|Simon Pollard, international associate director of 'Billy Elliot' / Courtesy of Lee Soo-jin|
Simon Pollard ushers audiences to share journey of aspiring dancer
By Kwon Mee-yoo
On Nov. 28 at the D-Cube Art Center in southwestern Seoul, audiences excitedly waited for the first preview of the musical "Billy Elliot."
Before the curtain went up, Simon Pollard, international associate director of the musical, took the stage with his interpreter.
"The show will be led this evening by the amazing 13-year-old Hyun-jun," he said. "We first met Hyun-jun back in April last year and he spent the past year and a half preparing for this evening. He has worked so hard and he is an absolute joy to work with. He is now backstage, desperate to show you what he can do. Please enjoy Hyun-jun's first performance."
The audience applauded heartily, welcoming the boy who will act as the boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer amid the 1984 coal miners' strike in northern England.
Introducing child actors who debut in the show before their first performance is a tradition of "Billy Elliot" and the Korean production is no exception.
"It's something we've always done. A Billy's first night is a massive, big deal for them ― they spent much time preparing for that moment. It's something we want to mark and celebrate," Pollard said during an interview with The Korea Times. "I think it's quite exciting for an audience to feel they are in on this momentous occasion, sharing the excitement. The audience is already on the boy's side, supporting him and wanting him to do well. It gives them a little extra boost watching the show, knowing the boy is doing this for the first time."
Pollard, who has been monitoring each preview, seemed happy with the quality of the new Korean production.
"The boys are doing absolutely brilliantly and I'm so happy with the standard of the show. And audiences seemed to be reacting as I would expect ― I'm hearing laughs in the places where I would normally hear laughs and they are clapping at the moment I would normally hope them to clap. I feel what we've tried to do is working," Pollard said.
Pollard has been with the show for over four years now. He joined the production as resident director in London's West End in 2013 and worked as associate director of the U.K. and Ireland tour, before becoming international associate director for "Billy Elliot" in Japan and Korea.
In the Korean production, five boys ― Chun Woo-jin, Kim Hyun-jun, Sung Ji-hwan, Sim Hyun-seo and Eric Taylor ― alternate the titular role. They have been trained for over a year and a half, learning acting, singing, ballet, tap dance and acrobatics.
"All the boys are doing the show because they are like Billy Elliot. They had to fight to get better and pass the audition. The show is about being yourself and it's rewarding for the boys to tell that story," Pollard said. "During the audition process, we have so many boys to start with and narrow down and down. The ones we end up with are those who love this and want to do this."
The director recalled the very first audition in Korea, which took place about 20 months ago.
"There is focus on the dance during the first audition. It is the most important thing about Billy and we cannot do the show if the boy cannot dance. But there's no rule as to what that dance is. You just have to show some potential. We watch how they learn and physicality of their body for dance," Pollard said. "What I look for is something different. I just see where my eyes are drawn in the room ― which boy is throwing everything into it and has the kind of spark about him. My eyes might not be drawn to the strongest dancer, but the boy with real determination."
Pollard witnessed the five boys' incredible growth from their first audition all the way to the stage as Billy. "Ji-hwan was tiny with bright pink hair. His voice was like a little mouse and he didn't speak much. But he had this fight and soaked up everything given like a sponge over the course. Now he's blossomed."
Over the long and complicated audition process taking over nine months, the creative team has to make tough decisions to keep some boys while releasing others.
"We see how they learn and improve as well as how they cope with pressure and work with each other. And we also look for nice people. We create a family around the show and we don't want to work with bullies or those who are difficult to work with," the director explained. "The Korean Billys have been very supportive with each other and it was lovely to see the healthy competition among these hardworking boys."
On stage, Billy's amazing dance grabs the audience's attention, but it is based on their thorough understanding of the script. The child actors who play Billy rehearse for 18 weeks, which is over twice longer than usual rehearsal for a show spanning six to eight weeks.
"They know the script inside out and it becomes normal for them. Within the first four weeks, I sit down with the Billys and we read the script together and discuss every detail of the lines ― why he says this and who is Margaret Thatcher. We do a lot of research about events such as the miners' strike and sometimes I give them homework to find out who Muhammad Ali is," Pollard said.
Over the years Pollard has seen the show over 800 times, but he still enjoys watching the brilliant performance.
"The scene that touches me the most is when Billy says goodbye to his first dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, before leaving for London. Maybe because what she says is what my job is like working with the boys," he said. "Eric is the 25th Billy I've taught and taken through the show. It's sad but true that you are such an important part of these boys' life during this period of time, but they leave and go on to other things in time. What Mrs. Wilkinson says is true ― don't look back as our relationship is very important now, but you have to go on."
The director asked the audience not to leave the theater before the finale. "The finale of the show with Billy and the entire cast is such a joyous, celebratory number. I always feel sad when people start to leave as they think the show is over. Please don't leave. You don't want to miss the best bit," Pollard said.
The Korean production of "Billy Elliot" runs until May 7. For more information, visit iseensee.com or call 02-577-1987.