Billy Elliot The Musical is the perfect project for Brett Taylor as it combines his two passions: ballet and musical theatre.
After training in musical theatre in high school and performing in Rainbow Stage’s production of Good News after graduating, Taylor confided in his friends and colleagues, performers Lori Watson and Robert Boge, that he had an appetite for a deeper dance experience. “I trained really hard and really long. I wanted to see how far the rabbit hole would go,” Taylor says. Watson and Boge pointed out that Winnipeg has a world-class ballet school. “They planted the seed,” Taylor recalls. He took their advice and made arrangements to be seen by faculty at the RWB School, after which he was invited for a four-week audition for the school’s professional division. “It seemed like a very good fit right off the bat,” he says. Taylor was accepted into the school’s full-time program and so he resumed training, this time concentrating on ballet.
Taylor spent two years in the school and went on to perform with prestigious ballet companies across Canada, including the RWB company and Le Ballet Jazz de Montreal. Taylor remained equally devoted to musical theatre, however. “I’m very divided. When I left Le Ballet Jazz, I had this wonderful season splitting freelance dance contracts and musical theatre projects 50/50. I really liked that,” Taylor says. He says musical theatre and ballet feed him in different ways.
He’s putting both skill sets to work for Billy Elliot The Musical, which is based on the 2000 movie of the same name. The hit Broadway production tells the story of a young boy in North Eastern England who trades his boxing gloves for ballet slippers. Despite family pressures and other almost insurmountable hurdles, under the guidance of a rough-around-the-edges local ballet teacher, Billy works up courage to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London and pursue his dream of dancing professionally.
Taylor says he can relate to Billy. Like many boys in dance, he faced stigma during his school-age years. “We came from a farming community. It was very much a hockey town. Everyone was a hockey player. There was no dancing,” Taylor says.
Taylor says he started dance classes, along with his brother Joel, when he was five years old. By the time Taylor was 14, he and Joel were commuting back and forth from the farm and the city six days a week for classes in jazz, tap, modern, ballet and, of course, musical theatre. Setting their sights on professional careers, they moved to Calgary when Taylor was 16 to train at a studio focused on musical theatre.
“The kids in school didn’t know how to relate. They couldn’t understand why boys would want to dance, why we would drive for two and a half hours six times a week to take class.” Taylor says he couldn’t really explain why but he just had to do it. As Billy sings in one of the show’s hit songs, when he’s dancing, “Suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird / Like electricity, electricity / Sparks inside of me / And I’m free I’m free.”
Taylor plays adult Billy in the upcoming Royal MTC production of Billy Elliot The Musical opening Jan. 14. Adult Billy is a dream-like manifestation of young Billy’s vision for his future, Taylor explains. Young Billy and adult Billy share a dance sequence in the middle of the show. “It is a really big moment for younger Billy. He’s alone in the community centre of the town and he sees what he’s going to be. His dream is fully realized. He gets to live in it. This is when he knows that he has to be a dancer.” Taylor says rehearsing this sequence has been particularly meaningful for him because of his special relationship with the two actors playing young Billy, Ethan Ribeiro and Eamon Stocks. As the production’s training co-ordinator, Taylor has been working with Ribeiro and Stocks day in and day out since September. “I’ve become very attached to these kids. I want to see them succeed, to see them do well. I genuinely care about them. I didn’t realize how invested I would be in their training,” Taylor says.
Taylor’s training philosophy is collaborative in nature. “I really believe it takes a village,” he says. Ribeiro and Stocks have been taking ballet and modern classes with RWB School faculty, Watson and Boge of KickIt Dance Studio have been working with the boys in tumbling, and Taylor has been coaching them privately in jazz and tap. Taylor has also enjoyed the opportunity to take ballet class every morning with the RWB company. “It’s really a full circle moment for me,” he explains. “I think (Ribeiro and Stocks) have had a lot of the best that Winnipeg has to offer.”
Taylor’s eyes sparkle when he speaks about this project. It’s obvious that he loves what he does but he has other reasons to sparkle these days as well. Taylor and his partner of six years, retired Les Grands Ballet Canadiens soloist Bob Deskins, were recently engaged. When Deskins flew to Winnipeg for a visit recently, Taylor whisked him away to the Radisson Hotel for a quiet evening, just the two of them. In a perfectly casual moment in their room on the 28th floor, Taylor got down on one knee and popped the question. Deskins said yes.
When asked if there is someone in his life who believed in him the way Billy’s dance teacher believes in Billy, Taylor narrows the list to four: his brother Joel, Watson, Boge and Deskins. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” Taylor says.
Audiences can see Taylor, and Joel, in Royal MTC’s production of Billy Elliot The Musical running Jan. 14 to Feb. 6 on the John Hirsch Mainstage.
Taylor will also be appearing on the cover of the March 2016 edition of OutWords. Don’t miss it!
Kate Fennell is the director of school operations at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Prior to assuming this role, she served Winnipeg’s arts community as the RWB’s publicity manager and then as the organization’s director of touring and business development.
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