When University at Buffalo graduate Christopher Howard left Buffalo for New York City in 2009, he carried with him a wealth of experience and background from the school's prestigious theater and dance program.
After a couple years studying at the Joffrey Ballet School, he landed a job with the Dayton Ballet in Ohio, joined an international tour of "A Chorus Line," and, finally, clinched a major role in the national tour of "Billy Elliot." In the dance-driven musical, which runs through Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, Howard, 26, performs a major pas de deux with the show's title character and also serves as a prominent member of the ensemble.
He spoke with The News at Shea's before Thursday night's performance.
The pas de deux in "Billy Elliot" is such an emotional moment in the show. It's just you and Billy onstage. What is it like to dance that number?
It's such a beautiful moment. I love dancing it every night, and it's such a pinnacle, such a high point of the show. That's really when Billy has realized that this is what he wants to do. He really wants to be a dancer, and the ballet is exactly how it makes him feel. So for him to imagine what he'll be like, the older version of himself, and he sees himself and how wonderful this could be and what a wonderful dancer he could be - it's really a beautiful moment.
How did your time at UB prepare you for a role like this?
It made me so well-rounded to be in UB's theater and dance program, because I trained as a singer, I trained as an actor, I trained as a dancer. So I really felt like I was going out into the world prepared for almost anything that might come my way. After UB, I also went and studied at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. I was there for two years, on and off, because I was working in between. And after a few jobs, after the Joffrey School was over, was when I got this job. So both my training at UB and at the Joffrey School have really prepared me not only for this show but shows I had done prior, and I think more shows that are still to come.
You spent the day [Thursday] teaching at UB. What was the experience like?
It was kind of surreal, actually, because I'm used to being the one in that building who was learning and listening, and today I was in the front of the room and I was instructing others... I had a lot of kids come up to me and ask, "How did you do it?" and "How did you get here?" and "How can I get there too?" And it was so funny to me, because those are the exact same questions I had when I was a student there. I felt really great, because I felt like I was giving back.
I got this great training from UB and I've gone out into the world and I've learned - and, of course, I'm still learning every day, and every show I do from now until I'm finished I'll be learning something - but I feel like I really got to give that back today and talk to these students who were so eager and ambitious. And I share that ambition with them. I wanted to tell them everything I knew. Of course, I had limited time, but I really thought I could give them some good advice [and] they'd be ready to go off into the real world.
What does the show mean to you as a dancer, as someone who obviously loves dance?
The great thing about this show just in general is it's relatable to everybody. I think one of the key points is that Billy has his mentor, his role model is his ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkenson. And I feel that everybody, no matter what they go into, whether it be dance, anything [in the] arts, whatever they do in their lives, has their own version of Mrs. Wilkenson. They have their own mentor and someone who pushes them and believes in them and thinks they can go on to do great things.
When I started the show, I could think back to my old teachers and mentors and those who believed in me and pushed me, even when I thought I wasn't good enough to do these kinds of things.
"Billy Elliot the Musical" continues at Shea's Performing Arts Center with shows today at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster and the Shea's box office.
On the Web: To watch a video interview with "Billy Elliot" cast member Christopher Howard, visit The Gusto Blog at blogs.buffalnews.com/gusto.