The coal miners of Northern England don't generally go in for emotional flights of fancy.
For many residents of England's hardscrabble mining towns, where centuries of tough economic circumstances have forged a citizenry of hard-eyed realists, feelings are things to be bottled up rather than shared. When they make their way out, as in the rhythmic dance steps of miners and police officers in "Billy Elliot," they tend to do so in staccato bursts.
Among possible subjects for a dance-driven musical, English coal miners seems a stretch. But Peter Darling, the choreographer of "Billy Elliot," which comes to Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, has turned their peculiarly British brand of emotional reticence into fodder for some unorthodox choreography. The 2005 musical, based on Stephen Daldry's 2000 film about a boy pursuing his passion for ballet during the U.K. coal-mining strike in the early 1980s, employs dance as a narrative device in a way few shows have attempted.
"Not to undermine Sir Elton John's music, which is just lovely in the show, this is a play, with music, most of all," said resident choreographer Adam Pelty in a phone interview from Detroit, where the show recently finished a two-week run. "You really can't compare it to any other big musical, like an 'Oklahoma!' or a 'Chicago.' Dance is such a huge part of the show and of this little boy's journey. Once he discovers dance, it becomes the essence of the show."
In a single scene, a group of coal miners holding newspapers clash with riot police brandishing billy clubs, all while Billy and a group of young girls turn pirouettes as part of a ballet class. Dancing together and sometimes against one another, these groups serve as a striking tableau representing the volatile social and political situation in Northen England and Billy's desire to rise out of it.
"You're watching Billy progress from his first dance class all the way through finding that he has talent, and it's juxtaposed against the miners' strike," Pelty said. "What makes Peter's work so amazing is that every movement in the show feels so incredibly narrative, either abstractly from an emotional point of view or from a literal, narrative standpoint. These miners and the policemen are dancing their anger, or dancing their conflict. They're not classic movements."
Pelty, whose job on the current "Billy Elliot" tour is to keep the choreography on target, spends a lot of time taking notes on the dancers' movements and making sure they measure up to Darling's exacting standards.
"The movement is extremely percussive and sharp. As resident choreographer, I'm constantly noting the company on the execution of these steps," he said. "It can never be sharp enough and clean enough."
The same goes for the character of Billy, who in this tour is performed by four boys, each doing two performances a week. Each Billy, Pelty said, brings something slightly different to the uncommonly demanding role.
"It's like playing Hamlet and running the Boston Marathon all at the same time. They have to reach such incredible emotional heights during the show and yet it's so physically demanding," Pelty said. "They have to really spend themselves so incredibly, and the possibility for injury is so great. ... My job is to make sure that they stay really focused and clear on every movement and step that they take in every way."
Thirteen-year-old Noah Parets is the latest Billy to join the tour. (The other boys performing Billy are Ben Cook, Kylend Hetherington and Zach Manske.) Among his co-stars, each of whom is starring in a Broadway production for the first time, Noah's story is unusual. Before he auditioned for "Billy Elliot," he had never stepped onto a professional stage.
"To have Billy Elliot be his first major performing and acting experience is quite daunting for a 13-year-old," Pelty said. "So helping him to pace himself through the whole rehearsal process was really challenging for him, and he has really risen and gone way beyond our expectations. He's just an amazing young man."
Noah, who spoke to The News from Detroit, talked about his love for dance in a way remarkably similar to the character of Billy, who in the film describes the feeling of dancing for an imposing panel of judges as "like electricity." ("Electricity" is also the title of one of Billy's dances in the show.)
"My first class was a jazz class when I was 7 years old, and I fell in love with it. It was something that clicked with me and it was the thing I did every day after school and I loved it," Noah said. "It just made me feel like the happiest person alive, and I felt amazing every time I stepped onstage or stepped into a studio and got to dance. It's just magic."
Noah said the most challenging part of the role, aside from the daunting dance number "Electricity," is perfecting his acting - an entirely new skill that he's been improving upon throughout his experience on the show.
"I just like to approach every show as being very fresh and new and always be very present. If anything different happens that night, then I go along with it," he said. "And I really work toward building my show every night and just improving upon it as much as I can."
All the well-oiled elements of the show - Darling's choreography, Elton John's music, Lee Hall's lyrics and the dozens of performers whose precise and practiced dance moves drive the story - are focused on a single, simple message about the creative urge. As Pelty put it: "Never be afraid to just be yourself."
"We don't hit it over the head. We're not trying to say, 'This is so important.' It just is. That's what's so lovely about the story. These people are very hard, these characters. Hard-edged. They don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. They hold their emotions in," he said.
"But out of this comes an incredibly romantic story, and it's that much more meaningful because we're not trying to make it sentimental at all. In fact, we have to always take the sentimentality out of it, take the romanticism out of it, so that the story becomes much more real and accessible."
"Billy Elliot": opens Tuesday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St., and runs through Sept. 30. Tickets are $27.50 to $67.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or visit www.sheas.org.