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Choreographer Joshua Bergasse, left, teaching David Alvarez steps for his swing role in On the Town (Sara Krulwich, The New York Times) 2015

 

By Gia Kourlas
New York Times
April 24, 2015

 

[New York City, New York, USA] – “Are you O.K.?” the choreographer Joshua Bergasse asked his newest dancer during a recent rehearsal for “On the Town” at the Lyric Theater. “Do you want to breathe for a minute? Take a minute. Get some water.”

In other words, if you don’t tell David Alvarez, a swing in the show, to take a break, he won’t.

Being a swing, a performer responsible for learning multiple ensemble roles, for “On the Town,” an athletic, jazz-influenced ballet show, is grueling, yet not even close to some of the punishing physical acts Mr. Alvarez, 20, has put himself through. Mr. Alvarez spent three years of his childhood at another Broadway theater starring as Billy Elliot, the irrepressible British boy seduced by ballet. When he was nearly 16, he took his final bow and finished high school. And then he joined the Army.

“Ballet and ‘Billy Elliot’ prepared me to pass every possible training in the Army,” Mr. Alvarez said after a rehearsal. “When I did basic training, I always thought, this is hard but it’s not ‘Billy Elliot’ hard.”

Context helps put “ ‘Billy’ hard” into perspective: Basic training could mean 300 push-ups in the middle of the night, sleeping for 30 minutes and then having a five-mile run. “All I remember is how hungry I was,” Mr. Alvarez said with a friendly smile.

In 2009, Mr. Alvarez won a Tony, along with Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish, with whom he alternated in the part. (Mr. Kowalik is now a sophomore at Princeton University, and Mr. Kulish acts and competes in ballroom dance.) Yes, Mr. Alvarez is aware that he’s in a strange position: He has gone from starring in a musical to joining the military, only to make his return to the stage in a musical about the military. And just how many Tony-winning swings are there on Broadway?

But the strapping Mr. Alvarez — he has blossomed from a ballet waif into a muscular, self-assured young man with the same dark curls — doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder about being a swing after having been a Broadway star. “I feel like people think I should, and some people want me to,” he said. “But I don’t care. I’m just an average guy. Just because I have a Tony doesn’t make me any different or better than any other performer.”

After such acclaim, Mr. Alvarez’s decision to join the Army after high school might have seemed like an unusual career move, but it was always part of his plan. “I’ve wanted to join the Army since I was 13 or 14,” he said. “I knew the experience would be an unforgettable one and something that would teach me a lot about myself and help me grow.”

After basic training, he was part of the 25th Infantry Division stationed in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, where he was selected for a reconnaissance platoon and trained as a sniper. During that time, a two-and-a-half-year contract, he was sent abroad but declined to disclose details, citing personal security reasons.

“When I went through basic training and through recon trials, I was always a good shot,” he said. “I never planned to be assigned as a sniper at all; I just wanted to go infantry, but I’m a weird guy: I always like a challenge.”

He realized that the best soldiers were slim like him — “they could be dancers,” he said. At the same time, the Army toughened his body up. “Sleeping outside for 30 days at a time, walking around with 200 pounds of gear — it’s really rough,” he said. “In Fort Wainwright, it’s cold, and I remember we’d be out on the field for 30 to 45 days in almost negative-60 degrees. It’s all psychological; it’s about pulling through. After the Army, I know the difference between just hurting and an injury.”

His intention had always been to return to Broadway after the Army to try acting as an adult. For now, he’s dancing and will perform in “On the Town” through mid-June, after having successfully filled in as a last-minute replacement in February.

But his real ambition is to act, especially in films. “It’s not that I don’t love dancing, it’s that I love acting more,” he said. “When I did ‘Billy Elliot,’ I completely fell in love with getting all of my emotions out and developing a character. That’s what I’d like to get back into.”

Mr. Alvarez found his way to “On the Town” through the show’s associate choreographer, Greg Graham, who was a dance captain on “Billy Elliot.” (Stephen Hanna, who played the older Billy in the musical, is also in “On the Town.”) His transformation, Mr. Graham said, has impressed him. “It was like your little brother who goes away,” he said, “and you see him again and he’s a grown man and he’s taller than you.”

Born in Montreal to Cuban parents, Mr. Alvarez began his dance training in San Diego. When he was 11, he auditioned for and was accepted to American Ballet Theater’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York, where his family moved. He was a student there when he joined the cast of “Billy Elliot.”

“His jumps are so high, and his turns are so clean,” said Mr. Bergasse, who likes his performers to have a strong ballet foundation. “He is so focused and determined — you just admire him for this work ethic he has. I like men who are kind of daredevils, which I think David really is.”

Mr. Alvarez now wears a wristband, a gift from an Army friend, printed with three words: “Fear Is Dead.” He said most of his fellow soldiers didn’t find out about his “Billy Elliot” past until after he left the Army. “My first sergeant announced it,” he said. “I wasn’t there, thank God, but everyone texted me. I just wanted people to see me for who I was.”

 

© 2015 The New York Times Company

 

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