There's no Oscar Black Swan without Billy Elliot: The dance trendsetter hitsHouston
Face it, tutus rule. Blackswanarama just keeps on coming. Even sales of cakes with pink icing are up.
But before Natalie Portman did her first Hollywood tendu, there was Billy Elliot bringing ballet into our hearts and minds: first the movie, then on Broadway, now in Houston, Wednesday through March 13, co-presented by Theatre Under the Stars and Gexa Energy Broadway at the Hobby Center.
Billy Elliot, based on the 2000 movie of the same name, tells the tale of a working class 11-year-old boy who trades the boxing ring for ballet class, set amidst the 1984 Miner's Strike in England. The creative team includes Elton John, Lee Hall, Peter Darling and Stephen Daldry. It's none other than Kurt Froman making sure that the four actors playing Billy in Houston get their grand battements in, the very man that convinced us that Portman was indeed a ballerina.
A former New York City Ballet (NYCB) dancer, Froman has the unique perspective of having served as the assistant to the choreographer (Benjamin Millepied) for Black Swan and the resident choreographer for the touring production of Billy Elliot. His job entails everything from teaching ballet class to keeping the young performers happy and focused. The part of Billy is no picnic and their training is intense.
"They do everything, act with a Georgie accent, sing and dance," says Froman, a Fort Worth native. "Peter has structured the choreography so that Billy's big solo, 'Electricity,' changes according to the strength of each dancer. That's the joy of working on this show. It really keeps it alive; there's a different kind of energy with each Billy."
Four young dancers take turns being Billy, including Daniel Russell, Kylend Hetherington, Giuseppe Bausilio and Lex Ishimoto.
"Boys come into the show and either they turn better to the right or left, some are more acrobatic, others are more classically trained. Lex's version of 'Electricity" highlights his acrobatic talents," Froman says. "Giuseppe has more jumps with beats. Daniel is a lefty, so more of his turns rotate that way. At the moment, Kylend has more acro than Daniel, but their versions are most similar.
General transitions between steps can differ between the boys, as well as some of the contemporary movement/street dance that is sprinkled throughout. Certain arm positions in their pirouettes can be different as well."
The life of a "Billy" is short-lived. The performers age out of it as they grow and their voices mature. Froman is convinced that his cadre of young actors/dancers will thrive.
"I'm so excited to see what the future holds for each of them," says Froman, who has also danced the role of older Billy. He's both a swing and understudy for this production.
"It's surreal, with lots of challenges, like flying Billy around the stage," he says. "There's not a lot of room for error."
If you loved the movie, fear not, it's the same creative team here.
"I'm a huge fan of the movie," admits Froman. "I can relate to the story of a kid with a father who was not too crazy about his son wearing tights. As the youngest of six kids, my father did not want us to dance. After my mom and dad got separated, she threw us in to dance."
After a seven-year stint at New York City Ballet, Froman went on to appear in Across the Universe, Center Stage, Ugly Betty and another great dansical, Moving Out. I imagine he has a strong career ahead of him in the next wave of dance movies.
Froman delights in the ballet buzz of the moment.
"I love it," he enthuses. "I take pride in the fact that now people understand the importance of the art. Billy Elliot and Black Swan look at ballet from different angles, the desire to do something you love and the fight for perfection. Black Swan is about obsession. Darren's movie educated people in a different way in its twisted ride down the rabbit hole. It really showed the grind of a dancing life. Most dance movies are fluff."
Froman has been a Darren Aronofsky fan since seeing his 1998 breakout thriller, Pi.As Millepied's right hand man, he taught Portman and Mila Kunis all the choreography, considering the best camera angles and making sure that the two looked like real ballet dancers on film. Knowing how many hours a day dancers train, this cannot have been an easy task.
"Natalie really did have an amazing port de bras," From says. "The incredible thing is that she had to dance and act. She really earned the respect of the dancers on the set."
I must say, as someone who expects to cringe when actors pretend to be dancers, Froman did a terrific job. There wasn't a single Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point moment. Portman really did pull if off, but now we know why.
When it comes to Portman wining an Oscar for Best Actress, Froman is on board.
"She deserves it," he says. As for Billy Elliot's bling haul? Ten 2009 Tony Awards. Nuf said.
Get electrified with "Electricity" from Billy Elliot
Kurt Froman plays the understudy for Prince Siegfried in Black Swan