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Category Archives: Best of 2008

The boys have choosen 26 of the 49 articles posted in 2008 to be included in the Best of 2008

South Wales Argus

8th December 2008

 

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A CROESYCEILIOG schoolboy could be on his way to becoming Gwent’s very own Billy Elliot. 12-year-old Alexander Smith of Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw has been accepted on to the Royal Ballet School’s associate program in Bristol after a successfully auditioning for a place.

The 18-session course will help Alexander develop his dancing talent. There he will be trained in classical ballet based on The Royal Ballet School’s System of Training, as well as other types of dance including historical dance and natural movement.

Alexander started dancing when he was five, when he went to watch his little sister’s ballet lessons and decided to try dancing out for himself. He asked the teacher if he could join in and got hooked straight away.

Before long Alexander was regularly attending classes and also took up singing, tap and jazz dancing.

He now has dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer and emulating his hero, Carlos Acosta. dancing-dreams-alexander-smith-2

He said: “I am really pleased to be with the school and I’m not hoping to audition for the full time ballet school in London.”

When asked what his friends at school think, he said a few people tease him because he can’t do any contact sports in case he gets injured, but he has a good set of mates who stick up for him.

Gabi Nicholson-Dunbar of Nidus Theatre Arts teaches Alex twice a week and said Alexander fully deserves to be with the school and never misses her lessons.

He also attends a class for boy dancers at Nidus, taught by Nick Dunbar. “The boys love being taught by a male ex-professional,” said Ms Nicholson-Dunbar. “The focus is totally on the male way of dancing and Nick can teach from a male dancers’ point of view.”

 

Film told story of dancing lad

Set against the background of the miners’ strike Billy Elliot was a hit film in 2000.

Young Billy finds he prefers joining in the girls’ ballet class at the local hall to the boxing classes that he’s there for. The ballet teacher soon realises his potential as a dancer and encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London.

Alex is well on his way to following in Billy’s footsteps and is already halfway to realising his dream of studying ballet full time.

 

© Copyright  2008 Newsquest Media Group

 

 

By GALIA BINDER

December 03, 2008

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“In Argentina you’d see these big men at the bars talking about soccer, and then all of a sudden they’re having a conversation about ballet and I’m like ‘no way,’” recalls Alejandro Ocasio, a freshman at the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts. “In America, if you see men like that talking about ballet, most of the time, they’re making fun of it.”

more…

By Jody Covington • Special to Carson Times 

December 5, 2008

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Fresh from nearly landing on Broadway and being pitted against a world champion Irish dancer, 11-year-old Ryan Vettel readies to perform this holiday season as “the Nutcracker Prince” in “Peanutcracker — The Story in a Nut Shell.”

Vettel, a Carson City sixth grader at the private St. Teresa School, knows well the condensed story based on Peter Tchaikovsky’s original ballet “The Nutcracker.” He has performed in the Sierra Nevada Ballet’s productions for six years, honing the part of The Brat, Fritz from 2004 to 2006.

The role likely tested his acting chops because he is described as anything but a brat by those around him. Starting at the age of 3, Vettel’s parents, John and Jessie, discovered their son‘s talent for tap.

“He was tapping around the furniture before he could walk,” said mom, Jessie Vettel. His natural ability, passion, dedication and focus allowed him to expand his repertoire to include violin, singing, acting, musical theater and various dance genres such as modern, hip hop, jazz and lyrical, according to his parents and teachers. His experience would be impressive for someone three times his age.

Experience impressive

In 2007, he played The Poet Boy in Sierra Nevada Ballet Company’s “The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore.” He’s played violin on stage and landed roles in many productions by various companies including Western Nevada Musical Theater Company, Nevada Civic Light Opera and Proscenium Players Musical Theater Company.

He has won “Best In Age” categories and other awards for his tap solos at dance competitions including Jump!, Dance USA Regional Dance Competitions and Dance USA National Competition. He also danced the role of the Little Hunter in Sierra Nevada Ballet’s production of “Peter and the Wolf” this past summer.

Only recently, he was one of 15 boys who received a call back from a national pool of about 1,500 to compete for a role in the Broadway play, “Billy Elliot, The Musical.” The part likely went to boys about three years older than Ryan, his parents said.

Vettel spends at least nine hours a week practicing and preparing in classes at Western Nevada Performing Arts Center in south Carson City. The amount of time increases depending on dance competitions, plays and performances. Extremely busy now, he spends about 20 hours a week.

“He likes a challenge,” said Rosine Bena, Vettel’s long-time teacher and artistic director for Sierra Nevada Ballet.

Exceptional focus

What accounts for Vettel‘s success: He is exceptionally focused for someone his age, Bena said.

Gina Davis, owner and director of Western Nevada Performing Arts Center, said Vettel is the most advanced tap student even at his young age that she has ever seen. Nationally, she said, he is right up there with the top.

But that’s not all.

“He’s a nice kid, a good actor. He has a beautiful voice. If people didn‘t know about (his acting and dance), they would think he was just another normal kid. He is a good-hearted child,” said Davis, who wouldn’t be surprised to see Vettel become her fourth student to make it to Broadway some day.

On his resume, his skills are listed as, “unusually skilled tap and ballet dancer (in advanced classes), great ear for music, excellent at memorization, superb reading skills, highly focused, understands character well, quickly masters accents, excellent voice.”

Then there’s the fact that he is an A student and extremely complimentary of his fellow dancers and cast members. Yes, he says, his passion is dance, but he also likes the camaraderie and putting a smile on audience members’ faces.

Camaraderie is key

“I’ve met a lot of friends there (at WNPAC) and they keep me company when I’m down or something,” said Vettel, speaking of the other dancers his age who are mostly girls. “We talk a lot and when there is absolutely nothing to do, we find something to do.”

Davis said the advanced class Vettel attends is by far the most talented group of students she has worked with in her career. Each, she says, helps advance the others. “None of them want to be left behind,” Davis said of the students.

Pushed for anything negative, Vettel could only say that sometimes the technical part of dance and balancing school work with the many hours at the studio can be a challenge.

But when it comes down to it, he said, “There’s nothing that I don’t like.” Even being teased as “ballerina boy,” doesn’t dampen his spirits. Not too long ago, a group of boys picked on Vettel until they watched him perform in the school’s talent show. Afterwards, they apologized for being mean, he said.

Vettel said perseverance is the key and “the core of what you do.” “You can’t let anyone bring you down,” said the 85-pound, 4-feet-11-inch boy.

 

Copyright ©2008 Reno Gazette-Journal

By CLAUDIA LA ROCCO

Published: November 27, 2008

 

Garielle Whittle, the City Ballet’s children’s ballet mistress, with Lance Chantiles-Wertz.

Garielle Whittle, the City Ballet’s children’s ballet mistress, with Lance Chantiles-Wertz.

EARLIER this month, Maria Gorokhov and Callie Reiff paused during a busy rehearsal day to explain their stage strategies.

Do learn ballerinas’ names, so you can send notes requesting used toe shoes. Don’t touch the soldiers: some of them get angry and make frightening faces. And do, certainly, have a plan should you get nervous: last year, Ms. Reiff said, she followed her mother’s advice and pictured “my mom and my brother in underwear.”

Ms. Gorokhov, 10, will dance in the New York State Theater Friday when the New York City Ballet opens its annual “Nutcracker” run. She is the first-cast Marie, the ballet’s young heroine (she performed the role last year), and will alternate with Ms. Reiff, who is 9.

Chantiles-Wertz, 11; Callie Reiff, 9; Joshua Shutkind, 12 and Maria Gorokhov,10

Chantiles-Wertz, 11; Callie Reiff, 9; Joshua Shutkind, 12 and Maria Gorokhov,10

The girls have much to remember. But they needn’t fear forgetting the steps George choreographed in 1954. For two months they have rehearsed meticulously with Garielle Whittle, their teacher at the School of American Ballet and the City Ballet’s children’s ballet mistress. A City Ballet dancer from 1969 to 1983, she became ballet mistress in 1983, the year Balanchine died. For 25 years she has been the guardian, down to the tiniest detail, of his marvelous choreography for children.

Paramount among her responsibilities is “The Nutcracker”: One hundred and five children. Seventy-one roles. Twelve angels. Sixteen soldiers. Eight mice. Eight candy canes. Party scene boys and girls (six of each, plus two teenagers). Eight Polichinelles. One bunny. Hundreds of rehearsal hours. Forty-six performances. And only one Ms. Whittle. It begins with the all-important casting session.

SATURDAY, SEPT. 27 “No talking!” Striding into the studio, one of her ever-present bottles of diet soda in hand, Ms. Whittle greeted the hopefuls with a sharp command: “If you’re talking, I won’t use you.”

Silence. The children executed short phrases as she took notes and checked heights. The girls angling to be Marie were easy to spot: all wore their carefully curled hair down. Marie or mouse, the pay is the same: $10 a performance.

Marie Gorokhov and one of last year’s princes, Joshua Shutkind, 12, knew they would reprise their roles. Callie Reiff and her prince, Lance Chantiles-Wertz, 11, were cast on the spot. Callie’s eyes crinkled in shocked delight, yet her face remained composed; there is no stoicism like that of young dancers up for a part, and the children were careful not to rejoice if chosen, or sulk if passed over.

Ms. Whittle makes her final decision.

Ms. Whittle makes her final decision.

They saved their reactions for the lounge, which is the farthest their sometimes inappropriately zealous parents are allowed. Squeals, “oh my gods!” and bear hugs greeted them. Save for a few candy cane hopefuls who were deemed too tall, only a handful of auditioners this year were not given a part. That “makes things much easier,” Ms. Whittle said. “You don’t have as many broken hearts.”

SUNDAY, OCT. 5 One Balanchine saying Ms. Whittle often repeats is “Ballet is about behavior.” These early party scene rehearsals were the first time many of these children, some as young as 7, were dancing with members of the opposite sex. As they digested a stream of minute corrections, they were learning more than how to hold their hands the City Ballet way (like the petals of a flower opening, Ms. Whittle told them). They were also learning how to learn, how to respect the past, how to treat a partner.
 
Ms. Whittle was strict but never mean, deft at maintaining the line between raising her voice and yelling. Jennie Somogyi, a City Ballet principal who played Marie as a child, laughingly described her former teacher as being like a friend, only “you were still afraid of her.”

SATURDAY, NOV. 1 When City Ballet’s ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, first saw Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” in 1967, he said, he was astounded at the complexity — choreographic and emotional — of the children’s roles.

“The angels break my heart every time, especially when I stand in the wings,” he said. “It’s like little autobiographies are sailing right past me. One is a big smile, one is almost crying and sad, one is sort of non-engaged.”

He emphasized that audiences must see real children, not miniature dancers. Lance, with his golden curls and only two years of ballet training, fits the bill. At this solo rehearsal, while he awaited Ms. Whittle’s return from a much-needed break, he repeatedly practiced his crucial mime scene, studiously consulting Ms. Whittle’s notes (written in a “Little Prince” journal, naturally).

Initially overwhelmed by the role, he was practicing at home, even exercising with his father to strengthen key muscles. Lance is far more delicate and vulnerable than Joshua, a strong performer who is princely indeed — and also something of a ham. Once last year he blew air kisses to the audience. A letter of apology, Ms. Whittle said, was promptly sent to Mr. Martins.

THURSDAY, NOV. 20 Eight days to go. Ms. Whittle recently confided in friends that she despaired of things coming together this year — only to be reminded that she despaired every year.

In this last full week she had scheduled marathon sessions. Now it was late afternoon, her nerves were frayed and the second party scene cast was fidgeting, giggling and otherwise acting altogether too much like 7-year-olds.

Ms. Whittle, playing Herr Drosselmeier, was teaching the children “tickling”: waggling their outstretched fingers as they surrounded her in a tight scrum. It seemed she would momentarily be devoured by angelic-looking little hellions: an apt metaphor, really.

She called a five-minute break, smacking her forehead and rolling her eyes as they scampered out.

“I usually have them so over-rehearsed that they’re perfect,” she said, leaning against the piano, diet soda in hand. “This year I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m going to talk to Peter and just say, ‘Listen, I’ve got some very young kids.’ ”

TUESDAY, NOV. 25 “Nutcracker” performances can get monotonous for City Ballet dancers. The children’s excitement “gives you a boost of energy,” said the corps dancer Ralph Ippolito.

Watching the first joint company and children’s rehearsal, the battle scene between soldiers and mice, his words resonated. On one side of the studio, petrified youngsters; on the other, professional male dancers, lounging nonchalantly— and clearly tickled by their diminutive foes.

In the middle, the ballet mistresses Rosemary Dunleavy and Ms. Whittle sought to impose order. The chaotic scene demands finely calibrated performances (the corps member Matthew Renko sported a bloodied forehead, courtesy of a child’s errant sword). But its playfulness is irresistible, particularly the moment when each mouse picks up two soldiers and carts them, legs kicking, offstage.

Giggling and blushing abounded. But this year’s bunny, Ever Croffoot-Suede, was daunted by her task of pulling the tail of the Mouse King (a swaggering Henry Seth, brandishing a large, scary sword). She dissolved into a brief crying jag. The adults quickly surrounded her in a comforting circle.

“It’s my first ‘Nutcracker,’ ” she whispered. “And I’m very nervous.”

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 26 When Ms. Whittle was offered the post of children’s ballet mistress, her first response was an incredulous refusal. In her years dancing “The Nutcracker” she, like many colleagues, had been too focused on her own performances even to notice the little beings rushing about underfoot. Now she is keyed into these youngsters’ lives — and to a particular swath of Balanchine’s choreography — in a singular way.

2008-nycb-nutcracker-joshua-shutkind-12-and-maria-gorokhov-10

At the dress rehearsal, the children’s first onstage, her eyes rarely strayed from her charges, who were bearing up impressively well in the pressured situation: parents in the audience, Mr. Martins towering over them, the adult dancers they dream of becoming swirling about them. Not to mention props, costumes, light cues and that giant tree.

This was but a taste of what it would be like the next night they appeared onstage. And Ms. Whittle wouldn’t be there. But she would be close; in the wings, most likely, calling out counts — and making sure each step was done just as its choreographer intended it should be.

 

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

It’s not just girls learning their moves for the ‘Nutcracker’

Nov 29, 2008

 

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The “Nutcracker” ballet may be a holiday tradition, but one thing is different at the Oregon Ballet Academy’s production this year.

“There are 20 boys doing the Russian Trepak this year,” said 12-year-old dancer Simon Longnight. “There’s never been more than three before.”

Classes at Oregon Ballet Academy are coed, but tend to be dominated by female dancers.

“We always have just a handful of boys,” said John Grensback, the program’s director. To draw more young male dancers, Grensback sought funding from the Oregon Ballet Foundation and the Lane Arts Council and set up a tuition-free Wednesday class for male dancers only.

The class attracted two dozen dancers ages 9 to 22 with all levels of experience.

“It was a mixed bag of shells,” Grensback said.

As boys improve, they can start taking more advanced ballet classes, but many opt to stay in the all-boys’ lessons as well.

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Thirteen-year-old Mayim Stiller has been taking ballet for three years, and he said the all-boys’ class is different from his other lessons. “It’s like working out at the gym,” he said. “We get to do a lot of big jumps.”

The boys also practice lifting, catching and carrying a partner — important for dances such as the expressive “Nutcracker” pas de deux.

“In ballet, we say the men are there to make the women look pretty,” said Ellis Hoffmeister, 18.

To pull off that goal, the boys’ practice includes push-ups and pulls-ups. “We have to be strong to lift the girls,” Stiller said.

boys-rehearsing-the-russian-dance-for-the-oregon-ballet-academy-nutcracker-2008

Longnight said he does extra push-ups during TV commercials at home.

“Ballet is harder than any other sport,” he said. “You have to withstand pain in your feet without showing it on your face.”

Grensback also spoke to the dedication required to be a successful dancer. “It’s a real strength,” he said. “It opens doors.”

Stiller said he sometimes gets teased for taking ballet, but he had some advice for other boys interested in dance. “You should try it, and not get discouraged by people who say it’s stupid and dumb,” he said. “It’s really fun.”

For more information, go to http://www.oregonballetacademy.com

 

Copyright © 2008 — The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA

Trent Kowalik of Wantagh bounds into New York, where he puts his best feet forward as the star of ‘Billy Elliot’

November 9, 2008

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About six months ago, Trent Kowalik came within seconds of a perfect 300 in Wii bowling, until nerves scuttled his chances in the 10th frame. On Sunday afternoons, he likes to go out on his cousin’s boat, motoring into the Great South Bay. And like any teenage boy, he gets a little impish when talk turns to his sisters.

“The less you see them, the more you appreciate them,” he says. It never registers with him that this might be construed as funny.

At 13, Trent could pass for any freckle-faced, basketball-obsessed teenager from
Wantagh. But suppositions about “average” tumble out the window once you witness his acrobatics. The kid bounds around the stage like a Cirque du Soleil gymnast whose DNA has somehow been spun with an ABT soloist.

Evenings this autumn, as his peers are getting their homework checked over, Trent will embark on 2 1/2 hours of tapping across (and levitating above) the Imperial Theatre stage, where he’s one of three boys alternating the lead of “Billy Elliot,” the Broadway musical based on the spirited 2000 movie. It opens Thursday.

Of the three “Billys,” only Trent has played the role before, in London’s West End, where he spent the first half of 2008 perfecting his “Geordie” dialect, a reference to the people of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, where most of the action transpires. The triple-casting is required, producers say, because of the sheer stamina the role requires (not to say a thing about child-labor practices).

“Billy Elliot: The Musical,” like its cinematic counterpart, is set in 1984, as the British National Union of Mineworkers has gone on strike to protest threatened closures by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who appears in “Billy” as a giant villainess puppet). The strike lasted a year, until the union was broken.

Within this dark setting comes the fictional story of an 11-year-old boy coping with his mother’s recent death. Billy stumbles into a ballet class while on his way to a boxing lesson and realizes that his future may lay on a different path. But the pursuit invites scorn from his blue-collar family and insinuations from classmates that he’s a “poof.”

“Billy just wanted to dance. He didn’t care that other boys didn’t do it,” Trent says during a recent rehearsal break, noting one of the few similarities he sees between Billy’s circumstances and his own. He is sitting in the upper mezzanine of the Imperial, talking between forkfuls of rigatoni from a plastic bowl.

“When I was young, I didn’t realize that other boys didn’t dance,” Trent continues. “When I got older, I realized it – but that didn’t stop me from doing it. A lot of parents might not want their sons being dancers. My parents were all for it.”

Michael and Lauretta Kowalik had already shepherded their three older girls through Irish dancing classes, and Trent had shown an interest in the form early on. A family story circulates about him “borrowing” sister Daria’s tap shoes, finding cutting boards in the kitchen and mimicking her moves in front of a VHS tape of “Riverdance.”

At 3, though, the boy would have to wait another year until he was allowed to enroll in the hell-unleashed, foot-stomping lessons he was eager to try.

It was around this time that Michael Kowalik saw an ad in the Wantagh-Seaford Citizen with an offer of free training for boys at a Bellmore dance school. There were no age restrictions at Dorothy’s School of Dance, so Michael, a surveyor, and Lauretta, a church organist, took their son to meet the owner.

In Trent’s life, Dorothy Medico is something of a parallel to Mrs. Wilkinson, the colorful dance instructor who first points Billy toward a barre. While Mrs. Wilkinson chain-smokes in front of her tutu-clad charges, Medico, who has operated Dorothy’s for 31 years, gets an occasional nicotine fix “in hiding” outside her Merrick Road studios.

“The children,” she notes, “are impressionable.”

Medico’s first impressions of young Trent were that he was “a real spitfire.” At Dorothy’s, Trent started off in ballet and tap, and then, as he got older (say, 5) moved on to jazz, hip-hop and acrobatic tumbling. At almost the same time, he began “doing Irish” – a vernacular employed by those in-the-know – at the Inishfree School of Irish Dance, which held classes in Massapequa, Port Jefferson and elsewhere.

 

Stepping into dance styles

Tap and Irish are both hard-shoe dances, but tap requires a loose upper body. In step-dancing, the upper body is held stiff as a board. Throughout his childhood, Trent simultaneously studied both forms, a junior Fred Astaire one day, a miniature Michael Flatley the next.

“Thank God, he was able to find the difference between the two,” Medico says.

In April 2006, Trent, then 11, became the youngest American to win the World Irish Dancing Championship, in Belfast. It was just about six months earlier that the Kowaliks had first heard from an Irish dancing teacher that a search was on to cast actors for a proposed American version of “Billy Elliot.”

Trent had seen the film sometime after its arrival at Blockbuster, but long before composer Elton John, lyricist Lee Hall and the movie’s director Stephen Daldry ever dreamed up the stage show that debuted in London in March 2005 and has since been seen by 2.4 million fans in England and Australia.

He attended an open call for auditions in November 2005. There was no word for a year; then, a second tryout, where he was introduced to one of the boys leading the London cast.

As Trent and his family waited for more news about “Billy Elliot,” they had a dilemma. Trent was offered a part in the revival of “Gypsy” that was coming to City Center and later would storm Broadway. But that bird in the hand, if accepted, would conflict with the schedule of final auditions for “Billy Elliot” in June 2007 … auditions Trent had not yet been invited to attend.

This spring, when Trent was officially introduced as Billy at a New York launch event, Lauretta Kowalik recalled the conversation she had with her son that day. She told him, “You’re going to have a decision to make. I’m not Mama Rose. What do you want to do? “He said, ‘Mom, I think I’d make them a really good Billy Elliot.’ So I said, ‘Bye-bye, nine grand.’

Trent, of course, was invited to the third audition, an eight-day intensive for 12 prospective “Billys.” And a month later, he was offered the part. That itself wasn’t much of a surprise to the Kowaliks. What was stunning was that producers wanted Trent to first take the stage in London. The move meant leaving seventh-grade at Wantagh Middle School.

Trent was with the London cast from fall 2007 until this summer, when he moved into a midtown apartment to prepare for the Broadway opening; he’s watched over by a rotating member of the family. Sunday visits home, now, mean time with his sisters (Carine and Siobhan round out the trio) or a rousing game of “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” on that Wii.

Casual athletics, such as basketball, are looked upon dubiously because an injury could endanger his ability to appear onstage.

Agewise, Trent is a few months younger than his preternaturally poised counterparts, Kiril Kulish (from San Diego) and David Alvarez (New York City, by way of Montreal), both of whom are international ballet champions. The difference in their respective skills has been worked into the choreography, with one strength emphasized over another, depending on which teen is performing.

Sometimes, not even the boys know who will go on until a few hours before showtime, with matters of mere exhaustion factoring into play. Protocol requires that they do not watch each other’s performances, except to catch glimpses from a monitor in their dressing rooms.

 

Over-the-hill ‘Billy’

Billy Elliot has to battle mockery on his journey to the Royal School of Ballet, but for Trent and his co-stars, a different obstacle looms: puberty. Peter Pan had the luxury of not growing up, but these guys have a shelf-life. In London, some Billys have lasted six months; others have gone on for two years. It depends on how bodies and voices mature.

Different vocal arrangements are readied to accommodate the predictable need for a key change. Each Billy (globally, there have been nearly 30) is contracted for a half-year, and casting associates are staying in contact with dance schools around the country, hopeful they can keep candidates in the Broadway pipeline. Trent, who would like to continue acting post-“Billy,” says he tries not to think about it.

“I think I have more stamina now than when I was in London. I think my voice has stayed pretty much the same. I’m a bit taller,” he says.

He’s 4-foot-11.

“Growing up is going to happen,” he says.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

For three boys (and their mothers), Billy Elliot is the role of a lifetime. Provided they don’t grow out of it too fast.

By Jesse Green

Published Oct 26, 2008

 

Trent Kowalik

Trent Kowalik

 

The China-red signboard in the mauve marble lobby of the Imperial Theater does not reveal, until shortly before the house opens for each performance of Billy Elliot the Musical, who will be playing Billy. Often enough, the three boys sharing the role will have only recently received the news themselves, as the schedule is constantly being rejiggered based on their health and readiness. However nervous this makes them—and just before curtain they are sometimes nearly hyperventilating—onstage they give startlingly confident, and different, performances: one suave and beamish; one brooding and heartbroken; one blisteringly angry, dancing as if his limbs were bats cracking baseballs out of the park.

But at the dinged-up stage door afterward, the scene is always the same. Actors emerging there face a kind of perp walk, penned in by barricades that keep fans, with their complicated emotions, at bay. Also kept at bay is a group with even more complicated emotions: the parents. Forbidden to enter the theater except in the usual way, with a ticket, they must await their little stars at a distance.

 

It is not because the production fears the intrusive wiles of stage mothers that it enforces this segregation; it is the sheer numbers. The 51-person cast includes 23 kids, 15 of whom appear in each show. No stage mother worth the name would waste her efforts on Broadway these days anyway; there’s too little reward. (Madame Rose herself would be off to California in search of a movie, or at least a reality show.) Rather, the mothers (and fathers) of the cast are mostly there at their children’s behest, having been turned by them into humble sherpas, lugging wheelies of dance gear to the theater and saying good-bye just shy of the mountaintop. It’s the show’s job to take the kids the rest of the way. Indeed, a significant part of the $20 million capitalization for Billy Elliot’s Broadway incarnation (the London production continues strong in its fourth year) pays for the huge in loco parentis apparatus that is responsible for training, educating, and minding its minors from the time they arrive for rehearsal in the morning to the time—as much as twelve hours later—they are returned to the real world outside.

After evening shows, that handover begins at 11 p.m., when seven child wranglers (technically called guardians so as not to suggest the use of cattle prods) start pairing their charges with the appropriate adults. On October 8, a week into previews—the official opening is November 13—the first to emerge was one of the youngest: 7-year-old Mitchell Michaliszyn, who plays the lollipop-sucking Small Boy at alternate performances. He was already wearing his SpongeBob pajamas, and jumped right into his father’s arms. A gaggle of so-called Ballet Girls came next, posing for cell-phone photos and slowly walking the gauntlet toward their folks. Soon a cheer went up, though if you weren’t in the front row, you wouldn’t have seen that it was because Trent Kowalik, who is four-foot-eleven, had stepped onto the sidewalk. A freckle-faced 13-year-old from Wantagh, Long Island, Trent had already played Billy for six months in London, but tonight was his Broadway debut. Joy wafted off him like an odor. When an older girl asked him to sign the T-shirt she was wearing, he threw his mother, behind the barricade, a thrilled, goofy look that seemed to say, “Can you believe it?”

Lauretta Kowalik, dressed in a tweedy jacket over a long brown linen dress, smiled briefly. For her, the whole experience was hard to believe. To begin with, she’d barely seen Trent in days; she and her husband had rented an apartment near the theater so he could catch a few extra hours of sleep (under the eye of an older sister, in college nearby) instead of racing to the Long Island Rail Road station each morning.

As a result, she and her only son lived in separate worlds. And Trent’s world was so extreme. He had always been a wonder, winning Irish-dance championships since he was 5, but now he had landed the title role (or one-third of it, anyway—he is the brooding, heartbroken Billy) in the biggest new musical of the season. More than that, it was a once-in-a-generation role for a boy, as Annie had been, 30 years ago, for a girl. Yes, there are lots of kids these days on Broadway: Gypsy has seven, Spring Awakening eighteen, and minors make up the entire company of 13. But the young actors in those shows share the burden of the storytelling with adults or with each other. In Billy Elliot, the drama is squarely on Billy’s narrow shoulders. He stands at the intersection of its two central questions: Will Maggie Thatcher crush a northern-English coal-mining community, circa 1984? Will that community’s philistinism crush the boy who, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, discovers his improbable love of ballet?

 

Kiril Kulish

Kiril Kulish

 

 

How the show requires the actors to be children and adults.

The drama demands so much of a young performer—emotionally, vocally, physically—that it hardly seems sane to have tried telling it onstage. Billy goes full tilt for all but two scenes. There have been many injuries, and it has often happened, including to Trent in London, that a boy finished Act I but could not go on for Act II. Even leaving the role can be traumatic. (All Billy contracts include a termination clause that can be triggered by a growth spurt or change of voice.) James Lomas, who after a year of training lasted only six months in the West End production before his voice dropped and he “got muscles,” found life back home in Sheffield a lonely nightmare. He later returned to the show part time as a stagehand. Lomas says he is happy now, with a girlfriend, a flat, and Elton John, the show’s composer, helping to finance his education.

In response to such cases, the producers hired a social worker who not only counsels the London Billys during their employment but also provides “aftercare” when they age out. She may help find an agent, a ballet school, or just a way to relinquish stardom. Still, all Billys dread the day their adolescence becomes undeniable, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) the onstage ceremony in which they are handed back to their families, with parting gifts.

Boys are ordinarily eager to adolesce. Billy himself says, “I don’t want a childhood.” But Trent and his co-stars—Kiril Kulish and David Alvarez, both 14—emphatically do not want to grow up just now. Nevertheless, and despite their smooth skin and still-passable sopranos, they are shadowed by a premonition of their older selves. The show makes the point impossible to miss. During the climactic Swan Lake pas de deux, Billy is spun high in the air (in a flying harness) by a hunky danseur noble identified as Older Billy; it’s a Peter Pan fantasy of being suspended, blissfully if temporarily, above the sweaty world of adults. And yet to maintain that fantasy, as the show requires, a preadolescent is asked to perform as strongly and reliably as those sweaty adults. This creates some contradictory incentives. Wearing a tank top at acrobatics class one day, Trent glimpsed his strawlike arms in the mirror and, thinking more like a self-conscious teenager than an actor playing an 11-year-old, started banging out push-ups.

Puppyish in repose, the boys are nevertheless fierce workers. (“Usually, they have to be declared legally dead before they stay home,” says Robert Wilson, the head guardian.) Kiril and David, international prize winners in ballet, are honing their tap and acrobatics. Trent, superior in these, is upgrading his “horrible” pointe. Their different strengths (and the different ways the show deploys them) diffuse their competitiveness; they are endearingly gaga over each other’s abilities. (“David’s turns look really classical!” “Trent’s tap is amazingly fast!”) Yet they are all similarly inured to the ickiness of being constantly examined, touched, palpated, corrected, and even (by nondancing acquaintances) mocked. They power past all that as they power past exhaustion. The morning after his Broadway debut, Trent still had to rise from the air mattress on the floor of his new apartment for a full day of class and rehearsal.

As he did so, the other two Billys would be preparing for the same kind of schedule. In a high-rise on 42nd Street, Kiril, the suave and beamish Billy who had moved from California with his mother when rehearsals began, would fold up the sofa bed, scarf down his egg whites, and squeeze in perhaps 30 minutes of piano. (The piano is about the only non-bed furniture in the apartment.) In the East Nineties, David, the blistering Billy with a mop of black curls, would wake up in the room he shares with his 10-year-old sister, Maria, and his G.I. Joe action figures. He would probably already have missed his father, who sometimes returns from work at night to find David sitting in front of the news in frog position, conked out but limber.

To some parents, this would no doubt be a terrible picture: overworked, overdriven kids living adult lives in an artificial world. But as the Billy parents see it, their sons are experiencing the pleasure and utility of their gifts to the fullest extent; they are never bored or idle but, rather, devoted and fulfilled. What’s odd is that the three families came to that conclusion (and thus to Manhattan) from enormously different premises. Their roots couldn’t be further removed: in cul-de-sac suburbia, in exilic post-Soviet Jewry, in Cuba by way of Montreal. They speak different languages, at least at home: English, Russian, Spanish. And yet, like Lauretta, they each seem awestruck by their son’s talent, if not by the sons themselves. It’s as if someone had handed them the Hope diamond and said, “Here, take care of this, would you? For a while?”

What the boys like to do on days off.

David: I want to sleep! And then after fourteen hours I want to go out with my family.

Kiril: Anything but sleep. On a Sunday even now I wake up early and go out and play sports. Except I can’t play sports because I’m in the city.

What else do you miss from normal life?

Kiril: I have a totally normal life. This is what I like to do.

But like video games, TV, homework…

David: No video games. That’s a waste of time.

Kiril: I hate watching TV. I hate watching movies.

David: Oh, come on! You gotta start. Now.

Kiril: I do miss In-N-Out Burger!

David: Yeah. I want to sleep more and eat a lot of cheeseburgers.

Kiril: They’re scrumptious. There was one next to my ballet studio in San Diego. I’d go four times a week.

David: How are you ever in shape?

Kiril: Thanks a lot, David!

David: They have so much fries it isn’t funny! I would get fat if I ate that way.

Kiril: Me too.

Trent: I get so much exercise I’m not afraid to have five bowls of ice cream. Either cookies and cream or mint chocolate chip, but it has to be the green kind, because if it’s not green, your brain doesn’t know there’s flavor.

Kiril: I miss biking or running on the beach.

Trent: I miss playing basketball with my friends, but everyone’s scared of getting something injured. It’s crucial that everything is intact.

David: Yeah, I’m not allowed to bike. My mom is afraid I’ll break my leg. Or Rollerblade. She doesn’t let me do anything.

Does that bother you?

David: Huh? No. As long as I do what I love.

Kiril: Me too.

And where does that come from, “what you love”?

Kiril: It comes from me.

In the 29th-floor lounge of the glassy new building in which she and Kiril have rented an apartment, Raisa Kulish seems perturbed in a grandmotherly way (though she is only 54) that no one will eat the free schnecken. A concert pianist in Ukraine, she’d left everything behind when she emigrated, in 1989, along with her husband and two children—Victor, now 31, and Beata, 27. They settled in La Jolla, near San Diego, where Kiril was born five years later. Though he has the bright blond cheer of a surfer dude, there is still something Old World about him: a sense of high purpose and discipline.

Raisa herself seems to have been quarried from the Pale. When Kiril’s dance training, which started when he was 5, began to interfere with his schooling, she simply home-schooled him. By the time he was 10, their daily schedule involved leaving home at 4 a.m. to get to Los Angeles for his ballroom-dance class. After that he sometimes had auditions (he’s made several commercials) before heading back to San Diego for ballet from four to eight. Then home to bed. “Is okay,” Raisa explains. “He can eat and read and study during the car rides.”

Kiril didn’t mind—he never complains about anything—though it’s hard to see how it would have mattered if he did. “No, a child doesn’t always want to do it,” Raisa says, “but if you make it mandatory he will. This is the key. Brushing teeth isn’t optional! No one asks if math is optional! They are mandatory. It’s the same with music, with dance. American parents say, ‘Would you like to do this, honey?’ They don’t say, ‘Would you like to do math?’ But we take him to ballet class not because we think he will fall in love with ballet but because we love ballet. If he will love it, that is up to him, but at least he will be cultural. And we are lucky, he loved it right away.”

If Kiril was a Billy waiting to happen, the problem for the production was how to find him. Starting in October 2006, Nora Brennan, a casting director and former Broadway dancer, held auditions in eight major American cities, sending out 4,500 flyers to all the dance schools within a four-hour radius of each. Because of the skill requirements and the narrow parameters of age and height, they’d usually get just a few dozen boys per city, of whom only a handful made it to the end of the day. In June 2007, fifteen finalists from these auditions were invited to New York for a ten-day callback process the boys called an “intensive,” perhaps because there was reportedly one fistfight. It wasn’t until months later that Kiril and David got the good news. (Kiril’s family went to the Cheesecake Factory to celebrate; David’s to Pizzeria Uno.) But Trent was confused to learn they wanted him sooner—and in London. “My mom was thrilled,” he says.

 

continued….

 

Continued from Part 1

October 26, 2008

 

Trent, David and Kiril

Trent, David and Kiril

 

 

How the boys think they’re different from other children.

The creative team, on the other hand, was dismayed by the choices it had to make, sometimes because a boy’s personality was too shellacked (“Like they were ready to open in Annie tomorrow,” says David Chase, the music director) and sometimes for no better reason than that he was clearly on the verge of puberty. Even Kiril, David, and Trent were a risk. Their voices were evaluated for signs of cracking. Their parents were subtly examined for clues to their eventual stature.

Stephen Daldry, the director of both the original film and the musical, has so far worked with 29 Billys, becoming quite attached to them all. “If you were of this mind,” he says, “which I’m not, you’d calculate frantically what you’re investing in each child—say, $100,000—and you may only get four months out of him. Because of that, you have to make sure that the process is life-enhancing in its own right, not show-dependent, which is why we give them one-on-one training with some of the leading professionals in their fields. It’s one long, extended theater-schooling program. The kids do understand the risk involved, but you have to keep telling them.”

Still, a Broadway show doesn’t take chances. The Billy on the logo is not Trent, David, or Kiril but a boy from the London cast. The Billy standby, Tommy Batchelor, is a young-looking 13, with a lime-green retainer case on a chain around his neck. And Nora Brennan has started another round of auditions, to keep the pipeline of Billys flowing. Amazingly, there are more to be found—a fact that parents of ordinary mortals find hard to believe. Haydn Gwynne, who has played the acidulous dance teacher of ten Billys so far, has sons of her own, ages 8 and 10. “Their greatest ambition right now,” she says, “would be to run a sweetie shop.” She remains astonished by her young co-stars’ drive and focus.

“Maybe it’s because no one makes them do it,” she adds; maybe it’s because no one stopped them either. “All I know is that they don’t seem [mess] up. Of course, I’m not going home with them after the show.”

Those who do aren’t taking limousines. The Billys earn about $1,700 a week—a little more than Equity minimum. The Coogan Act (named for the child actor Jackie Coogan, whose millions were frittered away by his parents) requires that 15 percent of that salary be set aside in trust. With all the usual deductions then deducted, Kiril’s paycheck is barely enough to cover the rent on the one-bedroom apartment.

“He doesn’t think he sacrifices,” Raisa says, “but I had to totally give up my life. Quit my teaching, move my house, leave my students.” (She has also separated from her husband, who remains in California.) “But you love to sacrifice if only he will be happy. And he is happy. Every night, he come home so inspired. He has no strength to talk, but I see it. He is enriching his personality in an incredible circle that he admires. Stephen Daldry is just genius. He got Oscar!” (Actually, just two nominations.) “I give him in wonderful hands.”

Kiril has wonderful hands, too. Back in the apartment, he plays the Chopin “Fantaisie Impromptu” on the spinet in the corner. Although he negotiates its tricky runs quite well, he stops partway through, dissatisfied. “My suggestion, Kirusha,” Raisa says equably, “is play something slow until your fingers warm up.” But by then Kiril has suddenly switched gears, to the striding swagger of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

* * *

How much allowance do you get?

Kiril: I get maybe $10 a day, but that’s for my food.

David: Zero. No allowance. I’m not like American kids.

Do you consider yourself American?

David: Yes!

Kiril: But for us, instead of football or Disneyland it’s more like you have to get an education, do art. That’s what our parents say.

David: It comes from their not being Americans.

Kiril: It’s very European. They grew up going to the ballet, concerts…

David: See, the arts grew up in Europe. America just started in the 1700s!

Kiril: A lot of kids would love to be good at the arts, but their parents never introduced them to it.

David: American kids don’t have enough to do. But for me, to get what I want I need to step back and see what it takes to get there.

Kiril: My mom says in order for kids not to go bad you should be doing something 24 hours a day.

Why don’t most kids have that drive?

David: They’re lazy maybe? Or they don’t like it?

Kiril: A lot don’t get a chance to try anything new so they don’t know.

Trent: Some kids are going to do only what other kids are doing.

David: Also, maybe they’re not talented.

Trent: Everyone’s talented at something. My dad plays accordion. And if you work enough you can get what you want.

David: Maybe…

 

 

David with cast mates; Trent in acrobatics class.

David with cast mates; Trent in acrobatics class.

 

David’s parents’ initial resistance to him joining the show.

David’s parents met in Havana in 1991. Yanek, already a successful young actress there, was onstage when she spotted David Sr. in the audience. In one of their first conversations they confided their desire to leave Cuba, where his prospects as a young scientist seemed dim and hers as an actress limited; they couldn’t even read a Milan Kundera novel in public without wrapping it in a socialist magazine.

They developed a plan worthy of Lubitsch. Yanek would start a theater company whose sole, secret purpose was to get a foreign impresario to invite them abroad so they could defect upon arrival. For two years the troupe toured Cuban cities performing a play for Communist youth. David Sr., who appeared as “The Russian,” was terrible: “I was supposed to be funny but never got one laugh,” he says. Eventually, an invitation came from Montreal. Not until a day before their departure in July 1993 did they tell their parents the plan, which came with a terrible price. Though they could smuggle out their books as props in the play, they would have to leave everything else behind, including Yanek’s 4-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

David Sr., 37, narrates this story in accented but very good English. He is small and adorable, like his son. Yanek, 40, only occasionally interjects, usually in Spanish. She cuts a more dramatic, voluptuous figure, dressed all in black, not like a New Yorker but like a character out of Chekhov or Lorca.

“It was four hours on the plane,” David Sr. continues. “We barely spoke; we just held hands. We didn’t know what would happen, or what to do once we got there. But the Canadians—we were shocked to hear them talking in French—processed us and took care of us. We were taken to a hotel on Ste.-Catherine Street, with lights and people and freedom everywhere. We had never seen a bank or a pay phone. In Cuba they say that in capitalist countries, people shoot each other in the street all the time. When we heard a car backfire, we thought it was a shooting. But we quickly realized that we were safe. Canada gave us welfare and sent us to school to learn English and French. I was so very happy! I was able to study and say and read what I wanted and move ahead in my work. But for Yanek…”

Yanek looks away.

“It was not all happy. She could not really do her work in Canada, because of her accent. She had a … harder time integrating.”

Perhaps it was in some sort of sympathy that David, born a year after his parents’ arrival in Montreal, did not utter a word except mami or mima or meme until he was 5. They didn’t mind; he was very physical and communicated perfectly just using his body. That’s why they started him in ballet class, where he immediately flourished. When he did finally begin talking he had an accent that uncannily recapitulated his family history: French cadences overlaying Spanish consonants. He has been hard at work with the show’s vocal coach to remove it.

Used to starting over, the family—including Yanek’s daughter, retrieved from Cuba after two years—moved to San Diego in 2003, where David continued dancing. In 2006 he was offered a full scholarship to come to New York and further his studies at American Ballet Theatre. Soon after they arrived, Nora Brennan saw a picture of David on ABT’s Website and called to ask him to audition for Billy Elliot.

“At first we say no because it’s Broadway,” recalls David Sr., now an assistant professor of biotechnology at Kean University in New Jersey. “But Nora was insistent. ABT got in a panic because it would take his focus away. But Baryshnikov has done a Broadway show! So we said yes. It was a year of hard work. Sometimes he felt anxious because maybe they would say at the very end, ‘No thank you.’ Maybe because he was so quiet, or has an accent, or never studied tap. We comforted ourselves that even if he didn’t get it, it would have been worth it. But we really wanted it.”

When they finally got word, on March 1, Yanek turned to her son and said, “You look like Napoleon. Now you need to conquest.”

Their history has taught the Alvarezes that no gift is forever. Though they hope to spend some of David’s earnings on a bigger apartment, beyond that they do not make assumptions. David may be learning the same lesson. In accordance with industry standards, he spends fifteen hours a week getting what the tutoring company calls a “parallel education.” The ensemble kids are taught in a rehearsal studio ten blocks away; the seven principal kids in a grimy room above the Imperial’s lobby. During a recent giddy science class there, in which partially eaten atomic models (made from gumdrops) moldered in a corner, David was disappointed to find that the prize for winning a game of Elements Bingo was merely “a sense of achievement.” In English class, some of the boys were reading Flowers for Algernon, a book perhaps too on-the-nose, being the story of a childlike man with a gift that is immense, inexplicable, and fleeting.

“Even if he grows tomorrow,” David Sr. continues, “it will have been worth it because of what he’s learned from being pushed to his limits. But he doesn’t yet know that talent is not enough in life. There is also”—he pauses for a moment—“will.”

Yanek sighs and speaks in English for nearly the first time. “This I don’t have,” she
says.

Continued…

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