‘Billy Elliot’s’ young stars dance to their own drummer


From left, Ty Forhan, 13, Kylend Hetherington, 14, Lex Ishimoto, 13, JP Viernes, 15, and Zach Manske, 12, who share the role of Billy Elliot stand for a portrait at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. (Michael Perez/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 8, 2011

It is 9:15 in the morning, and Ty Forhan is waiting outside the Innovation Room at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, sipping from a holiday-red Starbucks cup nearly the size of his head. He cannot believe he is up this early. He is 13 years old.

He shakes his blond hair and says, not in so many words, how very tired he is, drawing out his PG-13 descriptor of choice for emphasis. Ballet class will be followed by eight hours of scene reviews, photo shoots, acrobatics class and more dance rehearsals. Often his day starts with at least an hour of individual tutoring. But this hectic marathon is what will prepare Ty for tonight when he walks on stage as the star of “Billy Elliot,” a role he shares with the four other bedheaded and blurry-eyed boys ambling into the studio. The tour comes to the Kennedy Center Dec. 13.

They love being Billy because they are real-life Billys: bullied ballet dancers turned hometown heroes.

“Billy Elliot,” the Tony Award-winning musical based on the 2000 film of the same name, centers around Billy, a talented English boy who grows to love ballet as his family and neighborhood suffer from the U.K. miners’ strike in the 1980s. Billy’s dreams of attending a ballet school are threatened by his father’s disapproval.

“Let’s get started,” says Matthew Prescott, resident choreographer. “We’re already late. It’s Friday.”

Kylend Hetherington, 14, and J.P. Viernes, 15, break into the YouTube-famous Rebecca Black song: “Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday!

They spread out on the floor to stretch alongside Zach Manske, the 12-year-old from Minnesota who will join the show in Washington, and Lex Ishimoto, 13, who played Billy the night before. They approach the barre and glide from first position to fifth and back again, almost in slow-motion, as if they’re dancing underwater. Piano versions of musical standards play on Prescott’s iPod and Forhan, whose love of Broadway music cannot be overstated, sings along to the hits from “Les Miserables.”

Prescott motivates with Oprah-style maxims. “These are your bodies, take charge of them. It’s all an extension of you, of your personality. There’s no reason for you not to come in here and express yourself.”

Lex and Zach immediately start snapping like the Jets in “West Side Story” and break into one of Billy Elliot’s most gleeful songs, “What’s wrong with expressing yourself? For trying to be free? If you wanna be a dancer, dance!

“Yes!” Prescott claps his hands. “That is what the whole show is. That is what Billy is about.”

* * *

Lex wants to make it very clear: “There is nothing going on between me and one of the Ballet Girls.”

The BGs, in cast shorthand, are eight ballerinas between 10 and 14 who make up Billy’s dance class in the show. They don tutus and pigtails while doing some heavy theatrical lifting, performing in seven of the show’s 15 numbers. They are exactly as cute as they sound. But the boys would like to reiterate: the relationship is strictly professional.

“There’s nothing going on,” says J.P.

“Not at the moment,” Kylend clarifies.

“Even though one of the girls started a rumor that there was!” says Ty, setting the record straight.

They’ve just returned from a brief sightseeing break, a stop outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the “Rocky steps” made famous by the Sylvester Stallone movies (a series which, appropriately enough, follows the travail and ultimate triumph of an underdog).

“We put a tutu on the Rocky statue,” reported Lex.

Now the boys are eating lunch, swiping french fries from one another as they wrap up just about the only downtime they’ll get all day. Though the work is virtually nonstop, they’re having fun—certainly more fun than they had in school.

“I hated elementary school,” says Kylend. “It was the worst five years of my life. Because I was a guy who liked to dance. Like Billy.”

The other boys nod vigorously. Each was the only male in his dance class, Zach the only one in his entire studio.

“My parents were okay with it,” says J.P. “But the first time I danced . . . they were saying, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to try anything else?’ Especially my aunts and uncles. . . . They were like, ‘Why is a boy dancing? That’s gay.’ But my parents supported me. They saw that I was really happy.”

Now that they’re the stars of the show, their foes have become their fans. “I came back to school for a month during ‘Billy Elliot,’ ” said J.P. “And these people I never even talked to in my life were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re like, my best friend! You have so much money now!’ And I was like, ‘Um, nice to meet you?”

After being laughed at, says Lex, “We get the last laugh.”

The trajectory of Billy mirrors their own: They’re outsiders who get to be the ultimate insiders, finally surrounded by people who think there’s nothing cooler than a guy who comes with his own tap shoes.

“Ty is such a dancer,” Kylend says. “We’ll be at the mall and he’ll pull out, like, six pirouettes.”

“He started singing before we got here just now,” says J.P.

“We get in the van together, and he belts out Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ or ‘Defying Gravity’ from ‘Wicked,’ ” says Kylend. “Full-on belting. It was awesome.”

Ty sings, “I LOVE musical theater!” in a high, trill voice, and everyone laughs. Ty has probably found the largest group of adolescent guys in America who would categorize spontaneous public singing as “awesome.”

“It’s really kind of amazing because we’re all like family,” says Kylend. “I never got that back at home and now I get it every day.”

* * *

After acrobatics class, Kylend and his mom, Karon, leave the Kimmel Center for the Academy of Music down the street, where he has scene rehearsals. All the boys travel with chaperones and stay in the same hotel (adult cast members stay in nearby accommodations). Karon remembers the teasing as clearly as Kylend does.

“Girls were worse than boys,” she says. “They were jealous of what he could do. But all the kids were mean. He never got invited to a birthday party. Never got invited to a sleepover.

“He played soccer and baseball, and he was good. But he’d be doing pirouettes in the outfield.”

Karon was a cheerleader in high school, and she worries her son will miss out on homecoming dances and pep rallies, the typical teen tropes John Hughes movies are made of. And “Billy Elliot” is a rough gig for a parent. Her husband and other son are at home in L.A. with the family dog while she and Kylend tour.

But she feels the sacrifice is more than worth it. “I told him that if he got Billy, he’d make his best friends for life, because they would get him.”

“And I did,” he pipes in.

She hugs him goodbye and watches him run into rehearsal. “I have to just support him in what he loves to do.”

* * *

The “Billy Elliot” tour is open-ended, but whenever it’s over, J.P. looks forward to attending a traditional high school back home in San Francisco. He wants to focus on math and science, his favorite subjects.

“I love you, J.P.,” Kylend says when he hears this. “But what kind of idiot would go from ‘Billy Elliot’ to high school?” He spits the words “high school” out as though they’re the name of some disgusting, highly contagious disease. Kylend plans to head to L.A. and try his luck at television and movies.

Zach wants to attend an arts high school, and Lex, from Irvine, Calif., is hoping to continue with dance; his specialty is hip-hop. Ty, an Ontario native, just wants to keep doing what he’s doing, though he’s bound to hit a rough patch soon: too old for children’s roles, too young for male leads.

But tonight that doesn’t matter because Ty is Billy Elliot, and the show is about to end. He is tapping through “Finale,” his favorite number. The clackety-clack of the cast’s feet fills the theater, and the audience is in standing-ovation mode, clapping along. Though Ty has spent the night speaking in Billy’s Geordie accent (sample dialogue: “Just becoz I do ballih dohsin’t mean I’m a pouf”), he wears a goofy grin that is pure Ty.

“Billy’s actually just a normal person,” J.P. said earlier that day. “Not ‘A character! In a musical!’ People can identify with him. Even if they don’t dance, they can recognize his struggle.”

Meanwhile the song is ending, the bows are wrapping up, and the cast sings the last words of the show, a reprise of “Expressing Yourself”: “Everyone is different, it’s a natural thing, it’s a fact that’s plain to see . . . What we need is in-di-vid-u-a-li-ty!”

Billy Elliot

Opens Tuesday. Through Jan. 15. Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW, www.kennedy-center.org, 202-467-4600

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