, and for the North American tours. "When they get in a room together, they all learn from each other."
Nearly two dozen boys have performed the role so far in the United States and Canada. The latest are "getting their feet wet" in Austin, Texas, this weekend before the show heads to Baltimore, said supervising resident director Steven Minning.
"They are fresh out of the gate, which is great," Minning said. "That's when they're really hot."
To get to that gate takes a variety of talents.
"We travel the country looking for 9- to 12-year-olds who are extraordinary dancers," Brennan said. "Usually, they are very strong in ballet with several years of training. They have to have the potential to learn new dances — tap, gymnastics, contemporary. They have to be able to sing and learn to act. And they have to learn the Geordie accent [of northern England], which sounds a bit Scottish."
That's still not all. To capture the essence of Billy, a performer needs to reveal something else.
"I'm looking for a sense of determination and tenacity," Brennan said. "This almost always comes from within themselves. I notice at the audition which kids give up or fall apart easily."
Added Minning: "To access the emotional parts of the character of Billy is a challenge. Some boys tend to be older souls than others. There are a lot of life experiences in them already. They can't articulate them, but they are there."
One of those life experiences is likely to be dealing with lingering prejudice against boys dancing ballet. There have been periods when dancing was seen as cool for boys — Weisberger recalled increased interest after publicity surrounding the brilliant Russian celebrity-defectors Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov decades ago — but that is an exception.
"There's still a stigma, a lot of dancing-is-for-girls stuff," Rinko-Gay said, "even if it doesn't go to the are-you-gay stage."
All of that is part of the "Billy Elliot" story.
Brennan noted that when she asks boys at auditions whether they have ever had trouble at school because of their interest in dance, "pretty much all the hands go up. There are bullying issues. Sometime they tell friends they are going to soccer practice instead of dance class," Brennan said.
Boys in the Peabody program don't hesitate to acknowledge that they have faced some of these issues, but they shrug it off.
"I've loved dancing since I was little," said Seth Walters, 13. The taunting "changed when I said I was studying at Peabody."
And the boys who are accepted into the demanding Peabody program invariably arrive with essential support.
"My family is proud of me," said 11-year-old Devonte Tasker. Nods from his colleagues reflected similar sentiments.
If the Peabody imprimatur help boys get past the old stigma, their own conviction and dedication make the biggest difference. Rinko-Gay's assessment of the current crop of students is upbeat.
"There is good potential here," he said. "I don't know how many would stay in classical ballet. But I do think some of them might go on to Broadway."
If you go
"Billy Elliot" opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through Dec. 30 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. $43.15-$101.90. Call 410-547-7328 or go to tickemaster.com.
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