From pit to pointe isn't such a far-fetched leap

A miner's son becomes a top ballet dancer in the new film 'Billy Elliot'. Truer than you might think, says Jenny Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

One of the many savourable moments in Billy Elliot, the new film directed by Stephen Daldry, you see coming a long way off. The year is 1984, the setting a small pit village in County Durham. Jacky Elliot, a miner and unflinching supporter of the NUM strike, has just learnt what his 11-year-old son has been doing with the 50 pence a week set aside for boxing coaching in the village hall - . "Boys do football or boxin' or wrestlin' or ...," words fail the man as his eyes begin to bulge. "Not . . . friggin' . . . ballet."

One of the many savourable moments in Billy Elliot, the new film directed by Stephen Daldry, you see coming a long way off. The year is 1984, the setting a small pit village in County Durham. Jacky Elliot, a miner and unflinching supporter of the NUM strike, has just learnt what his 11-year-old son has been doing with the 50 pence a week set aside for boxing coaching in the village hall - . "Boys do football or boxin' or wrestlin' or ...," words fail the man as his eyes begin to bulge. "Not . . . friggin' . . . ballet."

Yes indeed. Billy Elliot is a film that contrives to combine the desperate, hopeless passions of that grim watershed in British industrial relations with one small boy's bid to break free of the male-dominated, tunnel-visioned, dying culture he's growing up in.

On seeing the film, however, some are bound to question the story's plausibility. Billy, a child from a household so poor that the family piano is sacrificed for firewood, surreptitiously joins the local lack-lustre ballet class and gradually gets hooked, despite being the only boy among a dozen snickering girls. The teacher - a raddled, 40-a-day has-been played by Julie Walters - spots Billy's talent and pushes him, eventually suggesting he auditions for the Royal Ballet School. To cut a long story short, the boy goes through the hoops and wins, leaving the world of back-to-backs and sauce bottles on the table to join the ranks of the beautiful people in cushy Richmond Park. We see him 12 years later topping the bill in a West End theatre, whose façade closely resembles the Royal Opera House. Could that really happen?

It could and indeed has happened, not once but many times. Not only are Billy's circumstances close to those of the 13-year-old who plays him, Jamie Bell, but the story is also partly based on that of a current Royal Ballet dancer, Philip Mosley, now 33, whose home is a pit village near Barnsley and whose elder brother and grandfather both worked in the mines. The celebrated Michael Clark had an equally unpromising start in a fishing village outside Aberdeen. And as for the realism of the film's dance-class scenes - teacher barking out French terms which her pupils dutifully interpret in co-ordinated lines - it's pretty accurate. Ballet stubbornly resists modern notions of student-centred learning.

"People think ballet is for the élite," says Gailene Stock, the current director of the Royal Ballet School, "but we take children from a remarkably wide variety of backgrounds. In fact, I'd say more of our pupils are from families in lower income groups than not." This is confirmed by the school's financial reports, which show that 66 per cent of current pupils come from families whose annual income is under £25,000, and half of these from families on less than £15,000.

Full fees for the Royal Ballet Lower School are currently £18,117 a year, not including extras (shoes alone can be £300 a term). But the school insists these figures need deter no one: if they decide a child has sufficient talent, grants will miraculously appear. And previous dance training - all those expensive weekly classes at Mrs So-and-So's Academy - is not essential either. "We sometimes choose people, particularly boys, who have done virtually nothing before," says Ms Stock. "What we look for in our regional auditions is potential, not polish." She claims that her audition panels can spot ability just from watching a child walk across a room to music. Physical attributes are also important, and what experts call the "footline". "But most of all they've got to have something an audience will want to look at."

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