David is one of three performers picked to play the lead in Billy Elliot when it opens in previews Oct. 1 in New York. The role will be his, he says, “until I grow too tall or my voice changes.”
He seems mighty calm amid all the attention he has been getting for snatching such a big role. (The other two Billys are 13-year-old New Yorker Trent Kowalik and 14-year-old Kiril Kulish from San Diego.)
The role is huge, requiring the actor/dancer to be in almost every scene and demanding a voice strong enough for some big numbers. The triple-threat Billys will alternate in New York to save their legs and larynxes. David will spend the next few months with classes in acrobatics, tap dancing, acting and singing.
The tale of his showbiz ascension begins before he was born, probably not even dreamed of, when parents David and Yanek arrived at Montreal’s Mirabel airport in the fall of 1993 bearing only temporary visas.
The Alvarezes met an acquaintance of Yanek’s and held a little conference in the plane’s washroom. “We were so afraid. We had not planned to defect.” The Cuban woman advised them that Canada would treat them well if they applied to land as political refugees.
Yanek, a theatre director, and David père, a biochemistry student accompanying his wife to a theatrical job in Montreal, approached an immigration officer with their intentions and all went well. “Immigration Canada were very good with us,” says David’s proud mother at an interview in the Billy Elliot public relations office.
After the couple settled in Montreal, David’s father attended McGill University and earned his PhD. David was born on May 11, 1994, not long after his Cuban-born big sister joined them in Canada.
The boy showed talent from the start and, by the age of 8, was enrolled in classes with Montreal’s Ballet Divertimento. When the family moved to San Diego after his father was transferred there, David continued to take classes.
It was in ballet school in California that he earned his first significant notice. One among hundreds of boys and girls auditioned by the recently opened Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre in Manhattan, David earned a full merit scholarship and entered the school two years ago. His parents and younger sister have relocated to New York as well.
David has seen the 2000 hit movie Billy Elliot and went to watch the stage show as soon as he arrived in London last weekend. Billy Elliot The Musical, directed by Stephen Daldry with music and lyrics by Elton John, was a megahit from its 2005 opening in the West End.
The feel-good movie turned musical is a rags-to-ballet-slippers story with which any boy in tights can identify. In the original screenplay by Lee Hall, Billy Elliot is an 11-year-old living in a mining town in northern England. The year is 1984 and the region is crippled by a miners strike. Billy’s father and brother are on the picket line. He’s sent to boxing lessons but, hating that, joins the ballet class. The male members of his family thoroughly disapprove, but he defies convention, secretly training for an audition with the Royal Ballet school.
The Canadian Billy says the story was not entirely alien to him. “My family is very supportive,” he says, “but people think ballet should be for girls, and boys should just play sports like soccer, hockey, football. So I had to deal with that a lot.”
Like his fictional alter ego, David knows how much hard training and persistence can pay off. He was one of 1,500 young Americans who tried out for Billy Elliot in eight cities last year over a gruelling series of auditions to demonstrate dancing, acting and singing.
In the end, he says, a member of the casting team told him they had picked him from the first time he was seen at an open call.
David’s professional career has already launched. In 2007, he danced with American Ballet Theatre as the Garland Boy in The Sleeping Beauty and took to the huge stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington as Fritz in The Nutcracker. Asked what he does best, the stage-loving dancer admits to concentrating on technique. “I think I have many things I’m good at.”
At the 92nd Street Y School of Music, he is a scholarship student in classical piano. “I also want to be a composer and a choreographer,” says the dancer, who made a small ballet for a school show in California. He made his singing debut with “Where is Love” from Oliver! in a master class with Broadway performer Victoria Clark.
Not surprisingly, National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Guillaume Côté, also a musician and composer, is one of David’s role models. His other ballet idols are Fernando Bujones, the Cuban-born ballet star who died in 2005, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and, of course, the Cuban American dancers Carlos Acosta and Jose Manuel Carreno.
An all-A student for whom English is his third language, David is home-schooled while he’s taking ballet classes. His soft-spoken but confident presence says a lot about how natural talent, when properly nurtured and driven by a will to perfection, can produce very young stars indeed.
When the voice begins to crack, expect to see David Alvarez front and centre in a ballet company.