Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Billy Elliot

Seeing this little musical extravaganza (and that’s not, in this case, a contradiction in terms) was like seeing an evening’s worth of product placement, a musical based on a film determined to squeeze every penny from the success of its prior incarnation. That sounds cynical in a way I don’t mean; Billy Elliot works to the extent that it captures the surprising warmth of the terrific original film. But to change media requires placing the sad, whimsical, and finally hopeful story of the boy from a Northern England mining family who can’t suppress his sudden desire to be a ballet dancer into the relatively lumbering, static realm of the stage. The story feels a bit plodding, as a result, despite the creative team’s various attempts to mimic the film’s soaring effect.

Originally produced in London’s West End, the Broadway production includes only one carry-over performer in a leading role, the inimitable Haydn Gwynne as Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who uncovers Billy’s dancing talent. I saw David Alvarez in the title role (two other boys rotate in the lead with Alvarez). I caught the PBS-broadcast documentary, Finding Billy, about the extents to which the producers went to discover their American Billy, auditioning thousands of young boys from around the country in a series of extended workshops. The 15 finalists spent two weeks with director Stephen Daldry, choreographer Peter Darling, and musical director David Chase, who carefully vetted the boys for their potential to act, dance, and sing the role. Billy performs center stage for most of the evening; the part requires not only the charisma of a leading man-child, but also the stamina of a polished, veteran performer.

Alvarez, the lovely, now 15-year-old Cuban-Canadian who studies at the American Ballet Theatre, is luminescent as Billy. Alvarez has a quiet command of the role. He’s wistful and slightly brooding, where another performer could be showy and temperamental (perhaps even one of the other two boys who share the role, based on how they appeared in Finding Billy). Alvarez’s strength is ballet. Although he does yeoman’s work with the shows tap and hip-hop inflected numbers, and although his acting is appealing and his singing adequate, watching this young man perform the classical moves is a revelation.

The scene in which Billy stumbles into Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet studio, wondrously attracted to the poses and positions she tries to craft on the bodies of her recalcitrant young girl students, is one of the most magical I’ve seen in recent theatre-going. In his second clandestine visit to her studio—his father thinks he’s out taking boxing lessons—Billy somehow clicks into position. In the curve of his arm and his back; in the tilt of his head; in the confident pointing of his feet, knees, and thighs; in the small rise of his chin; Billy embodies grace, beauty, and the potential in all of us to create something meaningful, if only for a moment.

Gwynne, as Mrs. Wilkinson, performs the scene beautifully, cloaking her astonishment at Billy’s talent and gently correcting his limbs into the proper position while it dawns on her that she’s found a very special boy with the potential to be a real artist. Her reaction tells more of a story than perhaps any other moment in the production, as a wistful yearning for what she’s lost and will never achieve struggles with her frank appreciation for Billy’s latent ability and her sheer enjoyment at seeing the beauty he’s already wrought.

Mrs. Wilkinson could be a clown role: the washed up, aging dancer consigned to a lifetime of putting heavy-set or gangly girls through the paces of Ballet 101, smoking while she teaches, wearing outrageously colored leg warmers and delivering cutting pronouncements about the lack of talent with which she’s surrounded. Mrs. Wilkinson could be played for laughs, like the self-serving Mrs. Hannigan in Annie. Instead, Gwynne makes the character the production’s emotional center, bringing nuance and care to each moment she’s on stage.

She becomes Billy’s surrogate mother (his own died tragically young, and appears to Billy as a ghost throughout the show), not because she wants to, but because Billy needs her protection and her care and she simply can’t refuse him. She’s moved by Billy’s talent and his sadness; in trumpeting his artistic potential, she’s not living vicariously so much as living at all. Billy reminds her of what art can do. In his physical transformations, she finds grace in an otherwise constrained life.

Billy Elliot paints in much broader strokes the lives of the striking miners whose struggle to keep their jobs and their livelihoods provide the surrounding story. Billy’s home life, administered haphazardly by his still grieving father and a tempestuous older brother who feels with his fists instead of his heart, is a caricature of working class values and lifestyles. Carole Shelley (late of a turn originating the role of Madame Morrible in Wicked) plays Grandma as a dithering joke, hiding her food, forgetting her daily routine, and offering Billy what limited affection she can muster as the family’s only woman. Gregory Jbara (who among other Broadway credits performed as the teddy bear-like gay bodyguard in Victor/Victoria) plays a stolid if limited Dad.

The scene in which Dad watches Billy dance for the first time in front of the judges at the Royal Ballet is Jbara’s finest. His astonished understanding of his son’s talent is moving and somehow true. Alvarez’s solo dance is a tour-de-force of frustrated emotion translated into gorgeous, compelling movement. Jbara’s transformation from an anxious, reluctant stage father unsure of himself in an elite environment to a proud father who sees a way out of certain poverty for his youngest son is another of the production’s few more emotionally complicated moments.

Otherwise, the musical’s emotional arc, signaled with a heavy hand by simplistic pop tunes with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, moves predictably from a fierce battle cry roused from striking miners to the resignation of defeat when after a year, they lose their strike and return to the mines with much reduced power and possibility. The dance numbers that convey the struggle between the workers and the police are beautifully choreographed, especially for “Solidarity,” in which miners, police, and the young girl ballet dancers weave together and dance among each other in a way that reveals them as finally one community with more in common than the rather arbitrary lines of their fight would suggest.

Of course, the striking miners support one another as they struggle not to starve without their wages, but their change of heart about Billy’s dancing comes too easily here to be persuasive. The musical is riddled with homophobic remarks about “poofs” (or, in the French, “poufs,” which my online dictionary seems to prefer), British slang for “fags”—any boy who doesn’t box and doesn’t want to be a miner like his older brother and father must be light in his loafers. That the community goes from such homophobic scoffing to financially supporting Billy’s quest to audition for the Royal Ballet with more than the few shillings they can spare happens too quickly here to make sense. The narrative feels contrived, going through its motions as it hurtles toward its inevitably uplifting, triumphal conclusion.

That anxiety about Billy’s sexuality, though, courses through more than one scene of Billy Elliot. Instead of addressing the issue and putting it, as it were, to bed, the book revisits Billy’s fey potential from beginning to end, as though “pouf” is a hiccough that won’t go away. The issue is most complex and nuanced in Billy’s scenes with his friend Michael, who is, in fact, queer. Early on, Michael persuades Billy to dress in his mother’s clothes as a prelude to the rousing number, “Expressing Yourself,” which Hall and John craft as one of the show’s best songs. It helps, too, that David Bologna, whom I saw play Michael, is a firecracker of a young performer. He plays to the audience, blatantly soliciting laughs and applause, but his virtuosic tap dancing, belting voice, and appealing countenance make him difficult to resist.

Bologna and Alvarez have more chemistry than any other combination of characters in Billy Elliot. Michael is Billy’s comic foil, while Mrs. Wilkinson his partner in his more serious emotional trajectory toward manhood. Michael’s late admission that he is, in fact, a “pouf,” is one of the show’s most unadorned and affecting moments, as it’s clear that as a queer boy, Michael will be trapped in the ultra-masculine world of miners without the escape route that Billy almost magically plots for himself.

The final moment of Billy Elliot is shared between Billy and Michael. As Billy leaves—up the aisle of the theatre’s house, for some reason—Michael rolls down stage center on the bicycle he’s pedaled throughout the show to say good-bye. Billy returns to the stage for the farewell, and kisses his friend chastely on the cheek. In this departing benediction, both boys acknowledge that only one of them will get out alive and, unfortunately, it won’t be the one whose queerness puts him most at risk by staying behind. The sad moment is a bittersweet coda to an otherwise redemptive narrative, and perhaps the only way to excuse all that anxiety about poufs.

In the UK, where Billy Elliot still plays to large audiences, the story’s political content must read more clearly and persuasively. For American spectators, a program note (rare for Broadway productions) explains the history of the 1984 miners strike in response to Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s threat to close down the industry. A second act party scene that parodies Thatcher’s much-reviled countenance with oversized puppet heads and caricatured actions could be particularly illegible to those who are most likely the show’s target audience—preteens and teenagers.

In its translation to the US, Billy Elliot loses what might otherwise be its political punch. The miners lose their strike after a long, hungry year, only to return to work chastened and defeated. Daldry makes the point beautifully; the company dons their miners clothes and hard hats, singing “Once we were Kings” as they descend into the stage floor as the song ends. The lights on their hats shine out at the audience as they’re lowered below the stage, blinding us for a moment but underlining that these men who work underground have literally been buried by Thatcher’s union-bashing, anti-worker machinations. The resonant image is chilling.

The New York reviews rhapsodized Billy Elliot as the saving grace of the Broadway season, and the show will probably win a number of Tony awards that will extend its box office life. I sat behind a woman who was seeing the show for the fourth time and provided an unsolicited disquisition about the differences among the three Billys and the two Michaels. Fans like her, and the word of mouth they’ll promote, should keep the show running despite the economic crisis that closed almost ten Broadway shows at once at the beginning of the month. Although I don’t think Billy Elliot deserves all of its critical encomiums, those few enchanting scenes that anchor an otherwise ordinary but perfectly pleasant evening make seeing it worthwhile.

The Feminist Spectator

4 comments:

  1. A story in the New York Times on Tuesday, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/theater/14bill.html,
    made me wonder about how the girl dancers figure into Billy Elliot. The Times has covered Billy Elliot extensively, in part because the musical has drawn the attention of the dance, film, and theatre communities—or at least dance, film, and theatre critics. Many of the articles rely on the narrative that makes Billy feel familiar to people in the ballet world: the story of the talented male dancer who receives, from the moment he steps into the studio, proclamations that he is exceptional. His talent certainly contributes to his acclaim, but the fact that he is a boy is what makes him a commodity. (One of the first NYTimes stories on Billy in April 2008 reports that one of the lead boys, Trent Kowalik, was given free dance classes from early elementary school on because he was a boy.)

    In contrast, girls in ballet learn quickly that they are replaceable and need to learn to look like all of the other girls, a message that might have something to do with the rarity of women ascending to power in the ballet world, as artistic directors or choreographers. How can you become a leader when you’ve spent your life being told to blend in with the crowd?

    Tuesday’s Times article is interesting because it underscores the degree to which the girls in the show, who are all dancers offstage too, have to diminish their dance skills in order to make the boy stand out even more. On a more positive note, the article speaks to the degree of solidarity among the young women in the cast, who chant “BGUSA” for “Ballet Girls U.S.A.” before every show. I haven’t seen the musical, only the film, which I loved, though in retrospect the girls are quite peripheral. What’s your reading on the girls’ roles in the show?

    I’m also curious about the show’s queer themes, highlighted in the relationship between Billy and Michael. As often as popular press about men in ballet highlights their singularity, much work is done to make the impression that not all men in ballet are gay. Sascha Radetsky, who recently left ABT to join the Dutch National Ballet, wrote an essay in Newsweek’s My Turn column last March, http://www.newsweek.com/id/120061, following the familiar theme that men in ballet have to battle many stereotypes, primarily the idea that they’re gay. Radetsky spends ample time assuring his readers that he got into ballet and stayed, in part, because he gets to touch many lithe women on a daily basis. This is a well-worn tactic for male dancers: Born to Be Wild, the Great Performances documentary that follows four male ABT dancers, taps this narrative, particularly when focusing on the all-American Ethan Stiefel, and the most recent “So You Think You Can Dance” tour retraces this path, too. The subtext is constant: I’m a guy. I dance, but I’m not gay.

    I don’t mean to say that all male dancers are gay, but rather that the discourse around men and dance usually winds up reinvesting in the idea that to be gay or to be suspected of being gay is a bad thing--something that all men in dance should constantly fight against as publicly as possible. I think that the issue of fending off suspicion of homosexuality dovetails with the narrative of the singular boy: he deserves all that special attention and praise because he must battle the queer stereotypes ascribed to boys in ballet.

    I’m curious as to whether Michael’s queer presence functions as gay foil to Billy’s apparent straightness. Is he the presence that, by contrast, assures audiences that Billy is a straight boy in ballet? How is Billy’s sexuality configured in the musical? Or might there be a more accepting, hopeful message in that last kiss you describe?

    ReplyDelete
  2. A story in the New York Times on Tuesday, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/theater/14bill.html,
    made me wonder about how the girl dancers figure into Billy Elliot. The Times has covered Billy Elliot extensively, in part because the musical has drawn the attention of the dance, film, and theatre communities—or at least dance, film, and theatre critics. Many of the articles rely on the narrative that makes Billy feel familiar to people in the ballet world: the story of the talented male dancer who receives, from the moment he steps into the studio, proclamations that he is exceptional. His talent certainly contributes to his acclaim, but the fact that he is a boy is what makes him a commodity. (One of the first NYTimes stories on Billy in April 2008 reports that one of the lead boys, Trent Kowalik, was given free dance classes from early elementary school on because he was a boy.)

    In contrast, girls in ballet learn quickly that they are replaceable and need to learn to look like all of the other girls, a message that might have something to do with the rarity of women ascending to power in the ballet world, as artistic directors or choreographers. How can you become a leader when you’ve spent your life being told to blend in with the crowd?

    Tuesday’s Times article is interesting because it underscores the degree to which the girls in the show, who are all dancers offstage too, have to diminish their dance skills in order to make the boy stand out even more. On a more positive note, the article speaks to the degree of solidarity among the young women in the cast, who chant “BGUSA” for “Ballet Girls U.S.A.” before every show. I haven’t seen the musical, only the film, which I loved, though in retrospect the girls are quite peripheral. What’s your reading on the girls’ roles in the show?

    I’m also curious about the show’s queer themes, highlighted in the relationship between Billy and Michael. As often as popular press about men in ballet highlights their singularity, much work is done to make the impression that not all men in ballet are gay. Sascha Radetsky, who recently left ABT to join the Dutch National Ballet, wrote an essay in Newsweek’s My Turn column last March, http://www.newsweek.com/id/120061, following the familiar theme that men in ballet have to battle many stereotypes, primarily the idea that they’re gay. Radetsky spends ample time assuring his readers that he got into ballet and stayed, in part, because he gets to touch many lithe women on a daily basis. This is a well-worn tactic for male dancers: Born to Be Wild, the Great Performances documentary that follows four male ABT dancers, taps this narrative, particularly when focusing on the all-American Ethan Stiefel, and the most recent “So You Think You Can Dance” tour retraces this path, too. The subtext is constant: I’m a guy. I dance, but I’m not gay.

    I don’t mean to say that all male dancers are gay, but rather that the discourse around men and dance usually winds up reinvesting in the idea that to be gay or to be suspected of being gay is a bad thing--something that all men in dance should constantly fight against as publicly as possible. I think that the issue of fending off suspicion of homosexuality dovetails with the narrative of the singular boy: he deserves all that special attention and praise because he must battle the queer stereotypes ascribed to boys in ballet.

    I’m curious as to whether Michael’s queer presence functions as gay foil to Billy’s apparent straightness. Is he the presence that, by contrast, assures audiences that Billy is a straight boy in ballet? How is Billy’s sexuality configured in the musical? Or might there be a more accepting, hopeful message in that last kiss you describe?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am a girl who dances and acts, and I think that Billy Elliot captured extreme truth not only in the historical parts, but in the parts with the children as well. When Billy is at the ballet school to audition, he pushes a kid. In my last play, two kids kept kicking and punching each other at the auditions because one kid was really nervous. When Billy is allowed to join the dance class, the girls are not too happy about that at first. I have almost never had a boy in my dance class. When I have had a boy in my dance class, the other girls did pick on him in the beginning, but not for long. About the stereotype that men who are in theatre and dance are gay, I do not agree with it, but many people do. I also believe that there is nothing wrong with being gay. and yes, in Billy Elliot, they tried to show the obvious contrast between Billy and Michael. I think that the last kiss is just as respect to Michael and also because Billy will probably never see Michael again.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey. I am one ballet girls in the show. I like the article you wrote!


    Buy your tickest to see Billy Elliot:The Musical!



    ~Brooke~

    *Austraila*

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