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Flash Review, 8-9: Dancing the Body Electric
Why Billy Elliot's Gotta Dance

By Kelly Hargraves
Copyright 2000 Kelly Hargraves

LOS ANGELES -- It is not easy for me to relate to the feelings of a family and town trapped in a long and violent strike. Their despair is not close to any experience I've ever had. I can, though, find empathy for the young boy in the story of the new film "Billy Elliot" as he struggles to learn to dance. The frustration he feels while trying to turn a pirouette, the anger he holds inside for his overbearing ballet mistress, and his self-consciousness while auditioning to enter a prestigious dance school, are feelings I have experienced. The great feat of this film is that it finds a way to make all of these emotions palpable and, in fact, so gracefully blends such seemingly diverse subjects -- coal miner strikes and ballet class -- that each moment is rich with emotional intensity.

"Billy Elliot" tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy who lives with his widowed father and brother, who have been on strike from the town's coal mine for more than a year, and his grandmother, whom he must tend to. The setting is a small northern British town which is quite dismal and often violent as the rage and frustration of the strikers builds. Billy unwittingly finds himself interested in a ballet class, which takes place following his boxing lesson. As he struggles to learn technique he must also deal with his very unaccepting father, who forbids him to dance, his aggressive older brother who is looking for trouble, and his ballet teacher who sees his potential and is determined to get him to audition for the Royal Ballet School. The story sounds a bit cliche, but director Stephen Daldry makes it work! To his credit he has assembled an outstanding ensemble of actors, especially the young actor Jamie Bell, who plays Billy. The beautiful cinematography by Brian Tufano ("Trainspotting," "Shallow Grave") and the deft editing by John Wilson (Peter Greenaway's "Drowning By Numbers," "The Belly of the Architect") keep the story visually stimulating and show the dance as a dynamic part of its telling. The choreography by Peter Darling ("Howard's End," "Richard III") and the final scene's excerpt from Matthew Bourne's version of "Swan Lake," assert that this is definitely not the British answer to "Footloose" or "Flash Dance." It is a poignant portrait of a young man and his family.

Little did I know that a film like this could push every emotional button I have with such eloquence. The mix of humor and sentimental moments make it a worthy journey. And the dance remains relevant within such a heated political and social context. It is more than a self-indulgent whim of a character, or a musical interlude to brighten up the tale. It is the source of hope and, as Billy says, the thing that makes him disappear, forget everything and feel electric. These too are feelings I have felt while dancing and, in fact, while watching this fine young actor/dancer's performance.


Kelly Hargraves is a former dancer and choreographer, and a dance filmmaker who has written about dance for several publications. She recently received her M.A. in Dance and Film Theory from New York University.

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