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Stephen Hanna talks about Broadway

 

BY Nancy Stetson

Florida Weekly

Photographs by David Scheinmann

March 25, 2009

[Edited]

 

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As a strong, muscular ballet dancer, Stephen Hanna is used to ignoring gravity for seconds at a time, leaping into the air. But all too soon, his feet return to the ground. As principal for the New York City Ballet, he’s also lifted countless ballerinas toward the sky. But it wasn’t until this past fall that he performed with a partner who actually flies.

 

Mr. Hanna plays the role of Billy’s older self in the hit Broadway musical “Billy Elliot.” Based upon the movie of the same name, it tells the tale of a miner’s son in northern England who discovers that more than anything else, he loves to dance.

Instead of taking boxing lessons, Billy learns ballet with the girls. When his father and older brother first learn about it, they’re against it. But eventually, once he realizes how much it means to his son, his father takes Billy to an audition for the Royal Ballet School, where he’s accepted.

“Billy Elliot: the Musical,” with music by Elton John, opened in London’s West End in 2005. It opened on Broadway in November 2008, with Mr. Hanna playing the older version of the title character.

In Act II, he dances with his younger self. The moves initially echo those Billy does when he’s first learning how to dance, but they’re performed on a more balletic level. “He’s daydreaming, basically, and I appear,” Mr. Hanna explains. “It’s foggy; it’s supposed to be a dream. I’m the vision of him as the older Billy.david-alvarez-billy-and-stephen-hanna-older-billy-2009

“We dance together with a chair; it’s going back over what he’s been taught. We do similar moves, then we get rid of the chair and dance as one. We do a pas de deux section. It goes on for a while, and then… he starts flying. We do a whole section where he’s flying around.”

It took a while to get used to dancing with a partner whose feet don’t touch the ground for minutes at a time. “It’s interesting,” he says. “A lot of it’s out of my hands. I’m so used to dancing with someone and having a lot of control over what’s going to happen. In this instance, I don’t have a lot of control.”

But every second is planned and choreographed, and safety is of primary importance. “We have contingency plans,” Mr. Hanna says. “If this happens, you have to do this. If this happens, you have to stop. We have 30 different back-up plans, if anything goes wrong.”

The responsibility of portraying the young Billy is spread among four boys, who each perform twice a week.

 

Time off Broadway for Bravo!

Mr. Hanna is taking time off from his Broadway role to perform in Fort Myers in “BRAVO!Ballet.” The annual show featuring stars from the New York City Ballet is a fundraiser for Gulfshore Ballet, a nonprofit educational institution based in Fort Myers that teaches dance.

This is the third time Mr. Hanna has participated in BRAVO!Ballet. He sees it as a way to spend time with Roberto Munoz, executive director of Gulfshore Ballet, and his wife, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Melinda Roy, artistic director of the local school.

“He was a very talented boy,” says Mr. Munoz, who taught Mr. Hanna for several years, beginning when Mr. Hanna was 8 years old.

“As a teacher, I believe, you don’t make dancers,” Mr. Munoz adds. “You help these talented people become what they want to be. People have to realize their dreams, and you just help them do whatever it is they want to do.”

And the relationship doesn’t end when they move on. “It’s like having a child,” Mr. Munoz says. “They grow up, but they still come to you and ask you for advice and different things.” He still sees his role as “nurturing them, teaching them. People go through many stages in their life, and you have to be there for them. It never ends.

“He’s a great human being, which I think is one of the number one ingredients in anybody. If you’re going to achieve something that big, I think you first have to have the makings of a great human being — and he does.”

Mr. Munoz and Ms. Roy saw Mr. Hanna in “Billy Elliot” on Broadway in February. “Melinda and I were floored,” he says. “It was wonderful.”

The musical, in a way, is every dancer’s story, though the details may differ. “I think I can relate to the little boy; he wants to become a ballet dancer at any cost,” Mr. Munoz says. “He’s trying to follow his dream, but he’s surrounded by people who don’t have a clue, who don’t know how to get him to that next level. “He has a teacher who can help him. He fights against everybody to get what he wants. I can definitely relate to that part of it.”

 

Taking the leap

Mr. Hanna attended the American School of Ballet in New York City. He joined the New York City Ballet in 1997 and was made a principal dancer in 2005.

He didn’t seek out the role in “Billy Elliot,” but was ripe for something different. “I was going through a period where I thought maybe I would try something else,” he says. “It wasn’t something I was acting upon or doing something about, but I was thinking about.”

There are countless actors, dancers and singers who struggle for years to get on Broadway, praying for that one lucky break, and it never happens. But Mr. Hanna wasn’t even trying. Out of the blue, he received a phone call: an invitation to audition.

He took a dance class with two other men who were also auditioning, then did an acting scene with the assistant director. They called him back the next day; some people from the creative team weren’t there when he auditioned, and now they wanted to see him perform. Three or four weeks later, he learned he had the role.

“It just kind of happened,” he says. “It was an exciting, new thing for me to do.”

When he went in and talked to the New York City Ballet, he said he’d like to try the “Billy Elliot” role for a year, then return. He was told he couldn’t be given an official leave of absence, but if he wanted to return in the future, they’d have a conversation and take it from there. “The door is open (to return to the ballet company),” Mr. Hanna says.

He’s 29 and had been with the New York City Ballet for more than 11 years. “Is this the only place where I’m going to be?” he’d asked himself. Although the company is like a family to him and he misses it terribly, he says, “at the same time, I just wanted the chance to explore something different. “I was at the place where I was ready to do something else.” So he took the leap.

“I’m just trying to enjoy this,” he says. “Whatever’s supposed to happen will happen next without me trying too hard to think about it. I don’t want to force something that’s not going to happen.”

Doing the same dance eight times a week is challenging. The dance itself is difficult, partially because it’s performed on a raked stage rather than a level one. “At the same time, it’s really fun,” he says. “It’s not so much about what you’re doing, it’s about the energy you’re able to bring to it. It’s challenging, but in a great way.”

 

All the pieces fit

Because he dances each night with a younger version of his character, he’s asked what he would say to his younger self, if he could go back in time.

“I think I would say: ‘Just keep showing up every day, doing what you’re doing. Don’t change what you’re doing. Especially, keep your eye on the prize, and remember what’s important… the rest will take care of itself.'”

He has much of the Broadway production’s dialogue memorized, especially the younger Billy’s monologue about how dance makes him feel.

How does Mr. Hanna feel when he’s dancing? Dance, he says, enables him to step outside of himself. “I become a different person for a little bit, and nothing else really enters my mind… I’m there doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m able to forget what’s really going on in the world, or in my life, or what’s just happened before.

“When I dance, it’s probably the most calm I feel, or the most at ease I feel throughout the day,” he says. “There are always periods of time that I don’t want to do it before I start, but once I begin, I feel very content… I feel like I’m of use to the world.

“Like all the pieces fit.”

 

Copyright © 2007—2009 Florida Media Group LLC

 

 

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  1. […] and sports, visualization as tool for achieving dance goals I was reading a post at BoysBallet.wordpress.com, called Being Billy Elliot that is from a story written by Nancy Stetson for the Florida Weekly that […]

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