Last night I saw the touring production of Billy Elliot the Musical at the Kennedy Center.
For those who aren’t familiar with the musical (or the non-musical movie on which it is based), the show is set in a coal mining town in northern England in the mid-1980s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was is mortal combat with the miners unions. The tale opens with the union’s declaring strike; it ends more than a year later with the union’s defeat and, as it happened, the virtual evaporation of the British coal mining industry.
But that’s just the backdrop. The heart of the story is an eleven-year old boy, Billy Elliot, who, after a frustrating boxing lesson, stumbles into a ballet class — and discovers that he loves it. Unlike boxing, for which Billy has no affinity or natural talent, dancing just comes to him. The teacher sees his talent and starts grooming him on the side with an eye toward auditioning for the Royal Ballet School in London. Dad gets wind of this and hits the fan. The rest of the show is the story of how he and Billy come to terms with the various conflicts that a dancing son provokes: the macho world of the miner versus the effeminate world of ballet; the hard-scrabble working-class reality versus the cushy bourgeois luxury of the arts; the needs of the community versus the aspirations of the individual; the certain end of the father’s livelihood (and with it, his identity that was) versus the uncertain birth of the boy’s future (and with it, his identity to be).
Needless to say, it’s an emotional story with an inspiring arc and a bittersweet end (Billy wins, but so does the Iron Lady). There’s lots of fun dancing (so what if the show is about ballet, let’s TAP!) and a delightfully salty-tongued dance teacher (“Susan Fawkes you look like a spastic starfish!”). The gritty economic and political context focuses the conflict and comforts the audience that what it’s watching is not entirely frivolous. It won a gazillion Tonys, including Best Musical.
I saw the original production on Broadway when it first opened and really enjoyed it. The staging, in particular, cleverly used a mechanized stage to raise and lower Billy’s house and bedroom from beneath the ordinary stage floor. Obviously, this element of the show was lost in the touring production, and the show suffered significantly from it. The set pieces, now wheeled in from the wings, felt awkward and cramped. I wasn’t surprised that, by the end, they seemed to have given up on the set, leaving the clutter in the wings and letting the audience use its imagination — that’s the approach they should have taken from the beginning. As for the talent, the dance teacher was from the original cast and clearly the strongest performer; the rest of the cast was a perfectly serviceable touring cast (good, but in general not quite Broadway good).
Like the first time I saw Billy Elliot, I saw last night’s performance alone. (None of my friends in DC can quite keep up with my theater-going appetite, and I’d rather go alone than not at all.) But that only meant I had greater leisure to explore my reactions to the play.
Most vividly, it reminds me of a night in the mid-1980s when we lived in Des Moines, Iowa. I was probably seven or so, and we had gone to my sisters’ dance recital — perhaps the one where Heather did her solo tap number (I don’t remember the song, but I remember Shirley Temple had done it, and Heather’s costume was a white, red and blue sailor outfit). I remember absolutely loving the recital and really wishing that I could have been on stage, too. Afterward, while we waited in the parking lot, I improvised a little dance of my own behind a parked car where no one could see. Or so I thought. In the middle of my “performance” some older girls walked by and made some mocking comment. I was absolutely mortified. I ran around the car, hid until they were gone, and never did that again.
I don’t recall that my parents knew anything about this episode, but at some point I remember their asking me if I wanted to take dance classes like Heather and Ashley. The answer, of course, was YES! But that’s not what I said. For some reason I had, already at that age, internalized the notion that dancing was not something boys were supposed to do. Given that I didn’t naturally seem to be very good at being a boy (I was repeatedly admonished that “boys don’t run with their arms like that”; I preferred playing dress-up to playing catch; I played with the wrong Muncheechee), it seemed like a bad idea to sign up on purpose for something that would only take me further from the norm that I already didn’t meet.
Fortunately, other artistic pursuits seemed less problematic. Drawing, playing the bassoon, acting, public speaking — each of those tapped into that feeling I’d had at the recital. But I never did try dance. In college I enrolled in a ballet class for non-majors but bailed after the first day. I felt the same at nineteen as I had when I was seven: I was too self-conscious; too worried about what “everyone else” was thinking; too afraid of not measuring up. (I was also characteristically over-programmed and, in the moment, not sorry to abandon a 7:30am class.)
The point of this is not to say that I’ve missed my calling in life by not becoming a dancer. There is no reason to think that I would have any particular talent for dance, or that as a kid I would have had the discipline to stick with it long enough to get any good. I certainly do not seek out opportunities to dance. In fact, I tend to actively avoid them: I hated school and church dances; dancing at nightclubs is marginally better, but still I’ve only done that a handful of times.
The point is more to say that when I watch Billy Elliot, I identify enough with the character that I feel not only the simulated feelings that all theater evokes, but also the echoes of real feelings that I’ve felt in the past (and, to be honest, sometimes still feel): The feeling of not quite fitting. Of wanting to do something or be something that everything around me says (or seems to say) I shouldn’t want to do or to be. Of feeling uncertain about which things are absolutely right (or wrong) and which things are only contingent the culture around me. Of wanting simultaneously to be part of that culture and to escape and have nothing more to do with any of it. Of wishing it were easier to reconcile ambition and personality with caring SO MUCH about what other people think.
There’s another thing, too, that seemed sharper this time than the first time I saw the show; namely, a sense of passing time and opportunities. The energy and openness of youth are built into the storyline — those themes would register even if the part were played by an adult. But when the part is played by an actual twelve-year-old, you see the energy and openness of the actor playing out in a real-life parallel to those of the character he’s playing. I couldn’t help feeling amazed by (and a little envious of) this gangly kid who could do things that, as a result of circumstance and choice, I would never do, and wondering what would come next for him.
That question — “What next?” — has always been one of my favorites. I have a knack for coming up with (sometimes hair-brained) ideas for what I’m going to do next, and I loved how, when I was younger, it seemed that the question could credibly be answered with a virtually infinite range of answers. Now, though, at the admittedly not-so-advanced age of 32, I know that the range of plausible answers has narrowed. There are certain things that I am just never going to do or be. Which is probably totally fine (I don’t actually want to be an architect or a museum curator, although I can see the appeal in both) but when I look back and see doors that are not only closed but also out of reach, part of me feels sad. It would have been fun to have at least tried opening them. (And if this is what it feels like at 32, I’m curious what it will be like at 82.)
Ultimately, Billy gets into the school and the miners’ strike ends. There’s applause and bows and one last unabashedly crowd-pleasing tap number complete with high kicks. Then the lights come up and the perspective shifts: Everyone becomes themselves again, solid and warm and a little ordinary. There’s the metro and work and the tenacious little shamrock that needs to be sprayed with poison and the trip to my parents’ house that I need to pack for. Everything is okay — because sometimes the best answer to “What next?” is not “ballet school in London” but rather, simply, “home.”