I finally got around to seeing Billy Elliot on Broadway. I’d resisted for a while since I’m not a fan of musical theater — at all — but my friend Mika had an extra ticket and talked me into going with her (by telling me there was a lot of dancing) And she was right — there was. Unbelievably, I actually liked it!
It follows the movie pretty closely, is the story of a boy from a working-class town in Northeast England who, amidst a miners strike his father and older brother are involved in, falls in love with ballet after mistakenly happening in on a dance class — he’s only supposed to be returning some boxing mitts to their proper place but the teacher sees him and asks him to join class, which he does begrudgingly. Once he realizes he’s pretty good at the turns, etc., he’s a goner. Of course his father believes that ballet is for pansies and, besides, the family doesn’t have the money for expensive lessons and admission to the Royal Ballet Academy and all that, but of course it all works itself out throughout the course of the play.
There was a lot of dancing — not only in obvious places like the dance classes and audition, but in the scenes between the striking miners and their clashes with police — in full riot gear, present to protect Scabs — and the ballet students, and Billy. It was really well orchestrated. Go here to see some great performance photos.
I also loved the actor who played Billy’s father, Gregory Jbara. He’s of course the most dynamic character in the whole thing since he’s got a lot of gender prejudices and class issues to overcome, and when he does finally begin to change, to support his son, he really makes you want to cry.
There are three Billy’s — the one on my night was Trent Kowalik, who was pretty good as well. As a dancer he excels at turns. But of course what I was waiting for the whole time was Stephen Hanna, (former) New York City Ballet principal dancer, who plays the older Billy. I was a bit disappointed in the way they used him though. The film ends with the grown-up Billy doing a portion of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, so I was expecting that. But they completely cut it! And I was so upset! I waited all night to see Stephen Hanna do that! Instead they had this rather corny scene in the middle (pictured above) where the little Billy is having a dream and he dances with the image of who he will become — Stephen Hanna. At first it’s nice — they both do some turns and jumps in tandem, and eventually some partnering with Stephen lifting Kowalik into some lovely little fish dives. But then Hanna straps Kowalik into a harness and for about the final third of the piece, the damn harness carries Kowalik all around stage — it’s like circus tricks, not dance!
After that I kept waiting and waiting for more Stephen, but the only other time we see him is in a non-dance scene with the father. It’s actually a pretty funny scene and Hanna’s able to utilize his acting skills — and he’s pretty good, except that he falls back into an American accent at the end of his last line . It’s at the Royal Ballet Academy where Billy is about to try out. Billy’s gone back to change and the father’s left in the hallway alone — still trying to get over his homophobia / fear of male ballet dancers, when along comes Hanna (and then you knew why they needed such a big, muscly dancer), for a smoke. Hanna’s dressed in a blousy 18th Century-style top and tights, so when he takes out a smoke and strikes a nonchalant pose it’s rather funny. Then he starts doing some developpes (slow lift of one leg, with bent knee, into full extension of that leg), lifting his leg right in Jbara’s direction, exposing his crotch. Jbara looks like he’s going to have a heart attack and the audience is cracking up. It ends with Hanna warning Jbara to support his son lest he may lose him to his dream, and the father listens.
(Hanna with Darci Kistler in Peter Martins’ Octet, photo by Paul Kolnik, taken from here)
But no dancing in that scene. So, I was waiting and waiting until the end, and then, curtain call after curtain call, and dance-within-curtain-call after dance-within-curtain-call and it just never happened. Hanna also plays one of the regular strikers and so is dressed for the final dance scene in his construction boots and all, so I’m thinking maybe he just didn’t have time to do a costume change. But then just have another actor / dancer do those scenes — you certainly don’t need a NYCB principal-caliber dancer for that! — and leave Hanna to the ballet! Argh! I realize Hanna took the role knowing what it would entail, but they really could have used him to much better effect, showing audiences what male ballet dancers are really capable of, and what the future Billy will be like.
Anyway, overall I did enjoy it — for those very well choreographed dance scenes I mentioned above and for the actors, particularly Jbara. It’s worth seeing if you get the chance.