Local teen to star in production of ‘Billy Elliot’
by Steven Felschundneff | email@example.com
When P.J. Walker was in second grade he wanted to take classes in hip hop style dancing taught at Village Dance Arts in Claremont. Always seeking to encourage her child’s interests, Grace Kao was more than happy to accommodate, but with a slight caveat. She noticed that any boy who signed up for ballet lessons could take the other classes for free, so P.J. enrolled in both.
“So my mom just encouraged me to just try that so I could try hip hop and the other styles I wanted to for free, and as time progressed I just got more involved in [ballet] and we eventually moved to a different studio that mainly focuses on ballet,” P.J. said.
Now, about six years later, P.J. is an accomplished ballet dancer who has recently been cast in the lead role in “Billy Elliot” at the Candlelight Pavilion, a play about a boy who realizes his dreams of becoming a ballet dancer against the backdrop of an aging English coal mining town entangled in a bitter labor strike.
But any similarities between Billy and P.J. end there. For one, P.J. still prefers hip hop to classical music and in sharp contrast to the character in the musical play, he has received ample support from family and friends in his pursuit of dance.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, P.J. is the only boy in a room full of young women during a class at Inland Pacific Ballet in Montclair. It’s part of a demanding daily workout schedule for the 13-year-old Claremont resident as he prepares for his upcoming role. Following that class, he had a one-on-one with the ballet’s Executive Director Zaylin Cano, who also is the choreographer of “Billy Elliot.”
In a workout space that seems to double as a storage room, Cano helps P.J. with the precise timing of one of the play’s dance routines. It’s a deceptively simply series of steps that culminates in P.J. doing a pirouette on top of a chair. It’s physical work but P.J. declines an offered break despite being somewhat winded.
“P.J. is a fantastic student, he is an absolute joy to work with. He is very methodical with his approach, so he likes to know the counts and where he is going. And he gets more and more into character, which is fantastic at his age to be that meticulous,” Cano said.
He had initially been cast as Billy Elliot in 2020, after the play’s producers inquired whether Cano knew of a young boy who could dance.
“Candlelight reached out to me to ask if I knew anyone, and I said ‘I have a young talented student who I think would be awesome in the role,’” she said adding, “I never heard him sing before so I don’t know if he can sing.”
As it turns out, P.J. could sing and at 11 was perfect for the role. But like so many other planned events, the show was canceled by the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. In the interim, P.J grew five inches and went through puberty which presented a challenge because Billy is supposed to be really young.
Now that he was becoming a young man, the show’s producers asked him to try out again in part to ensure he could still hit the high notes in some of the songs. He was once again given the role, not only due to his abilities, but because it’s far easier to teach a dancer to sing and act than to teach an actor to dance.
“So acting, singing and musical theater is all new to me. I have never done anything like that before, I had only been training for dance. So this is a musical theater debut for me. In some ways it’s harder and some it’s easier because in a ballet you can’t talk, so it’s a bit harder to express yourself and act. Of course in musical theater you can talk, there are a lot more props and you can sing and speak your mind,” P.J. said.
Before taking on the character of Billy, he performed several dancing roles, most notably as both Fritz and a mouse in Inland Pacific’s annual production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”
In June and July he traveled to the East Coast for Boston Ballet’s Summer Dance Program, a month-long dance intensive course for accomplished young performers.
“Summer Dance Program (SDP) is an opportunity for pre-professional and serious-minded ballet students from around the world to immerse themselves in a rigorous training environment at Boston Ballet School. Under the instruction of internationally renowned faculty, students will develop their passion for dance while expanding their breadth as an artist,” the company said in its promotional materials.
During COVID, P.J. attended the summer intensive at the School of American Ballet, which is the training school attached to the New York City Ballet, through the Zoom app.
“By some accounts, New York City Ballet is the top studio or company in the nation and therefore the school of American Ballet is considered to be the top school,” his mother said.
The New York company has auditions in 20 cities, including Los Angeles and it’s very difficult to be selected. So it’s a remarkable achievement that P.J. has attended both the Boston and New York programs.
“So that is what we mean by [dancing] at a national level. That he is able to make the cut for his age,” Kao said. “Of course, because of the numbers, it is a little bit easier for boys than it is for girls. But you can’t be just any dude.”
As opening night approaches, P.J.’s schedule intensifies with rehearsals most nights, and classes all day at El Roble where he is an eighth grade student. He manages to make it work but has little time for extracurricular activities or his friends.
“It usually just means staying up later than I want to, so far it hasn’t been too much. There have been days when I have been overwhelmed and super stressed with the late rehearsals and then coming home to have to do homework and do it again the next morning. But I have been balancing it pretty well so far, P.J. said.
Despite all of his achievements, he is uncertain about a career in dance, and not sure what his ultimate job will be quite yet.
“You can only be a professional dancer for so long and I don’t see myself quitting any time soon. As I progress and get older, that will probably lead to joining a company and getting paid but that is not my dream job. It’s not like I would love to be a professional dancer,” he said.
In the meantime, he enjoys working hard and seeing himself progress and get better, mastering steps that were once a challenge. Plus, he still loves the music that started it all a few years ago.
“I enjoy hip hop because I enjoy that style of music. Dancing to it is fun, and it’s just fun to do,” he said.
“Billy Elliot” opens on November 5 with a show only, no dinner, preview performance. Doors will open at 6:45 and curtain at 7:30 p.m. The show continues the following two days, including dinner, as well as Friday, Saturday and Sunday through November 27. For tickets and additional information, call the Candlelight Pavilion at (909) 626-1254.