By Deborah Martin
San Antonio Express-News
March 28, 2012
“When you see a boy that is right for the show, they have that special something — there’s an openness — and you know when you talk to them in the audition,” said Alison Levenberg, dance captain and resident choreographer for the touring edition of “Billy Elliot.” “You see how they process the material that they have to learn, and you know right away that they’ve got the potential for it.”
The musical follows rough-and-tumble Billy, who discovers a natural gift and, eventually, love for ballet. When his widowed dad, a striking coal miner, forbids him from taking dance classes, Billy takes them on the sly, preparing to audition for the Royal Ballet School.
In the touring production, four boys rotate in the title role, meaning each boy typically does two shows a week. The demands on them aren’t just physical, noted children’s casting director Nora Brennan. In addition to being able to dance, the boys have to be able to sing and act. They’ve also got to master the distinctive Geordie dialect spoken in the part of England where the show is set. “Stephen Daldry, the director, says it’s like asking a child to play ‘Hamlet’ while running a marathon,” Brennan said.
Boys who make the cut to be Billy have at least a few years of dance training, but there’s still a learning curve to get them up to speed before they ever step on stage. “They start out as dancers,” Brennan said. “And they’ve never acted, some have never sung, some have rarely spoken in class. They’re just little boys who love to dance. And none of the boys come to us ready to go; there’s a lot of training involved. If their strength is ballet, we provide an enormous amount of tap training and gymnastics training.”
The boys also have a tremendous amount of focus and determination, she said. “It really just comes from inside the boy,” Brennan said. “They’re not doing it for approval, they’re not doing it be cool — it’s not considered cool at all; they get teased and picked on at school. They do it because they love it. And you can kind of see that.”
The boys, who range in age from about 10 to 12, have a pretty short run in the show. Once their voices start to change and they begin to shoot up in height, they have to leave. That is made clear from the moment a boy is cast, Brennan said. “We have a conversation, telling them that this will last maybe a year,” she said. “So they know it’s not personal in any way. It’s not about them; it’s just, this is the age of the boy, and he has to appear to be 12.”
They leave the show with a lot of additional skills, Levenberg noted: “What they’re learning on this show is above and beyond anything that they would be exposed to if they were at home at their dance schools,” she said. “It’s an incredible experience that we get to share with some amazing boys.”
Because the turnover rate is so high, Brennan is constantly on the lookout for potential Billys and for the other kids in the cast, including the girls who make up the ballet class. The web site bebilly.com lists audition information, including how to audition online if they can’t do it in person.
Brennan has, on occasion, handed her card to a mom with a little boy who seemed to have some potential. But most of the Billys are found through open call auditions held across the country.
“They all come and we spend the day teaching them dance combinations,” Brennan said. Billys, she said, “aren’t easy to find. So it’s not something where you hold an open call and get a lot of them. You’re lucky to find one. You have to keep hunting.”
© 2012 Hearst Communications Inc.
See also: The challenge of being Billy Elliot