It’s been 16 years since the film but Billy Elliot is still making dance attractive to boys. By Neil Hudson and Phil Penfold.
There was a time when it was rare to see young boys taking ballet classes but ever since Billy Elliot, that’s been changing.
At the Leeds-based Northern Ballet’s Academy, which runs both recreational and professional courses for people interested in dance, it’s not the case that some of their classes have more boys than girls.
As the musical Billy prepares for its first UK tour - it comes to Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre tomorrow (May 10) - it appears that the film did more than just change childrens’ perception of dance.
Emma Rodriguez Saona is Open Programme Manager and Student Support Co-ordinator with the Academy, says: “We have seen an increase in the number of boys coming to ballet classes and men in general being interested in taking dance as a subject. In terms to Billy Elliot, there’s a lot of reference to that film. It’s not just the students who are aware of it but the parents too.
“They are aware of it and that’s how they reference things in relation to the ballet classes here.
“Some have seen the film and some have not but all have heard of it - it’s quite an established story now, so whether they refer to it in jest or more seriously, it’s all beneficial in terms of getting people interested in dance.
“The other aspect is fitness, which people are also more aware of these days but in terms of ballet, it’s a question of how far they take that but certainly I think people are much more aware of the opportunities which are available for people with dance experience. That’s also due to shows like Britain’s Got Talent and other talent shows, which showcase people youngsters can aspire to.”
The story of a working class lad from a mining family, who defies his father – and social expectations – to embrace the world of classical ballet went onto gross more than £70m, despite only costing £3m to make.
The subsequent musical had been a landmark of the West End scene for 11 years, but all good things must come to an end. Garlanded in awards, praised lavishly by the critics, the curtain finally fell on the London run of Billy Elliot last month. Tickets for the Bradford show are like gold dust.
“Ever since the film was released nearly 16 years ago now, there has been a very definite Billy Elliot effect,” says Annette McLaughlin, who plays Mrs Wilkinson – the role Julie Walters so memorably made her own – on the tour. “It was once a very brave and perhaps sometimes foolhardy lad who decided that he wanted to go to dance classes and perhaps even make his career there. But year on year, more and more young men have done just that, and this year, quite incredibly, the Royal Ballet School at White Lodge, which is quite the most prestigious dance academy in Britain, had more male applicants than females. That is quite extraordinary.”
For Malton-born and raised Scott Garnham, who plays Billy’s disapproving brother Tony, the success of the show is down to the fact it has a very real story to tell.
“Tony is feisty, he’s very much a working man, and he is totally opposed to pit closures and compromises,” says the 31-year-old. “And when he finds out that his kid brother is brilliant at dance, he just flips. He thinks of it as a betrayal, if you like, and violently objects to the idea. But in the end, he comes round, and, of course, realises that, in life, you have to be what you want to be, and that Billy is only being true to himself.
“I love the history behind the show, the optimism of it… and yes, I went back and researched the period thoroughly. For me, born in 1985, it was ‘before my time’, but then I came to realise that there are so many people out there, in so many Northern communities, where it is not only a very vivid memory and a scar, but also something that the older ones still have to live with every day. It destroyed livelihoods, but it also destroyed families.”
Enter, here, young Matthew Lyons. The Yeadon-born 11-year-old is Yorkshire’s very own Billy Elliot, one of five youngsters who will alternate the role on a tour which takes them all the way through until early 2017. “I’m so proud and pleased to be part of the ‘family’,” says Matthew, a member of the West Yorkshire School of Performing Arts in Guiseley. It was there that he learned of a search for young males to fill the dancing shoes of Billy on his first national UK tour which opened in Plymouth a few weeks back.
“To be totally honest”, admits Matthew with a grin, “I hadn’t heard about Billy Elliot, and hadn’t got a clue what it was all about. But then my teacher got me the DVD of the film, and I was hooked instantly. I realised that it was what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world.”
It has been a long and gruelling journey for Matthew and his young colleagues. There were casting calls in Leeds, then two sets of auditions in London. Then a five-week stint in a boarding-school environment which tested whether the lads could acclimatise to a lengthy stay away from home. Then there were final selections and long rehearsals.
“It was tough and yes, I was homesick at one point, but I couldn’t be happier and I realised this will be my career. I do want to be in the theatre.
“It’s so much fun,” adds Matthew. “Dancing and getting that applause at the end of the evening. Making people happy. How could you not like that?”
A CHANCE TO DANCE
The musical Billy Elliot has been seen by 11m across five continents
Music legend Sir Elton John wrote the music for the hit show
Matthew Koon, who is on tour with Northern Ballet’s production of 1984 in Southampton, was the 6th person (the total now stands at 90) to play Billy Elliot on the stage in 2006, when he was 12 years old. He is currently 22 and working in Southampton
Billy Elliott, Bradford Alhambra, May 10 to June 11. Box office on 01274 432000.