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Dance prodigy Kiril Kulish of University City is a Broadway star in crowd-pleasing ‘Billy Elliot’


By James Hebert

Union-Tribune Staff Writer

February 22, 2009



NEW YORK – If you’re a lead actor in a hit musical, Broadway has its perks: the stardom, the standing ovations, the autograph-seekers at the stage door.

But the place is conspicuously lacking a beach. And Kiril Kulish might trade you a bushel of bagels for just one visit to his favorite San Diego burger joint.

“I miss the beach. I used to be able to get there in 10 minutes,” said Kiril, the University City kid who’s now wowing the Broadway crowd as the title character in the hit show “Billy Elliot.”

“And I miss In-N-Out Burger,” he adds with a guilty laugh. “In-N-Out Burger was my favorite place to eat. And it was right next to my ballet school, so I’d go after rehearsal and eat there.

“There’s no In-N-Out here.”

Not that he’s complaining. (Necessarily.) New York has been pretty good to the 14-year-old dance prodigy, who was chosen from more than 1,000 hopefuls last year to be one of three boys alternating in the part of Billy, the ballet-loving British boy.

Kiril’s performance on this bone-cold Manhattan afternoon will earn warm and sustained ovations, as he performs elegant leaps and precise, dizzying spins to such songs from the Elton John score as “Electricity” and “Shine.”

He has worked very hard to make it look so effortless. With music lessons since age 5, ballet at 6, gymnastics at 7, Kiril, who has been home-schooled and has two grown-up siblings, has been training and performing for most of his life. Ballet eventually became his specialty, and he won plenty of dance competitions, including the top prize at the Youth America Grand Prix.

But “Billy” has demanded much more. Since he left San Diego for New York last May, Kiril has had to learn the quirky accents of Geordie English, a dialect of the Northeast England coal-mining region where “Billy” is set.

He also has had to learn tap dance, take vocal training and work hard on his acting. Rehearsals have continued regularly since “Billy Elliot” – which is based on the 2000 movie and became a major stage hit in London – opened on Broadway in November.


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For Kiril, 10 minutes to get to the beach has now become 10 minutes to finish an interview before dashing to his dressing room and prepping for a Sunday matinee performance in front of another packed house.

As he sits in the lobby of the Imperial Theatre nursing a winter cold, Kiril retraces the unlikely path that led him to “Billy Elliot,” now the No. 2 show on Broadway (just behind “Wicked”) with grosses of more than $1 million a week.

Born in San Diego to a family of Ukrainian heritage (mom Raisa, who moved to New York with him, teaches piano), Kiril was presciently nicknamed “Billy Elliot” by one teacher at Champion Academy Ballroom in Hillcrest when he trained there.

Not only had he never seen the movie about the lonely kid who embraces his passion for dance, he was even less familiar with theater. “I never really knew or thought about musicals before,” he admits. “I didn’t see any plays, musicals, anything” while growing up. kiril-kulish-14-2009

But Kiril hardly needed to see “Billy,” since it was already in some ways the story of his life. “Billy always wants to dance,” Kiril says. “That’s how I feel. Wherever I am. I’d be in a store and I’d start tapping or doing some ballet. But unlike Billy, my parents have always supported me in everything I did.”

His Grand Prix win proved the ticket to auditions for the musical, where he, David Alvarez and Trent Kowalik were chosen from some 1,500 candidates to play the title role. Since then, “It’s been an amazing experience getting to perform in front of an audience three times a week,” Kiril says. “It’s my favorite part.

“And then getting to meet all these new people here in New York, and the actors I do the show with – the dad (Gregory Jbara) and the brother (Santino Fontana) and everyone – it’s just become like a big family.”

You’d think all the attention and scrutiny and fame at such an early age might at least be cause for some jitters. Apparently not for this performing pro, who’s cooler than a Northumbrian coal mine. “I used to get nerves when I first started the show,” Kiril says. “Then once I got onstage I didn’t feel anything at all. But now I can’t wait to get onstage.”

And have the dance of his young life.


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