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John Mangan

The Age
November 30, 2008

[Edited]

 

WITH their cheeky grins and barely-keeping-a-lid-on-it pre-adolescent exuberance, Josh Denyer and Michael Dameski make being a dancer sound like absolutely the most fun a boy could have.

 

“I’m really into Justin Timberlake,” says Michael. “I can do a lot of his moves, except the popping and locking, that’s really hard. Well, maybe I can do it a bit!

  

“I started dancing to Michael Jackson,” says Josh. “I began lessons when I was six, but when I was five I was doing his dances, throwing the hat around and all that stuff.”

That seems an eternity ago. At 13, both these boys are veterans of the dance-school scene. Jazz, tap, hip-hop and ballet: they’ve been there, done that, and now they’ve been initiated into that most elite team, “the Billies”. They are the latest boys to share the lead role in the Australian production of Billy Elliot the Musical.

Stephen Daldry’s movie was released in 2000, nominated for three Oscars and went on to make around $170 million worldwide. In 2004, the tale of a working-class lad in the north of England who defies his old-fashioned father and mates to become a ballet dancer was translated to the West End stage, with the addition of music by Sir Elton John.

Four years on, the show is still running strong. Last month it opened on Broadway to glowing reviews from Americans who weren’t put off by the English politics, setting or fruity language.

The story has proven equally resonant with Australian audiences, sustaining a year-long run in Sydney, which segues into a Melbourne season opening at Her Majesty’s Theatre in a fortnight.

But it’s not just audiences that have been swept up by the success-against-all-odds tale. So many more young boys are signing up for ballet classes that a term has been coined to describe the phenomenon — the Billy Elliot Effect.

“The movie had an immediate positive impact when it came out,” says Leigh Rowles, the Australian Ballet School’s head of student training. “It showed that ballet’s not for sissies, and it showed that when you’re driven to do something, it doesn’t matter what your environment is, you can still have that driving passion.”

The ABS has been involved in training for the show, and Rowles coached one of the Billies, Lochlan Denholm, for six months.

She vouches for the athletic challenge the show presents. “For a young boy of this age to have to carry that whole show with the physical activity — it takes a tremendous amount of stamina,” she says. “The Billies I’ve seen have all been marvellous. Their characterisation is as important as the dancing. And the support cast is great as well.”

As for the Billy Elliot Effect, next year’s level five intake at the ballet school will have as many boys as girls. “That’s a first,” Rowles says. “And I think Billy Elliot has contributed to that. It has been part of the process.”

At the nearby Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, head of dance Tim Storey could be described as a real-life Billy Elliot. Brought up in ’70s England, just a wee bit further north than Billy, he also had to trek to London to fulfil his dancing dream.

Based at the VCA for the past 18 years, he too reports a boost in the number of boys enrolled in dance at the school. Last year, he says, there was near parity of boys and girls. Bullying of boys who dance has diminished, he says, and while it still dogs some of his students before they come to the VCA, it hasn’t held them back.

“We’ve had more boys in dance here in the past two or three years than we’ve ever had before,” says Storey. “And we’ve got quite a lot of boys going across to the Australian Ballet School, so the standard is getting higher.”

The Billy Elliot Effect is quite tangible, says Australian Ballet principal Christine Walsh, now director of the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet. “We have a number of boys of all different age groups now, and it has to be as a result of Billy Elliot,” she says. “We’ve got young boys starting even from the age of six. We find they come to it with a very open mind, and you can imagine when boys are in a class it brings a new level of energy into the room!”

The boy-dance phenomenon isn’t just being driven by Billy Elliot, though. The popular TV show So You Think You Can Dance? has done much to highlight the athleticism and competitive aspects of dance, especially contemporary hip-hop styles, luring an increasing number of boys into classes.

Pamela Apostolidis, artistic director of Melbourne’s Dance World Studios, says dance now has “a cool factor” among boys. “There’s a bit of a ‘gangsta’ thing about it,” she says. “If you can do hip-hop, your schoolmates are pretty impressed. For one of our hip-hop classes we have 20 boys. Ordinarily in a jazz class you’d be lucky to have one boy in there.”

Curiously, despite hip-hop’s image of conspicuous consumption, the boys attracted to dance by the style often find that if they want to make a career of dancing, they will have to diversify.

“They see Billy Elliot and So You Think You Can Dance?, these shows that stimulate interest in males, and think it looks fun and masculine and they’d like to have a go at it,” says Storey. “And it’s all very well to do hip-hop, but if you want to do something where you can get a job you have to look towards the ballet companies, contemporary dance and jazz, and music theatre as well.”

The way boys are embracing dance is the most obvious part of the Billy Elliot Effect. More subtle is the way the perspectives of parents, and especially fathers, have changed.

Billy’s dad, played with gusto in the Australian stage production by Richard Piper, is no great dramatic exaggeration; his active hostility towards his son’s desire to forge a career in dance would ring true in many households.

Rowles says that on occasion she needs to emphasise to fathers the rigorous aspects of the training the young men will get. “Sometimes the fathers feel more comfortable when they realise what a strong discipline it is, that being here is like being in the Australian Institute of Sport.”

But times are changing. “I don’t have the same conversations with the parents of students that I had 18 years ago,” Storey says. “It’s always been pretty acceptable for women to study dance but, for the men, the fathers would be saying, ‘Yes, but what is he going to do as well (as the dance)?’ “

Rowles notes there are “many, many more” fathers attending ballet school events these days. “We’re starting to notice more fathers who not only want their daughters to dance but if their boys were interested they’d be very proud of the fact,” she says.

For their part, Michael and Josh are both living the Billy story: like Billy they have emerged from obscurity to stardom, and the thrill they’ve experienced on stage already before Sydney audiences mirrors Billy’s journey.

“When you get up in front of the audience, it’s not normal dancing any more, it’s like a whole new thing, because of the audience,” says Josh. “You get a rush of stamina and everything blanks out. You forget about everything, and then when they clap you get this shiver inside you.”

Michael’s first night, just four weeks ago, was equally exciting. “First of all I was very nervous, but then I settled in,” he says. “In the second act I really enjoyed it and I was so dizzy at the end. I was walking up the aisle crying, but then for the finale, it was all about having fun.”

If the stage journeys are similar, the family backgrounds are quite the opposite, both young Billies reporting that they’ve got complete support from their dads for their dancing. “My real dad?” smiles Michael. “He’s so proud. He can’t stop talking about me!”

 

Copyright © 2008 Fairfax Digital

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