Pop Pedestal: Billy Elliot
Welcome back to Pop Pedestal, the blog series about pop culture personalities we admire. For our ninth week find a spot, focus, and prepare! for a post about the boy who does ballet, Billy Elliot.
The Pedestal Profile: Billy Elliot is an eleven-year-old forced to take up boxing at the local gym in Durham, a coal-mining town North East England. He’s the son of a miner, the brother of a miner—Tony—and the youngest son to a mother who took her own life. He’s also the one looking after Grandma. The little he’s got gets buried beneath his father’s financial woes, his brother’s hostility, and their participation in the Miners’ Strike of ’84. Billy’s dad scrapes up the weekly boxing pence he considers necessary to keep up father-son traditions and keep Billy busy and away from the strike that is deepening the division of an already divided country, caused by the conflict between Margaret Thatcher's played-out politics to privatize industry and the mining union's response.
Secretly, Billy joins a ballet class when he's supposed to be boxing, and he turns out to be quite gifted. Though angry at first, eventually his father accepts and then supports his son's choice to dance instead of box, and Billy goes on to attend the Royal Ballet School in London.
Admirable qualities: What’s not to love about Billy Elliot? He loves ballet, and he dances even though his dad tells him "boys don't do ballet." He boils eggs for Grandma and fetches her when she wanders out in the fields. He listens to Tony's records when he’s not supposed to. He practices piano in honor of his mother. He locks himself in the bathroom to perfect his pirouette. His best friend, Michael, is a "puff"—something that Billy says he’s not, but accepts anyway. Billy even snags an extra tutu for Michael, by request, to don on Christmas. When his other friend Debbie Wilkinson, his ballet teacher’s daughter, invites Billy over, he has the good sense to keep things platonic by having a pillow fight instead of playing out the typical girl-likes-boy-who-kisses-girl scenario. And best of all, whenever he’s upset, he dances and taps. All day. In combat boots.
At his audition for The Royal Ballet, he dances his own way—something Mrs. Wilkinson, his mentor, encouraged him to do. The scene where the panel of Royal Ballet judges raise a brow, wrinkle a chin, and look at each other to figure out this kid from miner’s family in Durham is priceless. They don’t know what to make of Billy and Billy doesn’t know what to make of this whole professional ballet thing. He’s out of his element, knows it, and questions himself (and punches the pesky boy in the locker room soliciting unwanted advice). But, once he gets a chance to talk about dancing, changing into a bird, and feeling like electricity, he's all right—conviction turns hesitation inside out. Oh, Billy!
Billy defies his father and his brother, knowingly adding to their frustrations and hardship, which is why he keeps ballet a secret at first. He's protecting the family from the blow of his not wanting to follow in their paternal footsteps —it’s not a family affair, though Dad and Tony want it to be. That hurts. But it’s a realization that Dad begrudgingly accepts, supports, and eventually ends up sharing in his son’s joy when he sees older Billy play the Swan in Mathew Bourne’s version of Swan Lake—where men, rather than women, dance ballet.
All in all, there’s a bit of Billy in everyone. No one is left out.
His influence: BILLY ELLIOT The Musical made its London debut in 2005, five years after screening in theaters. In 2008, the show landed on Broadway. It's an international smash, with productions in places like Melbourne, Seoul, and Toronto. 1.5 million people have seen the musical to date. Whoa!
Fun fact: It takes three Musical Billys to translate Movie Billy’s screen performance for the live stage on Broadway!
That’s not all: Did you know that the original movie title for Billy Elliot was Dancer? But, after prompting confusion at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival with Lars von Trier’s beautifully bleak drama Dancer in the Dark, starring Björk, Universal Studios went with Billy Elliot instead.
It was Sir Elton John who first pitched Billy Elliot as a musical to director Stephen Daldry in 2000, after seeing it at Cannes. He is also the mastermind behind the music, having written the score. Sir Elton had this to say about the musical three years ago:
When I saw the film in Cannes, I was completely wiped out. I had to be helped out sobbing from the screening because it mirrored in a way my personal journey and my professional journal because my father really never approved of what I was going to do either and I have the letters to prove it.
Billy’s story is also represented in stuffed animal form courtesy of Broadway Bears. There are four bears depicting Billy’s transformation: Boxing Billy; Flying Billy, Electricity Billy, and Finale Billy. Aside from being super cute, each bear’s outfit is design from production scraps. Neat! Boxing Billy bear comes with an itty-bitty 50 pence coin cut from the change used in the musical and Finale Billy’s tutu is 100% recycled from tutu scraps.
Think of him when: You want to boogie but don’t know how. Or when you’re in a bit of a snag and just feel like bustin’ loose. Billy would release his inner Swan, and you can too!
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