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Trent Kowalik of Wantagh bounds into New York, where he puts his best feet forward as the star of ‘Billy Elliot’

November 9, 2008

 trent-kowalik-and-stephen-hanna-in-billy-elliot

About six months ago, Trent Kowalik came within seconds of a perfect 300 in Wii bowling, until nerves scuttled his chances in the 10th frame. On Sunday afternoons, he likes to go out on his cousin’s boat, motoring into the Great South Bay. And like any teenage boy, he gets a little impish when talk turns to his sisters.

“The less you see them, the more you appreciate them,” he says. It never registers with him that this might be construed as funny.

At 13, Trent could pass for any freckle-faced, basketball-obsessed teenager from
Wantagh. But suppositions about “average” tumble out the window once you witness his acrobatics. The kid bounds around the stage like a Cirque du Soleil gymnast whose DNA has somehow been spun with an ABT soloist.

Evenings this autumn, as his peers are getting their homework checked over, Trent will embark on 2 1/2 hours of tapping across (and levitating above) the Imperial Theatre stage, where he’s one of three boys alternating the lead of “Billy Elliot,” the Broadway musical based on the spirited 2000 movie. It opens Thursday.

Of the three “Billys,” only Trent has played the role before, in London’s West End, where he spent the first half of 2008 perfecting his “Geordie” dialect, a reference to the people of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, where most of the action transpires. The triple-casting is required, producers say, because of the sheer stamina the role requires (not to say a thing about child-labor practices).

“Billy Elliot: The Musical,” like its cinematic counterpart, is set in 1984, as the British National Union of Mineworkers has gone on strike to protest threatened closures by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who appears in “Billy” as a giant villainess puppet). The strike lasted a year, until the union was broken.

Within this dark setting comes the fictional story of an 11-year-old boy coping with his mother’s recent death. Billy stumbles into a ballet class while on his way to a boxing lesson and realizes that his future may lay on a different path. But the pursuit invites scorn from his blue-collar family and insinuations from classmates that he’s a “poof.”

“Billy just wanted to dance. He didn’t care that other boys didn’t do it,” Trent says during a recent rehearsal break, noting one of the few similarities he sees between Billy’s circumstances and his own. He is sitting in the upper mezzanine of the Imperial, talking between forkfuls of rigatoni from a plastic bowl.

“When I was young, I didn’t realize that other boys didn’t dance,” Trent continues. “When I got older, I realized it – but that didn’t stop me from doing it. A lot of parents might not want their sons being dancers. My parents were all for it.”

Michael and Lauretta Kowalik had already shepherded their three older girls through Irish dancing classes, and Trent had shown an interest in the form early on. A family story circulates about him “borrowing” sister Daria’s tap shoes, finding cutting boards in the kitchen and mimicking her moves in front of a VHS tape of “Riverdance.”

At 3, though, the boy would have to wait another year until he was allowed to enroll in the hell-unleashed, foot-stomping lessons he was eager to try.

It was around this time that Michael Kowalik saw an ad in the Wantagh-Seaford Citizen with an offer of free training for boys at a Bellmore dance school. There were no age restrictions at Dorothy’s School of Dance, so Michael, a surveyor, and Lauretta, a church organist, took their son to meet the owner.

In Trent’s life, Dorothy Medico is something of a parallel to Mrs. Wilkinson, the colorful dance instructor who first points Billy toward a barre. While Mrs. Wilkinson chain-smokes in front of her tutu-clad charges, Medico, who has operated Dorothy’s for 31 years, gets an occasional nicotine fix “in hiding” outside her Merrick Road studios.

“The children,” she notes, “are impressionable.”

Medico’s first impressions of young Trent were that he was “a real spitfire.” At Dorothy’s, Trent started off in ballet and tap, and then, as he got older (say, 5) moved on to jazz, hip-hop and acrobatic tumbling. At almost the same time, he began “doing Irish” – a vernacular employed by those in-the-know – at the Inishfree School of Irish Dance, which held classes in Massapequa, Port Jefferson and elsewhere.

 

Stepping into dance styles

Tap and Irish are both hard-shoe dances, but tap requires a loose upper body. In step-dancing, the upper body is held stiff as a board. Throughout his childhood, Trent simultaneously studied both forms, a junior Fred Astaire one day, a miniature Michael Flatley the next.

“Thank God, he was able to find the difference between the two,” Medico says.

In April 2006, Trent, then 11, became the youngest American to win the World Irish Dancing Championship, in Belfast. It was just about six months earlier that the Kowaliks had first heard from an Irish dancing teacher that a search was on to cast actors for a proposed American version of “Billy Elliot.”

Trent had seen the film sometime after its arrival at Blockbuster, but long before composer Elton John, lyricist Lee Hall and the movie’s director Stephen Daldry ever dreamed up the stage show that debuted in London in March 2005 and has since been seen by 2.4 million fans in England and Australia.

He attended an open call for auditions in November 2005. There was no word for a year; then, a second tryout, where he was introduced to one of the boys leading the London cast.

As Trent and his family waited for more news about “Billy Elliot,” they had a dilemma. Trent was offered a part in the revival of “Gypsy” that was coming to City Center and later would storm Broadway. But that bird in the hand, if accepted, would conflict with the schedule of final auditions for “Billy Elliot” in June 2007 … auditions Trent had not yet been invited to attend.

This spring, when Trent was officially introduced as Billy at a New York launch event, Lauretta Kowalik recalled the conversation she had with her son that day. She told him, “You’re going to have a decision to make. I’m not Mama Rose. What do you want to do? “He said, ‘Mom, I think I’d make them a really good Billy Elliot.’ So I said, ‘Bye-bye, nine grand.’

Trent, of course, was invited to the third audition, an eight-day intensive for 12 prospective “Billys.” And a month later, he was offered the part. That itself wasn’t much of a surprise to the Kowaliks. What was stunning was that producers wanted Trent to first take the stage in London. The move meant leaving seventh-grade at Wantagh Middle School.

Trent was with the London cast from fall 2007 until this summer, when he moved into a midtown apartment to prepare for the Broadway opening; he’s watched over by a rotating member of the family. Sunday visits home, now, mean time with his sisters (Carine and Siobhan round out the trio) or a rousing game of “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” on that Wii.

Casual athletics, such as basketball, are looked upon dubiously because an injury could endanger his ability to appear onstage.

Agewise, Trent is a few months younger than his preternaturally poised counterparts, Kiril Kulish (from San Diego) and David Alvarez (New York City, by way of Montreal), both of whom are international ballet champions. The difference in their respective skills has been worked into the choreography, with one strength emphasized over another, depending on which teen is performing.

Sometimes, not even the boys know who will go on until a few hours before showtime, with matters of mere exhaustion factoring into play. Protocol requires that they do not watch each other’s performances, except to catch glimpses from a monitor in their dressing rooms.

 

Over-the-hill ‘Billy’

Billy Elliot has to battle mockery on his journey to the Royal School of Ballet, but for Trent and his co-stars, a different obstacle looms: puberty. Peter Pan had the luxury of not growing up, but these guys have a shelf-life. In London, some Billys have lasted six months; others have gone on for two years. It depends on how bodies and voices mature.

Different vocal arrangements are readied to accommodate the predictable need for a key change. Each Billy (globally, there have been nearly 30) is contracted for a half-year, and casting associates are staying in contact with dance schools around the country, hopeful they can keep candidates in the Broadway pipeline. Trent, who would like to continue acting post-“Billy,” says he tries not to think about it.

“I think I have more stamina now than when I was in London. I think my voice has stayed pretty much the same. I’m a bit taller,” he says.

He’s 4-foot-11.

“Growing up is going to happen,” he says.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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