Stage of Development

How 'Billy Elliot's' choreographer wrangles five tweens and teens

December 8, 2011

J. P. Viernes, Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske, Lex Ishimoto, Ty Forhan

It’s hard to keep a touring production of a musical fresh — month after month, city after city, every line and dance step identical every single night. In the case of “Billy Elliot” — based on the 2000 film about a boy in a British coal mining town who discovers himself through ballet — there are additional challenges, as the stars are all tweens and teens.

Choreographer Mary Giattino trains young dancers to take on the role of Billy Elliot in New York City before sending them out to join touring productions of the play, including the version opening at the Kennedy Center.

“We treat the kids like adults,” Giattino says. “We expect a lot from them because at the end of the day, this child is carrying a three-hour show, and they have to feel that responsibility.”

While the choreography for this show is exacting, the specifics of the lead actor’s moves are changeable from night to night. That’s because the leads themselves change: Five boys share the role of Billy and rotate during the show’s run.

The differences show during Billy’s big second-act solo, “Electricity,” Giattino says. “He breaks out into his dance that he’s been practicing for his father and for the board of the Royal Ballet School.” That climactic dance is altered to showcase the particular talents of each performer.

“They’re all fantastic, well-rounded dancers, but they all have their strengths — acro, hip-hop, ballet, modern,” Giattino says. “It’s different for every single boy who’s ever done Billy. We’re only at our best when we’re confident, so if we build the dance around each boy’s confident moves, he’s going to feel like he’s got the best solo ever.”

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Dec. 13-Jan. 15, $25-$150; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom)
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Fiona Zublin · December 8, 2011