To Russian readers/Русскоязычному читателю: Публикуемый текст нетипичен для моего журнала - хотя бы потому, что написан на английском языке. Это эссе написано на основе моего текста "Юные таланты и взрослые поклонники, или о природе театральных эмоций", но ориентировано на специфическую целевую аудиторию. Оно, собственно, и написано после многочисленных и настойчивых просьб со стороны членов официального Форума Billy Elliot the Musical - The Complete Forum. Я отказывался, полагая, что не способен с моим заточенным разве что на написание технических статей английским выдать адекватный моим амбициям текст. Но меня сломили угрозами пропустить исходный русский текст через он-лайновый переводчик и в таком виде читать (можно ли представить более страшную угрозу?!). К тому же, во время новогоднего пребывания в Москве я вынужден был провести неделю, не выходя из дома из-за простуды, что дало мне возможность сосредоточиться на этой работе. Текст сильно отличается от исходного прототипа - в частности, убран весь "литдыбр", а сам он стал более сфокусирован и нашпигован явными и неявными цитатами из звучащих в мюзикле песен (Billy Elliot The Musical Lyrics), и к тому же я решил специально педалировать его русское происхождение. В итоге получился текст, совершенно нетипичный для меня и стилистически, и эмоционально. [the text was radically updated on 3 Feb 2008, on 8 March, on 17 June and 27 Oct 2009.]
Well, this might be true, but I believe this explanation is too trivial: perhaps we Russians tend to overcomplicate simple things and always look for a bit of extra drama. As to tears, I would say in the theatrical context they as such are usually not a big deal. Had it been so easy to evoke emotions from the public by shedding tears, then the entire cast of every show would have just cried all the time and the whole West End would have been flooded a long time ago. But perhaps, those tears were a manifestation of something much more significant – at least I would like to think so.
Normally I am not emotional person at all, I do not consider myself as an avid fan of populist musical theatre - I always preferred arthouse (if not 'fringe') productions. Three weeks before that night I knew very little about the show and had never heard about Oliver Taylor. Then I saw three shows with him in a row, including that Last Night on 1 December. Now I am surprised at myself. For a start, I must admit that I actually share those emotional sentiments - just because I was there myself and saw the whole thing with my own eyes. When I am amazed I always try to find why. So here are my reflections made, if you will, keeping in mind the following famous (or, rather, infamous in our Russian-speaking world) words:
I disassembled music like a corpse
Put harmony to algebraic test…
(“Mozart and Salieri”, from “Small tragedies” by Alexander Pushkin).
Let us consider everything from two perspectives, that of an average member of the audience (it's me) and that of Oliver himself (I hope he will forgive me, a stranger, for my numerous presumptions, such as “Oliver was thinking this, Oliver was feeling that” - probably, he is more a character in this essay rather than the real Oliver). Although, yet another perspective will be apparent here - I refuse to consider this show in isolation from a broader cultural context. I can call myself a literature man. So in addition to Lee Hall's lyrics, great Russian literature that is so famous for its organic blending the intellect's cold observations with the heart reflections, writ in tears (as our national genius Pushkin put it) will also help us with some further allusions - although, perhaps, it will also lead this text even further away from the reality. But what is "the reality"?!... Anyway, we were authoritatively told by Mrs Wilkinson: "forget about content, focus on style." And a proper style, I feel, should be quite subjective and, in a sense, overtly rhapsodic.
Rhapsody: [Literature] a work written in an impassioned or exalted style; [Music] a composition of irregular form that often incorporates improvisation. Episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasted moods, colour and tonality).
(From the Dictionary)
Part 1. Who are you, Mr. Taylor?
... Never before has a stage musical relied so heavily on the abilities of a child as its principal character, on-stage for a full three hours, with choreography and acrobatics that would tax the most skilled of adult performers. West End Billys have had to master extremely difficult choreography - not just ballet, but tap, jazz and street dance, back-flips, front-flips, cartwheels, plus acting and singing. They have had to develop the stamina to carry a 3-hour musical, with two performances a week... probably the most difficult role ever created for a child.
Since the auditions began for Billy Elliot in the autumn of 2003, over 5,000 children have been seen. This represents at least eight large auditions every year (100+) and numerous private visits to dance schools and youth clubs. I was invited to the auditions held in September 2006 at Exeter. The casting team – which consisted of Children's Casting Director Jessica Ronane, Associate Choreographer Lynne Page, her dancing assistant Matt Cross, Associate Director Julian Webber, Children’s Musical Director Ron Crocker and Jessica’s assistant Clemency Carlisle - had never before been to the South West of England in their three years of casting the production.
Dance teachers throughout the region had been asked to suggest to their talented boys that they apply for audition. Ninety-four boys had sent in their photos and details and had been sent directions to Maynards School, a private girls’ school with a large gymnasium where the auditions were held. The boys were scheduled into seven sessions, with the first session at 10.00 am and the last beginning at 5.00 pm. It was a very long day, the casting panel sitting through the same process seven times watching boys of widely varying ability. By 4.00 in the afternoon already sixty boys divided into five groups been put through their paces. The panel were becoming despondent – while a few boys had been interesting, so far no one had sparkled.
Then in the four o’clock group, two boys shone... It was the second boy, though, who made the hair stand up on the back of our necks – when he danced and moved through space, one’s eyes were drawn to him; he was extremely watch-able. Confirming what we were seeing, his notes in the panel’s typed list said “RBS wanted him but said no!”. This quietly confident twelve year old had already turned down a place at the Royal Ballet School. The two boys were asked to return the next day, a Sunday, to be looked at more closely by the casting panel.
The next morning, the boys were given solo workshops... At the end of the four-hour session, the boys went home and the panel returned to London. One boy was invited with his parents to London to see the show, and has since been taken into intensive training, with late spring 2007 pencilled in for entry into the show.
(From "Doing Hamlet While Running the New York Marathon: Finding and Training the Billy Elliots" by Adele Bailey (director of the National Council for Drama Training), occasional research paper 17 for the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY), December 2006)
Notice that dramatic change of tone to the very expressive "the second boy ... made the hair stand up on the back of our necks" - reflecting, obviously, the unexpected emotions of the panel? With such an innate ability to immediately evoke strong feelings even from unsentimental professionals that unnamed "one boy" did arrive with a bang! Perhaps, it's time for him to introduce himself:
Hi my name is Oliver. I was born on the 10th March 1994 in Paignton, Devon. I live with my parents Kathryn and David and my older sister Emily. I started ballet when I was three years old and I am now a mid associate of the Royal Ballet. Since I started I have done many competitions and have won medals and trophies for my age range. I also competed in the RAD Fonteyn Nureyev Young Dancers Competition for Great Britain and the Channel Islands and came first in my age group. Along with my competitions I have performed in a few theatre productions near where I live. I played the part of the Boy in the Snowman, the Nutcracker in the Nutcracker, and Franz in Coppelia. I have also taken part in a children's BBC programme and have been on Ready Steady Cook. I would like to dedicate my first performance to my family and my teachers - Pollyanna, Kim, Miss Jacquie and Miss Pam (who got me into ballet in the first place). They have never given up on me!
(From the Theatre Programme "Billy Elliot The Musical" published to mark Oliver's First Night on 18 June 2007)
The rest is history: 50 performances in the title role at BETM during five and half months followed... So, what happened at the end? The short answer: it was a Big Bang! The devil, however, is in the details...
monk Pimen (writing under a lamp):
One record more remains, the last of all,
And then this chronicle of mine is finished,
The duty is fulfilled which God has laid
On me, a sinner...
(From "Boris Godunov" by Alexander Pushkin)
Part 2. What actually happened on that Last Night?
The theatre's full, the boxes glitter;
The restless gallery claps and roars;
The stalls and pit are all ajitter;
The curtain rustles as it soars...
(From "Eugene Onegin" by Alexander Pushkin)
Stephen Daldry had given a warm and emotional introductory speech - and the lights dimmed… While the show itself went very well, actually each scene (performed for the last time - therefore with extra zeal, and accompanied by extra applauses) required a higher than usual state of emotion. The last big solo number - "Electricity" - was performed extremely well in all its aspects and resulted in a huge ovation. It was a real triumph! In that electrified atmosphere the last line “I’m free”, delivered with panache, sounded as if it had an additional subtext: “I did the job and now I’m free from all that subconscious tension”. Inevitably – as just a matter of psychophysiology - after that his nervous system reacted by relaxing: all the main things seemed to be over. It just remained to do the rest of the scenes that – being of course emotional by their “farewell” nature - did not include risky stunts and therefore should go smoothly.
When the 'farewell scenes' did start, all of a sudden Oliver found that there were not just characters on the stage; all the performers were also there in their own right. They did have their own strong feelings and were saying their own farewells to him – not just to Billy going to the Royal Ballet School but to him, Oliver, going to… where? Back to his home? Ballet girls – the real Ballet girls - wanted an autograph: whose? – just Billy’s? Or Oliver’s too? Debbie gave Billy a hug. Or that was Leigh hugging him - Olly? Finally, not just Mrs. Wilkinson, but Jackie Clune herself, became uncharacteristically emotional and started crying. “You are so fxxxing special” – who said that? And to whom? No wonder Oliver seemed to get confused, his already mixed emotions were being stirred. Perhaps, he would have successfully handled either Billy or himself, but he found that he couldn’t control both simultaneously; he just ran out of the required nervous resources – they had completely been exhausted by the time. He was desperately trying his best to get calm, taking pauses and almost whispering his lines…
There was no chance for him to regain composure backstage, as he had to remain at the proscenium. Perhaps, he could have done so during “Once we were kings”, but the farewell to the miners/ensemble with their dignified and sad song did not help him to calm down either - indeed, it's a feeling that you can't control. By the start of the “Letter Reprise”, he looked really inconsolable and after forlornly delivering the first couple of lines, he could hardly utter a word, let alone sing. It must have been embarrassing for him: what if the audience was thinking that the actor had failed to perform the climactic final scene? And what about his “professionalism” that had always been a subject of amazement for so many adults? Note that his partner, Sara Poyzer, being herself in tears, nevertheless delivered her vocal lines very well – in fact, even better than usual. That’s the adult professional - while he’s just a kid, he's only just a bairn who forgot the first commandment: "at least pretend you're doing fine... and smile, smile, smile". If only he could dance during those farewell scenes! One could only imagine what a dance sensation he would have produced expressing himself at the peak of that emotional state. However, no dances were left for him to do, and that most natural way for him to channel his emotions could not be used; he had to sing and deliver his lines in a straightforward way through that fragile vocal apparatus so open for disruption by gasps and tears – and then those tears did appear. What a shame!
That was really strange: even as the performer looked like he had lost control over himself, his control over the character (and, for that matter, over the audience) seemed to become stronger (he really just grabbed the audience by the throat as Arthur Miller used to say). Indeed, the battle's lost but not the war. Perhaps the key to that mystery was that having broken that very commandment from Mrs. Wilkinson –"at least pretend you're doing fine"... - he remained faithful to another, more important, one from Dead Mum - "In everything you do always be yourself". The result of that twisted logic of a genuine art was that the supposed “failure” only added something really special to the scene because somehow it remained within the context of the story - moreover, perhaps the story itself even gained an additional dimension. Lost some lyrics? Yes - but the scene's meaning and spirit were not lost at all. By this time everybody in the house already knew perfectly well what kind of character Oliver's Billy was as well as that Oliver could sing like an angel (and dance like a devil) – no new demonstrations were needed; but he produced such vivid and real feelings from the depth of his heart that the audience just knew: they were witnessing a very rare and exquisite event that would be difficult to top, and they were soaking up every nuance of it.
The final scene with Michael/Ryan provided another significant Oliver twist. Addressing each other by their real names ("See ya Ryan" - "Yer see ya Olly"), the young actors - while visibly upset - nevertheless showed very graphically that they were handling an unusual situation in an ingenuous, ingenious, and organic way: maybe they were even able to feel that the show had already gone slightly astray, the public had too much of heavy emotions and needed alleviating. So what Oliver, instantly supported by Ryan, did (consciously or intuitively or even instinctively – who knows -- they might know, though) was to smash definitively the already half-broken wall between show’s fictional space and reality. It was actually promised earlier by the astute Mrs. Wilkinson: the whole process will coalesce - and indeed, a kind of mixed, augmented reality, embracing all the characters, performers and spectators, came into existence. In particular, the audience finally came to themselves, relieved all their repressed feelings in one powerful exhalation, and joined in the action, breathing out a collective ‘Ahhhh’, coupled with tears and smiles. After that united display of compassion and relaxation, everybody – on the stage and in the hall - was ready for the bravura Finale that became a celebration after all those fictional and real trials and tribulations. In the end, it looked like all the people in the house could declare “we are free” and were embracing each other – really or figuratively – because they felt uplifted and could stand as one all out together. Not an ordinary thing!
Here Woland turned to the master and said: 'Well, now you can finish your novel with one phrase!'
The master seemed to have been expecting this... He cupped his hands to his mouth and cried out so that the echo leaped over the unpeopled and unforested mountains:
'You're free! You're free! He's waiting for you!'...
The mountains turned the master's voice to thunder, and by this same thunder they were destroyed. The accursed rocky walls collapsed.
... Someone was setting the master free, as he himself had just set free the hero he had created. This hero had gone into the abyss, gone irrevocably...
(From the final chapter of "The Master and Margarita" by Michail Bulgakov).
Part 3. The Billy - deep into the ground.
On the other hand, young performers themselves identify with the character of Billy: first, just because of their young age (child actors almost always tend to play themselves – at least to a certain extent); secondly, (it is not news) because the young stars are in a sense "real Billy Elliots" and they do feel real within the show's context. Compared to Billy, the character, they may have had happier or more well-to-do families and easier opportunities to develop their talents; however, getting this unique role is not that easy for them (many years of learning dance, all that giggling about "boys in tutus", numerous competitive auditions, long and hard training, etc.). Moreover, they are actually able to convey their feelings to the public very effectively - just because they are charismatic real talents born to boogie, not those manufactured "celebrity" mediocrities who populate so many shows nowadays. Consequently, the spectator’s sympathy with the character of Billy is intensified by sympathy with the young performer who powerfully manifests not only the character’s - but also his own – real feelings that, like electricity, spark inside of him. By the way, this effect is in principle not possible with adult actors: even if an adult performer is deep into the role, we normally do not care about his/her own feelings and circumstances. Finally, as Stephen Daldry put it: "There is something unbelievably thrilling about watching a little kid at the limit of his ability achieving something extraordinary. The audience can feel it. It is a kinetic experience".
All these means that even during a regular show there are multiple emotions of different kinds flying around for the spectators to catch (that’s actually a secret of the show’s popular appeal). The 1st December show provided much more in that respect, both because it was a Last Night with its farewell specifics and because of some additional nuances of Oliver’s interpretation of the role.
Of course, in technical terms Oliver was "a complete package". In addition to his obvious balletic skills (recognised at the prestigious national competitions), he possessed a soft tuneful voice (light and clear treble rather than the alto more common among Billys - so he had no trouble reaching high notes in "Deep Into the Ground" - that in-house test for vocal competence) and surprisingly versatile acting capabilities which allowed him to cover a broad spectrum of emotions. But this should go without much saying - actually all Billys have been able to develop enviable versatile skills as well as their individual fortes (no surprise here given their natural talents and the comprehensive training they receive). It is more interesting, however, to look at the specifics of his interpretation that definitely weren’t common and stimulated rather heated and uncharacteristic debate among fans.
BETM has been unique in tuning the production to each lead performer’s individual talents and skills (as Stephen Daldry memorably put it in his interview given during rehearsals with three original Billys: "it's been a logistic nightmare - I am in effect directing three different shows simultaneously"). While the story remains the same, some important nuances have been quite different depending on a particular Billy - and not only those concerned with choreography of the big showy number "Electricity" (although, it has always been the most obvious manifestation of the performer's individuality) but also those defining the subtleties of Billy's own behaviour as well as of interactions and relationships with other characters.
Perhaps, in terms of the role interpretation, Oliver's Billy was the most different of them all, and it was immediately obvious to observant eyes of the musical's devoted fans who saw each one of the Billys, usually more than once (just a few citations from reviews written after his first shows: "Oliver is quite different from the other Billys", "This is certainly a very individual take on the part", "He certainly has a unique style", "I haven't seen any portrayal of Billy like this before", "Oliver is an amazing Billy, and so refreshingly different than the other Billys", "You certainly have to get used to Oliver's Billy as it is light years away in interpretation from..."). Even more interesting is the fact that not all the observers agreed whether that very distinctive interpretation was a good thing.
In my perception, Oliver decisively shifted the story's perspective: it became focused more on a psychological (or even metaphysical) rather than a social-political discontent with society and self, and that could be felt from the very beginning. I remember my first show: when Olly's Billy appeared on the stage (standing among those burly men he looked like an alien ethereal creature) and started singing, "Take me up and hold me gently, Raise me up and hold me high". It sounded as a desperate plea - not to his father or to the mining community - but to Him, who is above. I as a spectator has had an immediate hope that the plea sung with an angelic voice of a choirboy would soar to the heights and reach His ear there because it was clear that this vulnerable boy was not able to adapt to that harsh real world with all those personal and political storms blowing a sense of a meaningful life out of him.
Sensitive and lonely, this Billy had no illusions: he didn't expect from all the adults any good, but real and figurative blows, and this was reflected in his tense body language. However, he was not prepared to surrender without fight - the potential for rebellion was obvious from his first scenes (remember, for instance, his exchange with George in the boxing scene - especially his intonations that were so utterly bitter), and his naturally understated behaviour from time to time transformed into emotional bursts. In his interactions he easily became nervous and pointedly aggressive (and his trademark "clipped" delivery of lines, being slightly annoying to some spectators, served well to show that). His facial expressions frequently reflected his disgust with all those who consistently let him down, and of course his "Angry Dance" was not just "angry" but desperate to the extreme.
So, unlike some other Billys, showy and charming, he was not that white and fluffy kitten whom the audience were bound to love from the first sight. To survive, he had to bristle up like a hedgehog, and it was enough to look at his deep burning eyes in the finely wrought pale face (expressively framed by contrasting slightly curled dark hair - was Oliver the first Billy who was allowed not to lighten his hair? It worked meaningfully!) to feel - beware! he could bite you with his aggression. Even his closest friend, Michael, could occasionally be at the receiving end (remember those uncompromising intonations of "just because I like ballet doesn't mean I'm a poof"?). Accordingly, for the spectators, who were unexpectedly dragged out of their comfort zone, that love from the first bite wasn't necessarily there - indeed, some reviewers noted that it was "difficult to warm up to him" as he didn't present himself as a very likeable and sweet lad. Thank God, there would be many more opportunities for spectators to have a proper look at (and insight into) that troubled kid as the story was progressing!
Even the best temptations of that real world reflected in Debbie’s and Michael's antics were not for that internally tormented boy - he did his best to enthusiastically express himself trying to look on the bright side of life (no doubt, even Queen Victoria, had she had a chance to materialise in "her" Victoria Palace Theatre during that surrealistic cross-dressing scene, would have certainly change her famous line and just uttered "We are amused") but to no avail. So he needed an escapist world that was more suitable to his - as disturbed as romantic - inner self. That world in the unexpected form of dance was granted to him out of the blue - indeed, from above. Not only was he able to live himself fully through dancing, but he also found a much needed motherly figure who really cared for him, and in addition his dead mum was occasionally there with him too! The first time we saw him confident and even uncharacteristically beaming was at the end of "Solidarity" - when he did awake to the fact that this new world was now in his hands. And so did the audience, who at that moment could suddenly acknowledge with their wide open mouths what a talent that little hedgehog possessed.
However, this happy development was only the first, and superficial, layer of his story. Alas, this particular Billy was woven of contradictions, and his internal problems remained with him notwithstanding his successes in dance. It was as if the time was out of joint for him, who was so hurt by his tragic losses and, perhaps, by the general gloominess of life (of which he was so acutely aware well beyond his age) that he in principle was not able to recover and to build intimate relationships even with the closest people. He seemed to always think (to himself!) too much - instead of engaging into any properly careless activity, and that decidedly non-childish thoughtfulness was palpable. He was able to fly high in his discovered imaginary world (which was literally epitomised by "Swan Lake" scene) - but he could not fly away from himself. We Russians can easily recognize that familiar confused romantic silhouette set against the antagonistic realistic background: such quintessential young Russian men are known in our classic literature of 19 century as "superfluous people". Eugene Onegin is probably the most known of them; although the young man called Grigoriy Pechorin, the protagonist of Mikhail Lermontov's "a Hero of Our Time" (perhaps the most perfect prose ever written in Russian), has been closer to hearts of many generations of Russian troubled adolescent boys... Being self-conscious, suffering from their own inner demons and hardly compatible with society, these Byronic romantic (anti)heroes might possess great talents in different fields but were just not able to recover poise and live a happy life. Exile, duel and self-inflicted death were their archetypal fate. Thank goodness even Thatcherite North England of 1980s was not like the tsarist Russia of century and half earlier...
We still, alas, cannot forestall it -
This dreadful ailment's heavy tall;
The spleen is what the English call it,
We call it simply Russian soul.
'Twas this our hero had contracted;
And though, thank God, he never acted
To put a bullet through his head,
His former love of life was dead.
(From "Eugene Onegin" by Alexander Pushkin)
The "Letter Reprise" scene had always been the most emotional scene in the context of this Billy’s psychologically intricate development, and de-facto became the highlight of Oliver's shows. Just remember this dialogue: Billy: “Bye mum, see you soon?” Dead Mum: “No, I don't think so, do you?” which says it all - and it came after all the other exhausting farewells, including the one to Mrs Wilkinson. That was an indication that there was no imaginary world granted to him anymore, and he must now live in a different (the Royal Ballet School) but real world – attractive, but probably just as unfriendly. For this particular Billy that did not seem an easy prospect for happy life because he was just stripped of all his established relationships, and was internally too guarded to become close to anyone else. Not surprising, then, that despite the bravura end (his "Finale" was as celebratory as anyone's), some spectators continued to worry for him - emotionally there was no happy ending, and for this intrinsically uplifting show, that was a radical departure from the typical prevailing feelings of admiration of the great winning talent successfully overcoming all the harsh external circumstances.
So it was only natural that the intensity of those complex feelings, multiplied by the farewell context of the Last Night, reached such a culmination in the "Letter Reprise" scene, which on that occasion was tested to the limits. No wonder it was so utterly heart-wrenching for everybody in the house (and I, for one, sitting there was remembering that definitive Dostoevsky's sentiment "The whole world is not worth a single tear of a child"). Now it seems this scene will be associated with Oliver's name and his Last Night for a very long time, if not forever.
Is it a bit artificial on my part to put such an unnecessary convoluted, and too heavily loaded, interpretation of what in fact had always been quite a simple and straightforward positive story on the rather fragile shoulders of a young dancing boy (be he a character or a performer)? Maybe. At the end of the day, any personal reading is to a significant extent the fantasy of a spectator who was looking at the show as if it was a mirror and saw there something resembling the circumstances of his own life, thoughts, dreams and phobias. However, I was definitely not alone in that. Quite a few people, describing their impressions from Oliver's portrayal, did paint a similar picture using even stronger colours. Moreover, they had been arguing with each other which was not typical for BETM fans at all! The result: quite a few highly personal, affectionate (indeed, rhapsodic) reviews that were exceptional in terms of quality and emotional involvement. Many, many more spectators (a certain Barbra Streisand was among them once) left no written accounts but were, I believe, equally uplifted and disturbed.
Concentrating so far mainly on a "real" side of Oliver's Billy life, I have probably presented a rather unbalanced view of that ambivalent portrayal. But we'd go dancing - there were at least three big numbers ("Born to Boogie", "Swan Lake" and "Electricity") in the show that gave us, as spectators, a proper feeling of immersion in another "imaginary" world that presented a huge contrast (key word for this interpretation!) to that gloomy reality and where this Billy could be free for an hour or three. The paradoxical trademark blend of vulnerability and aggression was still discernible - just becoming more obscured; but in his dancing hypostasis, another side of that vibrant rendering was thrust into the spotlight to show 'em what class is all about. It could be called the very stage charisma (It's in the DNA) mainly expressed through the divine medium of dance. Being inseparable from Oliver's delicate romantic looks and a stylish, if not noble, balletic grace, it had a really palpable influence on many spectators - namely those who especially appreciate the pure beauty of powerful and inspiring (although as ephemeral as its carrier) dance (indeed, "the way God made pa"). That beauty appealed to those aesthetically sensitive souls on a very personal level and was very effective in getting under their skin.
One can argue about the extent to which beauty is in the eye of the beholder because of the nature of that particular eye, but it alone was so sharply manifested in Oliver's pas seuls, and associated by many spectators with a kind of radiated light (one can find a lot of descriptions like "Olly was glowing/lighting up/beaming" in reviews) that it allowed those people to be transported for short but precious moments and literally moved them to tears (another typical line from the reviews: "His Electricity was so beautiful that I cried"). It was as if these spectators were looking through a magic crystal (as Pushkin called it) and were able to see themselves - but young, innocent, with fresh feelings ("Oh once I was a young man / Looked over vales and hills / Saw myself a future of riches and of thrills"). I believe there were quite a few such people in the theatre that Last Night (unexpectedly, as it turned out, yours truly actually was one of them) whose feelings were exhaustively articulated (once again!) by Pushkin's genius (who seems to become omnipresent here):
I was assured my heart had rested
Its urge to suffer long before;
What used to be, I had protested,
Shall be no more! Shall be no more!
Deceitful dreams forever hidden,
Forsaken raptures, sorrows banned...
Yet here afresh they stir me, bidden
By Beauty's sovereign command.
So the highly positive, if not uplifting, emotions (so straightforwardly appearing in shows of some other Billys) did at the end find their way out of the multifaceted fabric of Oliver's challenging representation. This seems to be the right note to finish the description of this non-trivial Billy. Of course, an interesting question remains: why and how was this non-canonical, if not risky, bespoke interpretation taylored? Was it consciously and meticulously constructed by a director who saw an opportunity to investigate new territory within an already established story? Or did it come to life inadvertently because of the personality of Oliver, who just followed his intuition and instincts? Probably only Oliver himself can answer these questions. Or even he cannot?!
*Yes, he can! (added in Oct 2009). Let me cite his fresh interview given exactly on the day two years after his First Night:
“I’m not very stroppy. I was never, am never angry. I might get annoyed sometimes, but never openly shouting at people. I’ve never shouted at anyone…I don’t get very frustrated. The problem with me is that I don’t get frustrated enough. I’m very laid back”.
This self-depiction is confirmed by all other available accounts: everybody (including me) who met him testifies on the record: he is a polite and unassuming young man. So one concludes that he did play Billy the character against his own one which is a rather rare thing with child actors. Two same questions arise again: Why? And How? Let’s hear more from Oliver:
“It was Julian… he taught me method acting that was the Stanislavski method. He always taught me not to be happy, he always taught me that… He was very much believing in me and he taught me and every time in the rehearsals, he was encouraging me and saying “mean it more”. He’d make me shout at him.”
Thus it was Associate Director Julian Webber, Stephen Daldry’s long-standing sidekick, who probably had worried that an unassertive boy from a supportive middle-class family could appear to be not entirely convincing in the role of a motherless northern lad with working class roots. The seasoned pro, he obviously spotted the potential for an unusual interpretation, and set a challenge for his young disciple. I am especially happy that the system by a great Russian theatre reformer (“mean it more” is indeed its core!) proved to be so instrumental in creating that non-trivial rendition. The juxtaposition of black and white reflecting contrasting sides of this Billy’s world paradoxically resulted not in grey shades but in a colourful complex character.
This particular Billy was suddenly projected to a wider world beyond the immediate confines of the story with its straightforward socio-political and emotional context. Of course, “straightforward” does not mean primitive or uninteresting. For instance, one of the current leads, phenomenal Tom Holland, delivers his rather traditional rendition of the most authentic Billy the character in such a bravura style with a myriad of subtly nuanced details that you leave the theatre completely amazed by a winning nature of a genuine talent somehow residing in an unsophisticated upbeat boy. More mixed emotions and unexpected (in the context of populist musical) thoughts in Oliver's case: a strangely existential ordeal of the talented boy with a wounded psyche quietly conveys the ambivalent and disturbing feeling of intrinsic complexity of life. Of an inner life of a human being marked by a touch of doomed fatalism. Method acting? Probably. But this peeping Dostoevsky-ish touch should also reflect some hidden depths of Oliver’s own personality, shouldn't it? Probably (echo from the above paragraph?), only Oliver himself can answer this question. Or even he cannot… yet…
The strange thing, let me add on a personal note, is that I am also writing this text “against my type”: as Russian speaking readers of my blog know too well, my writing style has always been rather dry fact-of-the-matter one. And now look at this essay! "It's just a mental, sentimental" (as Diana Krall sings)... Well, it’s time to leave rather abstract labyrinths of general contemplations and return to the concretisms of that extraordinary Last Night.
Part 4. Coming of Age
I early start and end the whole,
And will not win the future days;
Like in an ocean, in my soul,
A cargo of lost hopes stays.
Who, oh, my ocean severe,
Could read all secrets in your scroll?
Who'll tell the people my idea?
I will or God or none at all!
(From "No, I'm not Byron" by then 18 y.o. Mikhail Lermontov)
There was another factor that should be taken into account when analysing that Last Night - namely, a particular development of the role over time in the context of Oliver's rather short (less than 6 months!) run at BETM. Generally speaking, the role is like a human being: it has a birth, a childhood, growing up to a certain maturity, and then a gradual ageing - to a natural death. Every phase takes its time, and the performer becomes subconsciously programmed to that natural development of the role. The role matures; the young performer matures at the same time. His progressive understanding of the character results in better understanding of himself just because of his identification with the character. Oliver’s internal clock was probably programmed for a longer run, but he just did not have enough time to pass the last phases of the lifecycle properly, and therefore subconsciously he was not completely ready to part with the role lightly. The role did not grow up to reach its natural end peacefully; instead (by a kind of the energy conservation law – creative energy, in that case) the performer somehow was destined to grow up himself faster than he normally should and could - to overcome that cognitive dissonance aroused inside him.
In fact, Oliver did exactly that during that Last Night show: in a sense, it was his forced coming of age that was radiated from the stage so powerfully. Perhaps he cried not because he was a child, but because he was ending being a child in one go: he was effectively saying farewell not just to the show and to the partners, but to his childhood (well, perhaps not to the entire childhood but just to some important aspects of it; anyway, let us not ruin such a well-composed theory by boring remarks). Indeed, we realize that our childhood is coming to the end when we are simultaneously able to look at both the past and the future. He probably did look at his past in the show and appreciated it as the most important period in his life, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which was always going to be with him; he looked ahead and perhaps felt a momentary fear of its existential uncertainty mixed with emptiness of tomorrow's routine life without all those tiresome but inspiring commitments.
One interesting consequence is this: I believe those who had the opportunity to see his unexpected additional two shows after that official "last" one must have witnessed performances by a really mature professional who both had come to himself and to his role, and was in complete control of everything he was doing. His very last show on 15 December has had a profound effect on the audience which at times looked mesmerised (without any tears on the stage!). I for one will definitely remember for a long time that distinctive (and unusual for BETM) feeling of an outrageous and piercing mix of aggression, melancholy and beauty projected from the stage by the performer who must have found that elusive harmony and indeed could claim with confidence, "I am free". Free from that childish insecurity and tension resulting from that existential fear that had been removed with those tears once and for all. Now he was on a solid ground to pursue his journey to greater things in future.
The noise is stilled. I come out on the stage
Leaning against the door-post.
I try to guess from the distant echo
What is to happen in my lifetime.
The darkness of night is aimed at me
Along with sights of a thousand opera-glasses...
I consent to play my part.
But now a different drama is being acted,
For this one let me be.
(“Hamlet”, from "Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak).
There is a temptation to interpret all this as an extreme reality show where sublime feelings of all the participants became paradoxically mixed with a voyeuristic internalisation, allowing the spectators to penetrate into the child actor’s very heart and soul that could be read as an open book. That process was delicate and very public at the same time and reminded us what a cruel thing the art can be – they love to see a heart that bleeds. That amazing openness was in a sense embarrassing and even dangerous for him (as embarrassing and dangerous are any deep and sincere feelings shown in public in our cynical age). Perhaps as a result of this ordeal, being more mature, he will not allow his heart to be so open in future roles, let alone in real life. Probably it's even not that difficult - all you have to do is learn to care less.
I do not know whether Oliver at his age relies more on intuition or on reflection, or if he is even inclined to analyse in detail what happened to him. How could he manage to transform what looked like a personal emotional bewilderment into an artistically meaningful performance that so genuinely stunned us, his spectators? Perhaps, it was exactly that thing they call a natural scenic instinct (and his Billy - as I reported earlier - was with him!). However, I believe it should occur to him that in a great extent it was that impossible to hide the openness which gave him that extraordinary power over the audience. Will he keep that sublime, dangerous and elusive gift? How many "would-be-stars" try very hard to exhibit their wounded feelings coupled with a lot of tears in all those "X factor" - like shows! The problem is that the public generally sees nothing worth reading from their books, and that's the difference from that occasion when Oliver’s thoughts and emotions did transfer to the public’s minds and hearts without any effort and influenced them so significantly. As a result, after that experience every member of the audience could declare that the ghost of Eva Cassidy (whom Oliver once called his favorite singer) was hovering over them with the words they all could share and repeat:
"I see your sweet smile
Shine through darkness
Its line is etched in my memory...
You're still here beside me every day
So I know you by heart
'Cause I know you by heart.
I think such a result is not at all bad for 13 year old (13 years and 9 months, actually!) performer, and he can walk proudly having spoken such a smashing and resonating Last Word that even nebulous recollections about it make a world a little bit brighter. His Last Night has probably already been imprinted in the BETM mythology. It has a chance to become part of the mythology of the entire West End, provided that Oliver who once was a king there continues in realizing wholly his potential and becoming a true star (He could be a star for all we know, We don't know how far he can go). This is by no means guaranteed: even putting aside all the uncertainties of the awkward age, a ballet soloist’s career is the most difficult and unpredictable thing in the entire performing arts business and requires not only hard work and fanatic determination but a good deal of luck in a very competitive and specific environment. Anyway, knock 'em dead, kidda!!! For the time being, then, we will have missed you growing, And we'll have missed you crying, And we’ll have missed you laugh...
What can I say in conclusion? Maybe, just an appeal to Him:
Take him up and hold him gently, raise him up and hold him high.
Alas, being an agnostic I do not really believe in Him. Perhaps, it would be more appropriate for me to issue another appeal:
Dear beautiful future! Please don’t be cruel to that really talented lad! We need his in-div-id-u-al-i-ty.
Whatever, reader, your reaction,
And whether you be foe or friend,
I hope we part in satisfaction...
As comrades now. Whatever end
You may have sought in these reflections -
Tumultuous, fondly recollections,
Relief from labours for a time,
Live images, or wit in rhyme,
Or maybe merely faulty grammar
God grant that in my careless art,
For fun, for dreaming, for the heart...
For raising journalistic clamour -
You've found at least a crumb or two.
And so lets part; farewell... adieu!
(From "Eugene Onegin" by Alexander Pushkin)
P.S. Perhaps, a comment to the last paragraph of Part 4 will be helpful. That "appeal to Him" refers to the excerpt from M&M cited in the end of Part 2. The line “Beautiful future! Don’t be cruel to me” (in transliterated Russian: “Prekrasnoe daleko! Ne budj ko mne zhestoko”) is from the refrain of a very popular children’s song. This song is known to everyone in Russia - I believe that during the last 20 years every Russian child had a chance to sing it. I am not sure there is an English version of it. However, let me give a reference to a recent non-canonical version of this song (which unexpectedly became a big hit on the Russian Internet last autumn) – it is performed in Latin by young soloists of the Catholic chorus from Siberia; perhaps, in such a form it is easier for English speaking people to appreciate it.
Mirabile futurum, ne esto mihi durum,
Ne esto mihi durum, ne esto durum.
Origine ex pura ad optimum futurum,
Ad optimum futurum iam nunc egressus sum.
I hope those who download that MP3 file ( http://www.binetti.ru/artes/poesia/mirabile_futurum.mp3 ) (3 minutes, 4M) will not be disappointed – this is a beautiful melody resonating with the spirit of our story.
Another interesting reference by association:
Russian figure skater Ilia Kulik (winner of 1998 Olympics): Gershvin's Rhapsody In Blue (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxLRBysvu5g)
P.P.S. I am very grateful to Ellen Rolland who had corrected quite a few my mistakes in English grammar and usage. She has also kindly permitted me to attach here her original drawing and poem which probably express the same sentiments - but in a more concise and beautiful form.
The young man, boy no more, stands on the stage
Looking at the empty darkened house.
The crowd is gone; the show is done.
This place, his home, a home no more.
He hears a quiet voice call from the wings,
“Time to go, lad. Party to attend.”
Feeling something wet upon his cheek,
He wipes away a single tear
And steps into the future.
The photos are mainly from
"Oliver Taylor in BETM: the Dossier - News, Articles, Interviews, Reviews from Press and Internet" (168 pages): http://www.pasko.org/box/OllyTaylorInBETM_Dossier_VA_v3.pdf
A collection of selected reviews of Oliver Taylor's BETM shows: http://valchess.livejournal.com/116916.html
"A Tale of Four Billys": http://valchess.livejournal.com/118653.html
Oliver Taylor's Wikipedia article
Billy Elliot the Forum ("Olly Taylor" thread): http://billyelliottheforum.me.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=43&t=43
Friends of Billy Elliot the Musical: Forum ("Oliver Taylor" thread): http://www.friendsofbilly.com/FriendsF/viewtopic.php?f=163&t=759
"Bright Future For British Ballet" (Fonteyn Nureyev Young Dancers Competition 2006): http://www.youngdancers.org.uk/History/PastYears/default.phuse
"Meet the Boys: Oliver Taylor plays Billy" (from the BETM official site): http://www.billyelliotthemusical.com/billy_text_open_OLIVER.swf (June 2007)
"Ask the Billys of Billy Elliot": http://london.broadway.com/ask_a_star/id/3007814 (June 2007)
"Devon's Billy Elliot" (BBC Radio): http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2007/08/09/billy_elliot_feature.shtml
(complete audio record of BBC interview: http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/realmedia/entertainment/billy_elliot.ram ) (August 2007)
"Ask Billy: Olly answers fans' questions": http://blog.askbilly.info/ (June 2009)
YouTube audio clips:
"The Stars Look Down" (live audio with some BBC footage): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vl6KQx8Jap4
"The Letter" (slideshow with live audio): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogzxWbB6ppc
"Expressing yourself" (with Ryan Longbottom, slideshow with live audio record, Last Night 1 Dec 2007): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1UfGd5mDVE
"Electricity" (live audio with some BBC footage): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1X1WCWpDlI
"The Letter Reprise & farewell to Michael" (slideshow with live audio, Last Night 1 Dec 2007): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGGP3G1NB48
Vimeo video clip:
"Oliver Taylor in Billy Elliot's Finale" (Last Night 1 Dec 2007): http://vimeo.com/48760129
"Take a Bow: Ollie Dancing Feet" (BBC documentary): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9ClYry-JIo
"Billy Elliot the Musical at the BAFTAs 60th Birthday Party" (5 Nov 2007): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3FxC0jGzMc
(counted since 15 Oct 2008)