A ballet dream from the other side of the globe

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A ballet dream from the other side of the globe


The four Korean Billys, from left to right: Lee Ji-myeong, Jung Jin-ho, Im Sun-woo and Kim Se-yong Provided by the organizer

When I finally had the chance to see the musical “Billy Elliot” on the West End during my visit to London three years ago, I was impressed at how well the original movie translated to the stage. But I soon realized that it was only logical that it would, given its subject matter: It’s about a young boy living in an underprivileged coal-mining village in the north of England who struggles to become a ballet dancer despite social prejudice and strong opposition from the people around him. Music and dance are integral parts of the plot, making it just the thing for a musical treatment.

So it’s no wonder that Billy Elliot the musical, born of a collaboration between the original movie’s director Stephen Daldry, original writer Lee Hall, world-famous musician Elton John and choreographer Peter Darling, has become a mega-hit worldwide. It saw more than 2,000 performances on the West End after its premiere in March 2005, and ran for more than 500 shows on Broadway in New York, where it premiered in November 2008. More than 4 million people around the world have seen the show, which was nominated in 15 categories at the 2009 Tony Awards, taking 10 of the major awards including Best Musical.

Enchanted by the British boy who played Billy in the London production - only 10 years old! - I wondered when this enthralling show would come to Korea.

My wish has finally come true, as Korea is now expected to become the fourth country in the world to produce the musical, after Britain, Australia and the United States. Making the Korean version even more special, it will be the first non-English production, with a production cost of 13.5 billion won ($11.9 million).

The “Korean Billys” were revealed to the international press for the first time last week in Seoul.

It was the culmination of a lot of work for Moon Mi-ho, CEO of Magistella, the Korean production company. “The one-year process of ‘finding Billy’ in Korea was a deliberate project involving auditioning all eligible boys between 9 and 12 - whose voices have not broken yet, who had a stature of less than 150 centimeters [4 feet 11 inches], and who had the potential to become Billy Elliot with his singing and dancing abilities,” Moon told the press last Tuesday. Around 800 young Korean boys auditioned for the title role of the musical, she added. And now there are only four.

The process of selecting the first Asian Billys was carried out with the utmost care and integrity, the Korean production team said. It began with open auditions that took place in February last year in Seoul, followed by regional auditions in many cities across the country, including Daegu, Busan, Gwangju and Daejeon, plus several private auditions.

“Those who qualified in the first round of auditions embarked on special training, including ballet and tap dance lessons in addition to vocal training, from April to August. Then the second audition round was held both for new recruits and the existing trainees to select more promising candidates based on not only their existing skills, but also their potential, which can be judged by their ability to learn new skills and improve over the months,” said Yang Ji-hye, a public relations official at Magistella.

Two more rounds of auditions followed, with those who passed required to participate in full-scale training at the so-called “Billy School,” ranging from vocal and acting classes to various dance lessons including ballet, tap, acrobatics, hip-hop, contemporary dance, improvisational dance and even Pilates. The trainees were expected to work for about five hours every day, the production team said.

“And now we’ve got these four Billys, who will be better Billys than you might expect,” Yang said. “Interestingly, all four of them stood out at the first round of auditions.”

The four boys will take turns in the role when the Korean production of the musical opens in August at the LG Arts Center in southern Seoul.

One of the four, Kim Se-yong, 13, is the winner of the Youth America Grand Prix 2009 in ballet and is considered a potential leader in Korean ballet in the future.

Lee Ji-myeong, 13, may still be an amateur ballet dancer, but he is already quite an established young musical actor. He played Young Simba in the 2006 Korean production of “The Lion King” and the role of the Young Prince in the Korean musical “Last Empress” in 2007 and 2008.

Jung Jin-ho, 12, was a tap dance prodigy who reportedly surprised the production team with his amazing tap skills to “Singin’ in the Rain” at his first audition last year. In fact, Jung was already well known to Korean people thanks to his appearance dancing on the local television show “Star King,” which features ordinary people with extraordinary skills. Im Sun-woo, the youngest Billy at 11 years old, is also a promising danseur who swept local ballet competitions alongside Kim.

“Though two of the four Billys, Lee and Jung, received ballet lessons for the first time at the Billy School, they’ve shown an impressive achievement in a relatively short period of time and a strong will to become the best Billy ever,” Yang said.

The young Kim agreed, saying, “All of us will make our best effort to outshine other Billys in Britain, Australia and the U.S.”

Jung, the tap prodigy, took a step forward to introduce himself in English at the press conference, saying that he prepared his speech because he wanted to impress the international media and people all over the world who are excited about the “Korean Billy Elliot.”

*Reservations can be made by calling 1544-1555 or visiting http://ticket.interpark.com starting April 19. For more information, contact the LG Arts Center at (02) 2005-0114 or via www.lgart.com.

By Park Sun-young [spark0320@joongang.co.kr]
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