Yes, it’s the story of a young boy who aspires to a career in ballet, which is why people are often surprised to discover the broad movement palette utilized by choreographer Peter Darling. The choreography encompasses tap, hip hop, jazz, acrobatics, and folk dancing; even a pedestrian activity such as walking – no pun intended – is used as a form of expression.
Kylend Hetherington (Billy) in “Billy Elliot the Musical.” Photo by Kyle Froman
Tap fuels the show at least as much as, if not more than, ballet. “Tap is rhythmically exciting and such an expressive kind of dance,” says Darling. “At the same time, it’s synonymous with show business and musicals. And Billy Elliot is very much a musical; it’s not a ballet.”
In most musicals, tap is a rapturous articulation of joy. Often, its raison d’etre is nothing more – or less – than to entertain the audience. That kind of tap exists in Billy Elliot, most notably in the exuberant finale. But Darling also uses tap in a dark and powerful way in the “Angry Dance,” Billy’s response when his father orders him to give up ballet.
“Tap actually lends itself extremely well to anger,” says Darling. “The ‘Angry Dance,’ in a way, is about Billy wanting to stop dancing. But the rhythm in his head keeps on going. If you want to stop your feet from moving, you slam them to the floor. So that’s where the idea came from: Billy would slam his feet to the floor, and there would be a rhythmic element to it. And it went from there.”
The dances in Billy Elliot either advance the narrative or reveal something about the characters. “Born to Boogie” takes place after Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s teacher, reads a letter from the boy’s dead mother. Rather than launch into a ballet, Darling upends expectations with a jazzy number. “When you study ballet, it’s non-stop classes,” he says. “It almost feels like wearing a straitjacket. When Billy gets upset by the letter, Mrs. Wilkinson decides to give him a present, to cheer him up. Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to do 24,000 tendus again,’ she says, ‘OK, let’s have some fun. Let me find out how you move.’ So Billy starts to do Michael Jackson moonwalking, and she starts to do a few old steps. It’s a conversation, a fun dance, which is what jazz is.”
Darling infused the ballet choreography with contemporary movement, steps that would be anathema to traditional classical dance. When Billy auditions for The Royal Ballet in the number “Electricity,” the ballet he performs includes street dance, hip hop and acrobatics. “The idea is that The Royal Ballet is looking for young dancers with potential, who are phenomenal movers,” says Darling. “And Billy shows that he’s a phenomenal mover who can also turn three pirouettes.”
That number, more than any other in the show, underscores the beauty and vitality of ballet. “Ballet can be one of the most thrilling things you’ll ever see, because of the amount of training, technique, and strength required to do it. The training enables the body to do things that are phenomenally difficult. You’re able to travel through the air. It’s got a great freedom to it.”
Billy Elliot the Musical @ The Orpheum Theatre September 18-23.