Inside BILLY ELLIOT: Choreography and Casting with Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst Inside BILLY ELLIOT: Choreography and Casting with Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst
Pictured: Ben Renfrow as Billy Elliot in the “Angry Dance” number. Photo courtesy of Spinning Tree Theatre. By Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst On September 30, 2008,... Inside BILLY ELLIOT: Choreography and Casting with Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst

Pictured: Ben Renfrow as Billy Elliot in the “Angry Dance” number. Photo courtesy of Spinning Tree Theatre.

Our “Inside” series takes you behind the scenes of productions through blog posts written by the artists in the trenches. To read past “Inside” pieces, click here.

By Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst

On September 30, 2008, Michael (Grayman-Parkhurst) and I saw the final, invited dress rehearsal of the Broadway production of Billy Elliot. (Invited dress rehearsals—when a director gives the go-ahead—have an audience comprised entirely of artists working on Broadway shows.) We were mesmerized. The production seemed to me a “perfect” artistic collaboration between director and choreographer…and I really attempt to avoid the word “perfect” when describing art.

We programmed Billy Elliot in December 2017 to conclude our 2018-19 season. The decision was, like most of our programming choices, highly instinctual. We were looking for a musical with dance, but also with a particular message of acceptance. We had no doubt we’d find the talent. And we always saw Billy as a small story—a play, really, with drama, comedy, music and dance.

The first step in attempting to succeed choreographically was the casting. Ben Renfrow solved our Billy casting problem by appearing at our initial audition in June 2018. It’s one of the most challenging roles we’ve cast, alongside Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (Gary Neal Johnson) and Violet in Violet (Lauren Braton). Ben’s audition allowed us to check all three boxes: strong acting, singing, and dancing. Ben, an enthusiastic tap dancer, collaborated with me on Billy’s “Angry Dance” at the end of Act One providing his last four measures of tap steps.

We held off on casting the Ballet Girls until the beginning of 2019, wanting to ensure a variety of sizes and types. These roles are also tricky in that their presence and chutzpah must outweigh actual dance technique. If they were technically overqualified for their roles, the audience wouldn’t understand Mrs. Wilkinson’s frustration and then sudden interest upon seeing Billy. Throughout rehearsal, the Ballet Girls were asked to dance as well as they could so that the audience can feel their effort. Billy, on the other hand, discovers (with Mrs. Wilkinson) a rare natural ability. Talent, it becomes, is not the point. Rather it’s the effort and training put in that pave Billy’s way forward.

Full Company during “Solidarity” number. Photo courtesy of Spinning Tree Theatre

Choreographing a musical that was originally gigantic on an intimate ¾ thrust stage with a smaller cast was actually freeing, not limiting. Our adult ensemble was always game, and some learned some port de bras (carriage of the arms) along the way! The greatest challenge was the musical number/scene “Solidarity,” which covers something like 28 pages of the piano/conductor score as well as passage of time both inside the dance classroom and outside during the miners’ strike. In addition to telling the story with Michael as director, I was concerned with creating interesting stage pictures and shapes which constantly shift and move. Miners and police exist both independently and in tandem with each other and our Ballet Girls.

I’m happy that we took the leap of faith in producing Billy Elliot, and equally grateful for the cast we assembled to bring this small but spectacular story to life.

Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst (Billy Elliot Choreographer, Spinning Tree Co-Founder and Managing Director) Andrew and Michael Grayman-Parkhurst received permission from the Jerome Robbins Foundation to reproduce the original West Side Story choreography for Spinning Tree’s 2015 production: the first all-local professional production of this show. In New York City, Andrew’s choreography was seen at Columbia University (Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party in an AEA graduate thesis production directed by Saheem Ali and supervised by the writer); New York Musical Theatre Festival (Wood, directed by Thomas Caruso); 59E59 Theater; and Penguin Rep. Andrew was assistant choreographer to Tony Award-winning choreographer Rob Ashford on the Broadway production of Curtains. He was Dance Captain/Swing on the Broadway tour of Mamma Mia! for more than 2,000 performances, maintaining the production under the supervision of the original creative team. He had the honor of being directed by Roman Polanski in the original Vienna production of Tanz der Vampire as Dance Soloist, was chosen and directed by Alvin Ailey at age 16 to dance Memoria and performed on the 2009 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall. A veteran of the national tour of the musical Chicago, Andrew also played Milan, Berlin, Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt on the 40th Anniversary European Tour of West Side Story.

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