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Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Transformative Power of Art--Billy Elliot, Film and Musical

I know that the film version of Billy Elliot was so long ago that the actor is a grown man, starring in the AMC series Turn: Washington's Spies, and being followed as a "hunk" by paparazzi. (I think Mr. Bell smolders beautifully in Turn, and manages to find every last tiny drip of humor in the role, which is to say, at least five drips per five episodes--they didn't write this guy for laughs.) 

I know it's been a while since I saw the play because my oldest was little, though I brought him, knowing most of it would fly over his head, but that metaphors would sink in. And Billy Elliot, both film and musical, (both directed by Stephen Daldry and choreographed by Peter Darling) is filled with metaphors, about individual freedom, family love, community, politics and most especially about dance, which is to say about an art form that uses the body as its medium. 

The story takes place in a town at war with itself and its country, a tightly knit and narrow community more than decimated by Margaret Thatcher's decision to break the mining unions, a town literally invaded by its own police. 

The film shows this by having the Billy and his young quasi-friend, Debbie, walk down the street, Debbie, oblivious, dragging a a brick wall, a fence that has painted figures of strikers, and the riot shields of a line of police, like an invading army. The police also serve as a 
metaphor for the communities restrictions against Billy's dancing and his friend, Michael's homosexuality. Thus, we've got a doubly-powerful metaphor, one you'd think that a stage, with its limitations would be hard pressed to beat. 

You'd be wrong. In the theater, the battles between rioters and police literally spill into the classroom where Billy and the little girls hang onto Police officers batons, and both sets of fighting men serve as the ballet bar rather than a wooden bar along a wall. There is no escaping suppression and violence, not even in a shabby, shoddy little dance class where a bored, irritable teacher struggles to give her talentless students some sparkle. 

And yet, dance--art, expression--is precisely what the inhabitants of this town seek, whether it's Billy's friend's longing to tap dance with giant women's dresses 

or Billy dancing out his rage at his father's opposition to the ballet. (on stage, against a backdrop of riot shields).
Or Billy's grandmother wistfully recalling Saturday nights spent with her husband, a man who's brutality ruled her life. 

And it's in these extraordinary explosions of longing and desire, as the need for self-expression and connection rails against the narrow walls of society, that Billy Elliot transcends its little Ugly Duckling story and becomes, instead, a musical about the music in all of us, and how it longs to break free. 

And nowhere is that more clearly expressed than in the Grandmother's Song, as this woman, memories dribbling away from her, tells her grandson the most important things she has learned from life while explaining about what a bastard Billy's grandda was. 

As she begins her song, a line of ominous men appear on the edge of the stage, beer mugs in one hand, wooden chairs in the other. They set the chairs on the ground in one-handed push-ups, their feet in the air, a rolling wave that streams onto the stage as: 
"But we'd go dancing," she sings. "And he'd hold me tight. He was air, he was water, he was breath, he was light. And he would hold me there with all his might and it was bliss for an hour or so. And then it was time to go. 

And in the morning, we were sober. 

This wave of drunken, powerful, angry men continues to roll past Billy and his grandmother, leaving four standing tall beside her.
"I suppose times were hard," she sings. "Things were different then. Women were women, and men were men. Seventeen, that was it. Your life ended when you had a ring around your finger.

And she dances up the line of men of hard-eyed men holding drink and cigarettes in one hand and dreams in the other. 

But we'd go dancing. He was me own Brando. And for a moment then, life had a glow. We had dust" (implied coal, implied star) "in our hair, and nowhere to go. But we were free for an hour or three from the people we had to be."

"But in the morning," as always, "we were sober.

Here, the men gymnast or stumble their way into the darkness, leaving a chaos of chairs behind. 

And the grandmother brings her grandson back into the song, singing to him that, if she had it to do again, she'd do it without the help of men." And you see how the choreographer brings the child into the chaos, into this transmission of wisdom--as much as Grandma has to share--as she erupts in anger-tinged joy for just a moment: 
She'd have "gone dancing, and not give a shit. Spin around and reel and love every bit, and I'd be me for an entire life, instead of somebody's wife.

"And I never," she says finally, back to her usual, shuffling old self, "would be sober.

(Two different versions of Grandmother's song are available on Youtube. If you can't see the whole show, I encourage you to watch these. The first stars Carole Shelley and the second, Lola Nixon. Both are extraordinary, as is the song, the lighting, the direction/choreography and the supporting performances.) This is Carole Shelley  This is Lola Nixon.

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