Young David Alvarez branches out with Billy Elliot—but holds tight to his dream of a ballet career
By Maggie Kneip
Dance Studio Life Magazine
Photograph by David Scheinmann
December 1, 2009
Playing Billy takes focus, a tremendous work ethic, and a commitment to technique—and Alvarez says his ballet training prepared him for the role. Even now, he says, “I make sure I get to class, no matter what.”
Where will young, multitalented, Tony Award–winning David Alvarez go after he leaves the Broadway run of Billy Elliot? You can rest assured it won’t be Disney World. Or another Broadway show.
“David will return to ballet,” asserts Billy Elliot associate choreographer Kate Dunn.
Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, where Alvarez trains, says, “David will come back to dance with us full-time.”
And young Alvarez says, “The experience of being on Broadway has been just amazing. But I don’t want to continue with it. My dream is still to be a ballet dancer.”
He may, however, be starring on Broadway a little bit longer. Billy Elliot: The Musical, nominated for a record 15 Tony Awards in 2009, won 10 of them, including a shared award for Best Actor in a Musical for the teens in the title role—Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish, and Alvarez. (Alex Ko took over Kulish’s role in October, and a fourth actor, Tommy Batchelor, joined the roster of Billys last March.)
Based on the eponymous British film released in 2000, Billy Elliot boasts a rocking score by British pop icon Elton John and tells the poignant tale of a young British boy from a coal mining town who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. So it would stand to reason that the production would seek to cast young ballet dancers in the role of Billy.
But when they envisioned the musical, the show’s producers knew that for the theater’s seats to be filled nightly, the choreography had to stretch far beyond ballet. With that in mind, choreographer Peter Darling and his associate, Dunn, conducted a nationwide search for three boys with ballet training who could also quickly master tap, jazz, stage combat, and gymnastics, plus learn to sing and act using a Geordie (northern England) accent.
One candidate was Alvarez, the son of Cuban parents, who spent his first eight years speaking Spanish, French, and English and playing football and soccer in Montreal. Aware of her son’s physical prowess, Alvarez’ mother, Yanek, an actress, felt that his skills would be better channeled into the arts and enrolled him in a beginning dance class at Montreal’s Ballet Divertimento. There, according to Alvarez, “I wasn’t really doing ballet. We just sort of walked around.”
But when his father, David, relocated the family to San Diego a year later and 9-year-old Alvarez began taking class at the California Ballet School, his interest in ballet was ignited. Three years later he was accepted to one of ABT’s regional Summer Intensive Programs, in San Diego. According to De Vita, “He was noticed immediately by our ballet mistress, Nancy Raffa, who met with his parents and quickly arranged for him to study with us in New York.”
De Vita was particularly thrilled to be bringing into the JKO School family a talented male dancer as young as 12-year-old Alvarez. “Ideally, we like to bring male dancers into our school at that age. But we tend to get them older, at 15 or 16, when they are more open to studying ballet and their families are more accepting.”
Two years after Alvarez began studying at ABT, the Billy Elliot producers contacted De Vita. “They were looking for three boys to play the lead role,” De Vita says. “We sent David, who was the age they were seeking. But I also knew he would be right for it, and that he was talented and intelligent enough to handle everything performing in a Broadway show requires. Not every young dancer can handle it. David is smart. I knew he could do it.”
The show’s producers, however, needed to be sure. Alvarez was one of hundreds of candidates; an exhaustive search was conducted at dance schools and companies nationwide. A first cut yielding approximately 30 boys was soon whittled down to 15, who then underwent one intense week of acting, dancing, gymnastics, singing and dialect training, and assessment.
Finally, three were selected. Upon learning he was one of them, Alvarez was excited—and relieved. “The only thing I had in my head before they picked me was: Was I going to be picked? Because I didn’t want to do all this other training for no reason. I didn’t want to be a tap dancer or a singer. I wanted to be a ballet dancer.”
Approximately six months before opening night, the real hard work for the three boys commenced. Dunn says, “For the first three months, we arranged to have each boy undergo training in jazz, tap, gymnastics, acting, and dialect in his hometown, working with the best coaches and schools we could find in those locations.”
David was already in New York, where the other two boys joined him for the next critical three-month period of integration with the entire cast, as well as acclimation to the Broadway rehearsal process.
As the youngster became immersed in preparing for the show’s opening, his parents were worried that he’d be lured away from his dream of becoming a ballet dancer. De Vita says, “When David was first cast, we had a talk with his parents. They were a little concerned in the beginning. But we convinced them that we believed that, after the show, David would come back to us full-time and that he could be back on track with no problem.”
In fact, De Vita sees Alvarez’ involvement with Billy Elliot as a great opportunity for him to grow artistically. “I think it’s very good for a ballet dancer to be a bit more open, and not think ballet is the only dance,” he says. “The tap and jazz that he is now doing greatly enhance his ballet training. Tap is good for musicality; jazz, for coordination.”
Nor did Alvarez’ instructors at ABT worry that his Broadway commitment would cause his ballet technique to deteriorate. “David is so talented, so intelligent, and his training at ABT/JKO has been so classical, so pure. I have no doubt he will always have our training in his body, and he will always be able to come back to it,” says De Vita.
The Billy Elliot choreographers are equally protective of Alvarez’ talent and love for ballet. According to Dunn, “David is a very beautiful ballet dancer. During our entire run we’ve been pleased that he’s been able to keep two parallels running—his Broadway work and his serious pursuit of ballet.”
As the show, which opened in November 2008, moves into its second successful year on Broadway (plus a 2010 national tour), its young stars continue rigorous daily training, which Dunn has jocularly titled “The Billy Elliot Maintenance Schedule.” It includes study of acting, singing, dialect training, acrobatics, tap, jazz, and stage movement—as well as ballet.
In addition, Alvarez makes sure he gets to a ballet class five days per week. “I go to the intermediate class at ABT whenever I can, depending on my schedule. If there’s a day I can’t get there, because of rehearsal or something, I fit in a class at Steps [on Broadway]. I make sure I get to class, no matter what.”
The way Dunn describes the requirements of the role, it seems miraculous that Alvarez can get to ballet classes at all. But, she says, “to do this role, you have to be exceptionally focused—to have an exceptional work ethic. David has it—all the boys have it. The Billy Elliot character has to be on stage for a total of three hours, all the while singing, acting, dancing—using dialect. There is no other show requiring the same commitment from kids.”
And Alvarez claims to feel prepared for the rigors of the role precisely because of his ongoing ballet training. “First, my ballet training prepares me physically, technically,” he says. “If you don’t have good technique going into this role, you might get hurt—get a sprained ankle, stuff like that. Ballet class has gotten—and keeps—my body ready for this.”
Next, he credits ballet for teaching him how to perform on the big Broadway stage. “When you learn ballet as a child, you learn you have to prepare, to be there. Same for Broadway. But there are differences,” he adds. “For example, in ballet I would never turn my back to the audience. There’s much more opportunity to do that kind of thing in theater.”
Finally, Alvarez attributes his capacity for the discipline his role requires to his ballet background. But he cites a pronounced difference here. “In ballet, you must use discipline, no matter what. And your teachers work with you to have it, constantly. In theater, you feel like you work for yourself more.”
Dunn, a former dancer with The Royal Ballet, concurs. “There is nothing as disciplined as being a ballet dancer. It requires complete focus, and that you essentially erase everything else in your life. Your life can only be about ballet.” She adds, “ And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to devote your life to!”
Alvarez, De Vita, and Dunn all seem to agree on one thing: Studying all forms of dance can only be beneficial for today’s aspiring young ballet dancer. Says De Vita, “Take a look at modern dancers today: Most take ballet for complete training. And ABT ballet dancers need to learn how to dance all kinds of forms—including jazz and modern—for our repertoire, which spans from classical to contemporary. I’ve taught at Alvin Ailey, and many of their dancers take class with us at ABT. When you ‘arrive’—when you reach the top of your training, you make a choice. But to be trained a little bit in everything, on top of a solid foundation, is now the way to go.”
Alvarez is proud of his Tony Award, but his eyes really light up when you ask him about his favorite ballets. “Giselle and Sleeping Beauty,” he responds. His favorite male dancer? No surprise here: “Fernando Bujones!” whom the young dancer is already said to physically and technically resemble.
About what’s next, Alvarez claims, matter-of-factly, “I’ll be in the show until my voice breaks. But then,” he adds, smiling, “I’ll go back to ABT full-time. I just love dancing ballet!”
Copyright © 2009 Dance Studio Life
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