dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
He dreamed a dream
A Black Country schoolboy is one of five boys taking the lead role in the UK tour of Billy Elliot – and with the company now having reached Birmingham Hippodrome he's dancing close to home.
Lewis Smallman was just seven or eight when he first saw the film of Billy Elliot, the story of a boy who dreams of becoming a dancer. The youngster, from West Bromwich, was then attending dance classes and loving them but, as he watched that film, he had no idea that just a few years later he would be Billy in the UK tour.
Billy Elliot the Musical tells the story of a young lad's ambitions to join the Royal Ballet – despite opposition from his family.
Black Country youngster Lewis Smallman
Lewis, now 13, says that in many ways playing Billy is his own dream come true and each performance, as the curtain rises, he feels the thrill of stepping into the spotlight. "Just before I go on stage I feel like I've got a wave of energy and I feel really excited," he says. "And then all that excitement and energy I put it into the dancing and the acting and the singing. And at the end, it's just amazing to see everyone with a smile on their face, clapping and cheering."
George Salter Academy pupil Lewis, who has two older sisters, had always been an active youngster but dance wasn't his first passion. "I was about six or seven when I started to think about dance. I did gymnastics for a bit but I stopped enjoying it so I stopped going. But my mum didn't want me just sitting in the bedroom all day playing games so she took me to dance lessons. I really enjoyed it and carried on."
Lewis built up his skills and experience, training with Arabesque Dance Academy and Renaissance Arts. He performed at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre in English Youth Ballet's Swan Lake and then gained the part of Kurt in the Trinity Players' production of The Sound of Music at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall.
And then Billy beckoned. "One day my dance teacher told me to audition for Billy Elliot," Lewis recalls. "I went up to Leeds and did the audition and then I did recalls and auditions for two or three years, doing summer schools and training and then I got it. I had seen the show on stage once but after I got a few recalls for the audition, Mum and Dad took me to see it in London so I would get the feel of it."
Lewis adds: "I watched the film when I was about seven or eight and I found it really amazing. It was just shocking to see how Billy got through that when his dad and his brother weren't very nice to him but the show is a completely different feeling to the movie. The show has much more dancing, more singing – much more is going on in the show. When I first started auditioning for Billy I thought that 'dancing isn't something I just want to do as a hobby, this is something I want to do as a career when I'm older'. My dream would be that I want to be a dancer, actor and a singer. I want to be in musicals, films and TV."
Billy Elliot the Musical was a top choice for Lewis because it contains so much dancing. "I really wanted to do Billy Elliot because I liked the way they got to dance on stage every day of their lives. They did all the acting and the singing and the dancing and I thought 'I could really be a Billy and do that.' At home I can't really dance in the living room because everyone is watching TV but with the show I get to dance all the time. I love that."
Lewis' opening night was February 2016 in Plymouth – with his family in the audience. "They watched my first ever show and they have come loads of times since and every time they say it gets better. They say it never gets boring; they never sit there and think 'I'm getting bored and want to go home'. They say that if I was in it twice in a row they could watch it again."
And with the show at Birmingham Hippodrome until April 29, Lewis has more time to be with his family and friends. "I'm going home a bit more now I'm in Birmingham. I can go home for tea or on a Sunday I can go home for the whole day. It's nice to have a home crowd all the time. If I am in Plymouth then I don't have many people come and see me because it's too far to go but in Birmingham I have friends or family here nearly every night. Quite a few of my friends have been to see it but there's still a lot more to come. They said it was amazing and not like any other show they had seen before."
Each of the boys playing Billy on tour works for three weeks and has a week off. Having toured for more than a year now, Lewis admits being on the road has its pluses and its minuses. "Being away from home is the hardest bit because we've been at home for most of our childhood and then going away and being with different people can be hard," he says. "It's hardest mainly for the youngest ones because we have some ten year olds who have never been away from home before. But if they are upset I go over and talk to them and try to help them."
And no matter which city they are in, the children follow a routine which includes hours of dance practice and rehearsals – as well as school. "We have breakfast in the morning then we go to school for three hours every morning. Then we have lunch and then we have calls but if we don't have calls then we do more lessons in the afternoon. My favourite lesson in school is art and I like to doodle. To keep up with our school is sometimes hard but it's never like we drop in levels, we always pick it back up. We have two tutors, one takes the younger ones in primary school and the other tutor takes the older ones in secondary school. Then we have dinner and then we do the show in the evening. Or, if it's a matinee day, we go straight from lunch to the theatre to do two shows. On our weeks off we just go back home and be normal."
And the tour has given Lewis a great opportunity to visit lots of new places. "If, after our calls we are allowed free time, we are allowed to go out and on Saturday mornings too we can go out exploring. And on Sundays it's our day off so we go out and do fun stuff like going to the zoo. I liked Edinburgh the best, it's really nice because all the buildings are tall and they are fancy and they are all quite old buildings and fascinating to look at. Everywhere has been really nice on tour, there has never been a venue which was terrible."
Lewis has come to love his character. "The best thing about Billy is that he can be everything. He can be sad at one point in the show and then he's happy and then he goes back down to being sad or angry – I like how many feelings he has in the show. Billy has got so much going on in his head. Even if he's just standing there watching something he's still got loads going on in his head."
Unlike Billy, Lewis never had to battle with his family to be allowed to dance.
"It would have been really hard if my family hadn't been really supportive but I think I would still have managed to get to dance," Lewis says. "I'm very lucky that I've got family who have supported me – not all children have that."