‘Our’ Billy in the dances of his life

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Canberra boy Jamie Rogers in the title role of “Billy Elliot”… “When you are really passionate about something, when you show your love for that thing and you work really hard you can make your dreams come true.” Photo: James D Morgan

WHEN the audience rose for a standing ovation at opening night of “Billy Elliot the Musical”, all eyes were on ginger-haired Jamie Rogers, a 12-year-old boy who originally studied dance in Pialligo.

There was a fair bit of Canberra talent on the ground, with Damien Bermingham playing Big Davy, ANU jazz graduate Michael Azzopardi as the musical director and Ed Wightman as assistant resident director.

But it was Jamie, chosen for opening night from the rotating four young Billy Elliots, who stunned the crowd with his acting talent and his mastery of dance styles from hip-hop to classical ballet.

That dance eclecticism is the hallmark of English choreographer Peter Darling, who designed the dance for the famous 2000 film “Billy Elliot” directed by Stephen Daldry who, with writer Lee Hall and Darling, all had a hand in the musical, aided and abetted by the man who had the bright idea of turning the movie into a musical – Elton John.

The story is set in County Durham, north-east England during the 1984-85 coal miners’ strike. The musical introduces us to young Billy, uninterested in boxing, who gatecrashes a dance class and finds that he alone in that class has a true calling as a dancer.

In an inspired choice, Kelley Abbey, Australia’s most exacting showbiz choreographer, plays Mrs Wilkinson, the local dance teacher who helps Billy on his way, supported by a cast of Australian luminaries, including Aaron Smyth, who plays an imagined adult Billy, now a consummate dancer.

It’s a non-stop show, full of John’s entertaining music, Hall’s witty dialogue and dozens of Maggie Thatcher effigies and masks.

Surely everyone knows that “Billy Elliot the Musical” has a happy ending and it’s looking like a happy ending for Jamie Rogers, too, although with the full support of his Canberra family, his road to success is vastly different from that of Billy Elliot, a fish out of water who struggles with reverse snobbery and resentment.

Born in Canberra, Jamie tells “CityNews” he grew up in the southern suburbs and went to Farrer Primary School until the end of 2018, when he got the role of Billy.

A natural, he started dancing at age seven with Jayz Dance Company in Pialligo, which teaches ballet, contemporary, jazz and tap.

“I love all styles of dancing and especially ballet,” he says – just like Billy Elliot.

“Before I started at Jayz I used to watch my sister Sarah dancing… I used to like putting on her tap shoes and dancing around the kitchen. That was when my mum took me to Jayz to start dancing properly.”

“I was nine years old when I started singing lessons with my sister Sarah at Wild Voices Music Theatre. 

“My singing teacher [Dianna Nixon] showed me a video clip of Donald O’Connor performing ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ from ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and that made me fall in love with musicals.

“A bit like Billy Elliot, I attended an audition for a ballet school.” 

For three years running he travelled to Melbourne as part of the Australian Ballet School’s high-aptitude Intra/Interstate and International Training Programme, a week-long intensive ballet course for boys.

Two years ago he acted on a pilot TV show, “Team Rescue”, and when his dance teacher encouraged him to audition for the role of Billy, he did it just for experience.

“I kept getting call-backs though, and eventually I got a phone call telling me I had got the role of Billy Elliot – I couldn’t believe it.”

He and his alternating Billys from Brisbane, Melbourne and Newcastle, have been enrolled at McDonald College, the performing arts college in Newtown.

“We have our own teacher, Miss Coombes, who teaches us either at the school or in the theatre or rehearsal venues,” he says.

“She will tour with us as we travel with the show.” 

As well, he says, there is a team of chaperones to look after all the children in the musical.

It’s a highly-focused life, but Jamie still finds time for manipulating Rubik’s cubes, learning magic tricks and swimming, and watching YouTubers doing gymnastics, jokes, funny facts and dancing.

But once in the rehearsal room, it’s plain hard work. He usually gets paired up with another Billy and rehearses in that pair but at other times they’re all working at the same time, although occasionally the choreographers work with them individually.

In the mornings he often meets up with the other Billys and Michaels (Billy’s cross-dressing best friend) in the pool or spa to relax and on most weekends his brother and sister visit from Canberra, to which he will return for school once his big tour to Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and Brisbane is over.

“The most interesting thing about Billy Elliot is how tough his life is until he finds ballet and then it changes his whole life,” he says.

“We learn that when you are really passionate about something, when you show your love for that thing and you work really hard you can make your dreams come true.

“When I am older I do want to continue performing… I love it so much, especially when people laugh and cry and are really moved by the show.”

“Billy Elliot the Musical”, Lyric Theatre at The Star, Darling Harbour, until December 15, when it transfers to Adelaide Festival Theatre from December 29 before heading to Melbourne’s Regent Theatre in February. Book at ticketmaster.com.au

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Helen Musa
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