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Diana Nollen
Eastern Iowa Life
SourceMedia Group News
Photograph by Amy Boyle Photography
November 10, 2010
[Edited]

 

 

Iowa City native Marcus Pei was born to boogie, so it’s no big surprise that a song by that title is his favorite number in “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” It’s a quick shoe-change number that rolls tap, ballet, jump rope and more into one song. Kind of like his life.

Marcus, who turns 13 on Nov. 13, 2010, is in Chicago, rotating the coveted title role of the dance prodigy who secretly trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes, leaves his coal mining town for London’s Royal Ballet School and catapults to stardom.

Marcus is the second Iowa City native to play Billy. Alex Ko has been dancing the role in New York for a little more than a year.

The hit musical based on the 2000 movie is playing through Nov. 28, 2010, at Chicago’s Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre. Marcus performs two or three times a week and is on standby for two shows. After the show closes in Chicago, he will leap into the role in Toronto in late January.

That will be a sort of homecoming for the young performer, who left his home in Iowa City last year to attend Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto. He’s being home-schooled now, but will attend classes at his Toronto school for three weeks in December before taking a break to visit family and friends in Iowa City. The A-student, whose favorite subject is math, plans to continue his academic and performance training in Toronto through high school, then continue with a professional dance career.

It’s in his DNA.

His mother, Kristin Monroe-Pei, 36, studied and performed with the Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres in Cedar Rapids, appearing in the troupe’s annual “Nutcracker” ballet. His brother, Miles, 10, is on a half-year scholarship with Ballet Chicago and will be dancing the lead boy role of Fritz in “The Nutcracker” from Dec. 17 to 19 at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago. All three have performed in “The Nutcracker” in Iowa City and Marcus danced the lead boy role last year in Toronto.

Mom continues to study, too, taking classes at the Joffrey and Hubbard Street Dance companies in Chicago. That’s one of the advantages of having Marcus onstage with a resident company instead of a touring company. Resident companies stay long enough for the cast families to move to a city and explore all it has to offer. 

“Miles and I will be the last of the cast families to leave Chicago,” says Monroe-Pei.  Miles and Mom will follow Marcus to Toronto, too, arriving in early January.

It’s all pretty heady stuff for Monroe-Pei. “I never imagined my boys would be dancing at this level,” she says. “My assumption was that usually things don’t work out for boys to dance, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

She enrolled Marcus for ballet and tap classes at the local Nolte Academy of Dance at age 3. “He performed in one recital, then we had a little break and registered him at the University of Iowa at 6 in ballet,” she says. “When he was about 9, I could start to tell his arms, legs and posture were showing the beginnings of becoming a dancer. Nine is pretty early for that to start showing through.”

Marcus had other ideas. “As I recall, when he was about 10, he begged me to let him quit ballet so he could play soccer,” Monroe-Pei says. “He ended up doing both, so he would miss a ballet class once in a while for soccer. He played for two years and loved it.”

In 2009, Marcus attended a four-week summer program at the Toronto school and was invited to stay. He enrolled as a boarding student, leaving behind Longfellow Elementary and his family.

He auditioned for “Billy Elliot” in February in Toronto, was sent to New York for a five-day audition in March, and in early April found out he’d be joining the cast in Chicago on June 14 to start training.

He debuted in the role Sept. 15, which was nerve-racking for him and his mom. “I was going on adrenalin,” Marcus says. “My first performance was really all over the place. It was a good performance, but my mind was twirling and twisting. I couldn’t think straight when I was onstage that first time.”

“The first show I was nervous for him,” says Monroe-Pei. “It was harder for me to sit back and enjoy the show in its entirety, but as I’ve attended repeat performances, I’ve really enjoyed watching the other actors and watching for the understated comedy moments.”

The experience also has helped bridge both sides of Marcus’ family.

“Marcus’ Chinese side has done a lot of coordinating so we could all see the show together,” Monroe-Pei says. “His Chinese side has helped out a lot with care-giving, bringing us things we need. It’s brought our families closer.”

Ethnicity isn’t a factor in casting Billys, says children’s casting director Nora Brennan of New York. “This show is completely colorblind, which is fantastic,” she says, “From the beginning, from the very first meeting, (the creative team) said any boy who has the skills to do this can do the part. He can be African-American, Hispanic, Asian or Indian. This is one case when it really is about the skill and not about how you look.”

Marcus had her at first sight. “I saw immediately that he was a fantastic, gorgeous dancer,” she says. “He has beautiful technique, is beautifully trained and also has a joy about him. His beautiful face just lights up when he smiles. He had very strong technique and beautiful line, so we were immediately attracted to him and intrigued by him.”

That first impression has proved true.

“He has been an absolute joy to work with,” Brennan says. “Everyone in the company and creative team have loved working with him. They’ve said he’s so professional and solid and has such a great work ethic. He has a lovely family.”

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