One weekend in August 2009 I was fortunate to spend a Saturday matinee at the Victoria Palace watching ‘Billy Elliot’ and a full day Sunday with theatre company Frantic Assembly doing a workshop on Physicality. Both events tied in brilliantly, unplanned. They both stated two things. ‘Billy Elliot’ is resounding in its push for the arts and the expression of every human (within the context of the arts and outside it). The workshop echoed this (though it wasn’t articulated verbally) and we all ‘moved’ our way into being ourselves. Lee Hall (book and lyrics for Billy Elliot) says: ‘whilst we might not all become ballet dancers we are capable of finding moments of real profundity and creativity whatever our circumstances.’
You can only work with what you’ve got. Acting, like dancing, is about being, and bringing your own truth to a part enabling you to explore a character. If you’re not yourself before you try to be someone else, the character you are playing will be false, unreal and ‘performed’. Performing is only the term we use for expressing a character – in visual terms, it is like wearing a mask but if the face underneath isn’t settled, relaxed and grounded, the face won’t be able to keep that mask on. This is my metaphor to show how I perceive the difference between acting and being. Billy sings in the audition he goes to for the Royal Ballet when asked how he feels when he dances: ‘I can’t really explain it. I haven’t got the words. It’s a feeling that you can’t control. I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are. And at the same time something makes you whole.’
For me, body informing emotion is particularly effective. Billy Elliot not only shows one boy’s desire to succeed in this particular art form but the show is such that it transforms emotion into dance and we feel that, amazingly, this is organic and not rehearsed (which it obviously is of course!). When he can’t move on in his dance practice because of the obstacles of the miners’ strikes and his family’s inability (financial and emotional) to support him, his frustration is articulated in his feet and this is incredibly dramatic. ‘All art comes from terrific failures and needs that we have. It is about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Art is a way of recognising oneself.’ (Louis Bourgeois, www.insiderart.org.uk, an art psychotherapy website).
The activities with Frantic Theatre encouraged me to work from movements – automatically encouraging a theme or emotion to develop: it’s actually a two in one deal – move in the space and whatever you need to establish will happen and no one will have imposed it, least of all yourself. Then put it together with a partner and you have a scene without a word of how to construct it. It is the most natural way into theatre and in fact mirrors life – one doesn’t plan how one reacts, one just does; using your body to initiate this in theatre compiles a planned scene which has been reached by an unplanned method.
I can’t finish the article without a quote from Elton John, composer to Billy Elliot: ‘The show demonstrates everything I love about the power of art. It can inspire you. It can transform lives. Art can make you look at life in a way you never have before. And it can take you to places well beyond your wildest dreams.’