Dancer from the dance
Peter Darling on choreographing 'Billy Elliot'
by Richard Dodds
The man who made Billy Elliot dance, both on screen and on stage, took dance lessons as a kid in the same kind of tumbledown rec center that entices Billy to take his first step into the world of dance. But unlike the 11-year-old Billy, who must endure taunts from other kids and abuse from his father, choreographer Peter Darling didn't tough it out.
"I didn't want to have to prove myself every time I stepped into a dance studio," Darling said recently from his home in London in an interview for the touring production of Billy Elliot at the Orpheum. "At that point, there was still a lot of stigma attached to guys who danced, but I think it provided me with a determination that when I got the movie of Billy Elliot, I could show that boys dancing could be a visceral, athletic thing."
The movie Billy Elliot opened in 2000, and it was the first feature film for Darling, as it was for director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall. While the story of a sensitive, talented lad in the coal-mining territory of Northern England who breaks through societal boundaries to joyously realize his dream to be a dancer now sounds like a commercial sure thing, that wasn't the case.
"The movie was very hard to finance, and we managed to get it made for just under three million pounds," Darling said. But it proved popular at the Cannes Film Festival, and Elton John and his partner David Furnish happened to be in the audience. "David said to Elton this would make a great musical, and Elton agreed," Darling said. "Elton related to the story in a very strong way, and really pushed the musical forward."
Director Daldry, screenwriter Hall, and choreographer Darling all moved on to the stage musical project, with Hall also adding the lyrics to John's compositions. When casting the movie, Daldry and Darling saw hundreds of potential Billys, and came close to abandoning the project when a youngster with both dancing and acting talent proved elusive. They finally settled on Jamie Bell, though ballet was not a strong suit.
"Jamie was a fantastically rhythmic boy, but he would freely admit he would never have gotten into the Royal Ballet," Darling said. "I think it's always best to meet the performer where their skill is."
In film, there is also the luxury of editing, in which a dance scene can be assembled from several shots. "We did try to sustain the dance shots as long as possible," Darling said. But on stage, he notes, "You're in a permanent wide shot. And it's certainly a much harder task for the child. Part of the training they receive from us is to build up their stamina with aerobics just so they can complete the show."
When the musical Billy Elliot opened in London's West End in 2005, three young performers rotated in the role, a system maintained for the Broadway production that opened in 2008. In the touring company, five boys take turns playing Billy.
"On the road," Darling said, "it's harder to anticipate all the various stresses. Some of the boys had extreme altitude sickness when they played in Denver, and when your main star is 13 years old, you can't just insist that he take some tablets and get on with it."
The only other dancers in the movie version were the little girls learning ballet steps in the class that Billy eventually joins. But on stage, most of the performers participate in the ensemble numbers, and Darling had to find a way to have characters that include angry striking mineworkers dance in ways that seemed credible.
"Some are highly skilled dancers, some are phenomenal tap dancers, some are just good movers, and others are pure actors, so it's the combination that helps the audience to identify with the people on the stage," Darling said.
Daldry first noticed Darling's work after seeing a revival of the quirky musical revue Oh, What a Lovely War! at the National Theatre. "They weren't dancer dancers, that's for sure," Darling said of his Lovely War cast, "and I think what Stephen responded to was the fact that I really push the narrative so the dancers tell the story."
Darling had been working as an actor for about a decade when he joined Lloyd Newson's DV8 Physical Theatre that rattles the cage of traditional dance. "He doesn't give you just a bunch of steps," he said of Newson. "You are much more likely creating something interesting by incorporating the whole room rather than simply educating them."
When Darling returned to London, he was ready to give up his career as an actor after his DV8 enlightenment. "The National Theatre was doing Oh, What a Lovely War!, and I thought what have I got to lose if I put myself out there to be the choreographer. I got the job."
While keeping up with the four Billy Elliot productions playing around the globe, Darling is most fixated on the upcoming West End musical Matilda. Based on a Roald Dahl story about a schoolgirl with horrid parents and an even more horrid head teacher, the title character begins to turn the tables as she discovers her telekinetic powers. It had a wildly successful run last winter at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Stratford home, and the highly anticipated London run begins in October. And then it's on to musical versions of Bridget Jones' Diary and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory .
Darling has a taste for the unconventional in his choreographic work. "I do think I have a particular point of view of things," Darling said, "and I don't want to follow anyone else's template." The success of Billy Elliot has brought more offers his way, but also the luxury to say no.
"I sometimes feel embarrassed knowing how hard people have struggled to become a choreographer, but for me a lot of doors opened very quickly," Darling said. "I feel blessed, and I will never take any of it for granted."
Billy Elliot will run through Sept. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre. Tickets are $35-$200. Call (888) SHN-1799 or go to www.shnsf.com.