Et tutu, Billy? Cesar Corrales starred in the Chicago production’s opening night performance on Sunday
You try singing to a packed house after doing 16 grande pirouettes.
THEATRE Two-and-a-half hours into Billy Elliot, the Elton John-composed musical that just opened its run at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre, the star of the show—who’s 13, mind you—has to pull off a finale sequence of 16 grande pirouettes followed by a series of passé pirouettes. If you have never studied ballet, you cannot possibly understand the brain-scrambling, shoulder-slumping, morale-sinking dance move that is the pirouette. It is, in most basic terms, a simple turn that requires a snap of the head (called "spotting"). But for many dancers, the pirouette and its many iterations are some of the hardest moves to consistently master. Why you can execute it flawlessly one time, and completely flub it the next, is one of the great mysteries that remains even, some dancers say, after decades of studying ballet.
In the March issue of Chicago, the New York-based writer Giannella Garrett dissected this move, regarded as one of the toughest in the show. Each boy who plays Billy (the role is so demanding that it rotates among four youngsters) shared with Garrett what he considered his personal weak points when it comes to turning. Giuseppe Bausilio, who’s 12, told her: "Spotting is my personal challenge. I keep practicing, practicing, practicing, like a samurai, with great concentration."
Tommy Batchelor, who is 14 and has also played the role in New York, wasn’t as concerned with the grande pirouettes as he was with "building up [his] stamina for a 3-hour show." I kept thinking about that—the boys and their marathon training—when I saw the show last night, its official opening. For a 12- or 13-year-old boy to nail three hours worth of dance moves (not to mention a few Olympics-worthy flips and a Northern England accent), I imagine that there must be a few people biting their nails: the director (Stephen Daldry, who also directed the film), the dance coach (the great Finis Jhung, who used spinning tops and a bow and arrow to help teach the boys about the physics of turning), and the mother of whichever boy is performing. (I know for a fact that the mother of Cesar Corrales, who played Billy the night I saw the show, was nervous: She was in the bathroom line with my mother and said so. For the record, she noted that Cesar was not particularly nervous—he was focused on a hand-held hockey game all morning.)
So while I may have a few quibbles with the production—you can’t always decipher that Northern England accent, and, sorry, Elton John, the music isn’t that memorable—I was completely won over by the dancing. When Cesar/Billy whipped out the 16 pirouettes toward the end—and, yes, I’d been waiting—I jumped up like everyone else in my row for the standing ovation. (Finis Jhung has posted a great training video of his work with the Chicago Billys at his website.)
GO: Thru Oct 24. $28-$100. Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph. broadwayinchicago.com
WHAT CRITICS SAID ABOUT BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL
- The Chicago Tribune review by Chris Jones, 4/11/2010:
"Corrales (one of four Billys who share this role in Chicago) is a simply magnificent dancer, finding his way through Peter Darling’s choreography with an emotional surety and a technical discipline that comes easiest to those too young to be really scared. But this kid (whose heritage includes Cuba, Canada and Mexico) isn’t just a dancing prodigy. He has heart. [FOUR STARS OUT OF FOUR]"
- The Chicago Sun-Times review by Hedy Weiss, 4/12/2010:
"The Chicago production, in many ways far superior to the Broadway edition, could not be more ideally cast."
- The examiner.com’s review by Catey Sullivan, 4/12/2010:
"While Billy Elliot is the story of an 11-year-old, it never makes the hideous and common error of most shows centering on preteens. There are children at the center of this story, but they are not the sweet innocents of fairy tales or the precocious, perky, G-rated robotons of the Disney channel. Like real kids, they know cruelty. [FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE]"
Photographs: Joan Marcus; (billys) Amy Boyle Photography; (thumbnail) joan marcus