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By Kwon Mee-yoo
Photograph by Shim Hyun-chul
The Korea Times
February 14, 2011


“And then I feel a change like a fire deep inside,” a boy started singing as four others joined in. “Something bursting me wide open impossible to hide. And suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird.”

These boys — Kim Se-yong, 13; Lee Ji-myeong, 13; Jung Jin-ho, 12; Park Jun-hyeong, 11; and Lim Sun-u, 11 — alternate the role of Billy Elliot in the Korean production of the musical “Billy Elliot,” currently at LG Art Center in southern Seoul since August 2010.

The part they sang was from “Electricity,” a song Billy sings after auditioning for the Royal Ballet School, expressing what he feels like when dancing.

The five boys gathered for an interview with The Korea Times at Billy School last week. They chattered like birds, but when talking about their performances, their eyes twinkled earnestly with a professional edge.

They all started ballet at different points. Kim began when he was around 4, as he took dance sports, and Lim learned to correct his posture but soon became interested in its charm despite his friends’ teasing. Park fell in love with ballet when he watched the movie “Billy Elliot.” He was the first one to apply for an audition for the Korean role.
Jung started tap dancing as a hobby influenced by his mother who liked classic films such as “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).

Unlike the other boys, Lee was a child musical actor before becoming Billy. He played young Simba in the 2006 Korean production of “The Lion King” and the Young Prince in the homegrown musical “Last Empress” in 2007 and 2008. “The response of the audiences thrilled me,” Lee said.

The Korean production of “Billy Elliot” is the first non-English rendition of the award-winning show, composed by Sir Elton John, written by Lee Hall, choreographed by Peter Darling and directed by Stephen Daldry.

After passing the audition in February 2009, the boys have gone through endless training to be on stage as an 11-year-old boy from a mining town in northern England who develops an interest in ballet.

Since this musical requires acting, singing, ballet, tap, acrobatic movement and even modern dance, the training was hard for some of the 10-year-old boys.

For the boys with a background in ballet like Kim, Park and Lim, acrobatics and acting were a big challenge. “Acrobatics was the most difficult area for me. I don’t have enough strength and I couldn’t do the tumbling as easily as other Billys,” Lim said. “I still feel like I am a flabby ‘squid’ in the powerful choreography of ‘Angry Dance.’”

Park said acting was the hardest part. “At first, I wasn’t confident about my acting and got embarrassed,” he said.

Lee started dancing from scratch. “I hadn’t learned any dance before auditioning for Billy and everything was new to me. Moreover, my physical condition was not suitable for ballet. For instance, I could not do a turnout, a basic posture of ballet, due to my hip joint,” Lee said. He thanked the other boys for helping him while practicing with him.

Now they all stand as the Billys of the Korean production, reaching its finish line on Feb. 27. Their dazzling efforts have been appreciated by more than 180,000 people who came to see the show and praised the performances.


Growing up on stage

The biggest hardship of the eight-month-long production came in late November. Lee strained his ankle ligaments during a show and Lim suffered from exhaustion. Kim and Jung had to take to the stage a combined eight times a week for nearly two weeks, which was not easy at their age, having to lead the three-hour show.

“Other than my injury, I felt responsible that Kim and Jung were on stage instead of me. I cried backstage when the other Billys were performing,” Lee said.

However, the boys knew how to turn crisis into opportunity. “All the bad things came at once and we were in a tough situation. However, I was happy to perform on stage, though physically tired. As I became Billy four times a week, I felt more natural in acting,” Jung said. “We thought we had to do better as we were performing instead of Lee and Lim,” Kim added.

Lee spoke beyond his years when he recollected the hard times. “Before the injury, I was obsessed with the success of ballet movements, such as turns. When I turned well, I felt good,” the boy said. “However, now I think that a turn is a tree and the three-hour performance is the forest. The forest should not be ruined by just one tree and I want to tend the whole forest.”

Park joined the cast later in January. He alone practiced at the training center for months, while the other boys were in the spotlight. Despite the late debut, Park gave stunning performances, combining the charms of elegant ballet and powerful acrobatics. “My first performance was electrifying,” Park said. “When I shouted ‘Finish!’ at the end of the show, it was totally different from rehearsals, performing in front of the audience.”

The boys have grown up both externally and internally during the performances. “I have grown taller and my voice has started to crack,” Kim said. “But I became more stable within myself. At first, I was nervous under the pressure of performing well, but now I am much more relieved and enjoy being Billy.”

Lim had competed in several local and international ballet competitions, and won a gold medal at the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) finals. “I always got butterflies inside my stomach before dancing at competitions. I had to win,” Lim said. “However, when playing Billy, I can add impromptu lines in scenes such as ‘Expressing Yourself’ and I feel more relaxed. The stage is now my friend.”

Kim, a gold medalist at the 2009 YAGP finals, added that playing Billy taught him how to enjoy being on stage, rather than competing.

Jung, the smallest of the boys, said he has seen no big outward changes. However, he seemed taller than anyone on the inside. “In my first performance, I thought of what Billy would think about before acting each scene. However, as I played the part more and more, I got used to the show and forgot how I felt when I first began,” Jung said. “For instance, at the breakfast scene, I really thought of how happy Billy was to see his mom at first. I want to finish the show as if I am still new to this.”


Bright future

“It is sad that I am not Jin-ho Billy anymore, but just Jin-ho after Feb. 27,” Jung said. “I would want to play Billy forever if I didn’t get older.”

Kim emphasized that Billy is a once-in-a-lifetime role. “I can play other roles when I became a ballerino, but I can’t play Billy again,” he said. The talented Kim also has his sights on a musical career. “I will practice acting and singing in addition to ballet. I might be a musical actor. Who knows?”

“We promised to act in the musical ‘Cats’ together when we grow up,” Lee interrupted. “There are ballet cats and tap cats. I want the role of Rum Tum Tugger, the rebel.”

Park and Lim are devoted to ballet. “I want to play all kinds of roles for a male ballet dancer — Basilio from ‘Don Quixote,’ Prince Siegfried from ‘Swan Lake,’ Albrect from ‘Giselle’ and more,” Lim said. Park said he wants to be a ballerino like Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Jung’s dream is not on the stage. He wants to be a doctor of economics. “I will continue tap and dance as a hobby,” he said. He wants to be an economics specialist, interested in philanthropic works.

Still, Jung showed an infinite affection for the show. “I heard that the U.K. Billys all returned on stage to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the show. I hope we can come back sometime later and perform scenes like ‘Electricity’ or ‘Expressing Yourself,’ all together,” the boy said.

Copyright 2011 The Korea Times

Related Article: First Korean Billy Elliots Are Finally Unveiled



One Comment

  1. This wonderful cultural phenomenon just keeps growing. I wish I could see them all!

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