Becoming Billy Elliot

Their dance bags are so jam-packed they’re on wheels. The three boys who play the title role in Billy Elliot the Musical haul all the usual ballet gear plus heavy clogging shoes, 110-page scripts and—we might as well just say so—the weight of an entire Broadway show.

 

For 14-year-old David Alvarez, 13-year-old Trent Kowalik and 14-year-old Kiril Kulish, schlepping dance bags around 42nd Street is the easy part. Even a brief glimpse inside the little theater where they were rehearsing last summer made two things clear. First, there are many ways of being Billy. Second, they all require intense effort. Which is why, when the show has its official NYC opening on November 13, Kiril, Trent and David will be alternating as Billy instead of tackling him full-time.

 

David, a pensive type with dark curly hair who was among our top 10 ballet teens to watch (“The Next Generation,” March 2008), and Trent, a champion step dancer with freckles and an impish smile, were on the small stage erected in the theater’s lobby. Kate Dunn, the Australian-born, Royal Ballet–trained associate choreographer, was coaching them through the falling and twisting section of an expressive tap number. Meanwhile, elegant, fair-haired Kiril, another dance phenom, was upstairs on the main stage wearing boxing gloves and rehearsing a scene in the rough northern accent called Geordie—“ballet” comes out “balee” and “okay” sounds like “okeh.”

 

There was more. In addition to tapping, boxing and acting (in Geordie!) under the direction of Stephen Daldry, the boys were mastering Peter Darling’s ballet sequences, the Elton John/Lee Hall songs, and the acrobatics—including soaring overhead on a wire during the show’s climactic number, “Electricity.” All this will keep them onstage for a full two-and-a-half hours. Being Billy is more taxing and requires more versatility than most of the adult roles in Broadway musicals.

 

No worries. Trent, Kiril and David, who competed with some 1,500 others in open auditions, arrived on Broadway with resumés many adults would envy. “They’re incredibly professional,” Dunn says. “They’re really together. They wouldn’t cope if they weren’t.”

 

Billy Elliot, in case you somehow missed the Oscar-nominated 2000 movie (also directed by Daldry and choreographed by Darling), follows an 11-year-old English boy from the hardscrabble streets of a coal mining town into the dance studio of a spunky ballet teacher and then, despite the roadblocks placed in his path by hostility and poverty, to the elite Royal Ballet School.

 

Billy dreams of ballet as his father and brother are caught in the bitter miners’ strike that disrupted the United Kingdom in 1984. His life couldn’t be more different from those of the three suburban, middle-class American kids playing him—they are so far from the scarred, sooty landscape Billy knows.

 

But they have no problem identifying with the character, they say. David, on scholarship at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, sees some of his own passion reflected in Billy. “From the first class,” he says, “I’ve loved ballet.”

 

For Kiril, whose definition of triple threat includes ballroom and piano, the touchstone is Billy’s dynamism. “He never stops moving,” Kiril says. “He always wants to dance. Teachers tell me, ‘It’s enough, stop.’ But even at midnight, when I come home, I still really want to move.”

 

Trent, who performed the starring role in the hit London production of Billy Elliot last year, agrees that when it comes to dancing, Billy’s life echoes his own. But that’s where the resemblance ends. “My family is really supportive of me dancing, unlike Billy’s.”

 

A supportive family is a necessity, because dance at this level can be disruptive. Kiril moved to NYC with his mother to be Billy, leaving his father behind in San Diego. When David won his scholarship to the JKO school two years ago, the whole family relocated—also from San Diego—to NYC. Trent was already living nearby when he got the Billy Elliot gig, but then he was chosen to do it in London, and his mother stayed there with him for a month. Afterward, he lived in a house with the other children in the cast.

 

Now, Trent texts friends across the Atlantic. As for his non-showbiz friends, they’ve always been cool with his dancing, he says.

 

Kiril and David, who both trained in San Diego with Maxim Tchernychev, tell a different tale. “My friends at school used to laugh at me,” says David, whose parents came to the United States from Cuba via Canada, which is where David was born. Kiril, whose family emigrated from Ukraine and who pronounces his name Russian-style, with a hard R, nods: “I get teased a lot,” he says.

 

Coming from an arts-mad household, Kiril started piano at 5, ballet at 6 and quickly added ballroom, in which he has a flourishing competition career. He danced with the San Diego Academy of Ballet’s junior company for eight years. But when he started rehearsing for Billy, tap, acting and singing were brand new to him. “It was a challenge for me to learn everything, but now it’s really easy for me,” he says. “And I can’t stop tapping. All I want to do is tap.” As for the flying, he calls it “one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. Really scary and fun.”

 

David loves the flying, too, and he agrees it can be frightening. “The first time I did it, I thought I was going to fly off and crash into the wall.” Now that he’s got it under control, he realizes that it’s helping to strengthen his upper body, “so when I do turns in ballet, it’s all very well-placed.” Like Kiril, David is a talented pianist. But ballet is his central focus, and he has already danced professionally with ABT in The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. Even the tap he learned for Billy Elliot feeds into his ballet: “It’s made me more musical. I can hear the beats better.”

 

Tapping isn’t new to Trent, who was, at 11, the youngest American male to win the World Irish Dancing Championship in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was just a toddler in suburban New York when his sisters started Irish step dance, and he tried to follow in their footsteps. He wasn’t old enough. “So I started ballet and tap when I was 3,” he says. “I added Irish when I was 4.” He likes it all, he says, “but I was more serious about my Irish step dancing.” Ask Trent about his idols and you hear Michael Flatley, Savion Glover, Gene Kelly. Ask the other boys and you hear Mikhail Baryshnikov and Fernando Bujones.

 

Nobody would mind growing up to be honored and admired. And the stars of Billy Elliot might just make it. But getting older has a downside for them. As soon as they grow too tall, or their voices change, they will be replaced. “We’re training new kids all the time,” says Eric Fellner, one of the producers. It’s a sad fact for David, Kiril and Trent. But it’s good news for boys ready to take their dancing shoes to the Great White Way. Tappers, street dancers and, of course, ballet students can all audition. And don’t forget to put that dance bag on wheels.

 

Sylviane Gold has reviewed theater and dance for numerous publications and writes the monthly “On Broadway” column for Dance Magazine.

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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