Becoming Billy Elliot
BY Bridget English, Editorial Assistant
February / March 2009
Sitting in the audience watching dancers from The Pirate Queen at Irish America’s Top 100 Gala in 2006, honoree Trent Kowalik never imagined that in just two years it would be him up on a Broadway stage.
Even Trent’s mother, Lauretta, has trouble believing that her son has gone from Irish dancing to a starring role in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot. “Who would’ve thought?” she says.
Implausible perhaps, but not entirely unexpected. Trent’s early career is impressive. At the age of eleven, he became the youngest American to get to the top of the podium at the 2006 World Irish Dance Championships in Belfast, but the lead role in Billy Elliot requires more than just dancing. Aside from the almost three hours onstage with six or seven dance numbers, Trent must also act, sing and speak in Northern England’s distinctive Geordie accent while bringing the story of a working-class boy caught up in the milieu of a mining town to the audience. These tasks are difficult for most performers, not to mention a thirteen-year-old boy with no prior acting experience.
So how did Trent manage to score the Billy part not only in London’s West End production but also on Broadway? At risk of sounding like a cliché, you could argue that Trent was born dancing.
When she was pregnant with Trent, Lauretta Kowalik told people how her son was “dancing in the womb” because he moved around so much. Trent was even born with a knot in the umbilical cord, which doctors said was a result of his hyperactivity.
Trent grew up in an Irish-American family with three older sisters. Trent’s father, Mike, and mother, Lauretta, are both fourth-generation Irish-American, with Lauretta’s family coming from County Roscommon. From early on he was surrounded by dance with all three sisters enrolled in Irish dance classes. This environment alone could provoke a young boy to either love or hate dance, but even before he turned three, Trent was discovered wearing his sister’s tap shoes, standing in front of a TV mimicking Michael Flatley’s dance moves.
Since he was too young to start Irish dance classes, Trent’s parents enrolled him in dance classes at Dorothy’s School of Dance in Bellmore, Long Island, NY. Under the tutelage of Dorothy Medico, Trent progressed from ballet and tap to hip-hop, jazz and acrobatic tumbling. Here is where the Billy Elliot parallel comes into play, with similarities being drawn between Mrs. Medico and Billy’s colorful dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson. Trent agrees that the two are a bit alike and hastens to add that Mrs. Medico was with him “every step of the way.”
When he turned four, Trent was enrolled in Irish step dancing lessons at the Inishfree School of Irish Dance in Long Island. Under the instruction of Sean Reagan, he quickly mastered the form, succeeding in regional competitions before moving on to national and world competition and culminating in Belfast’s World Championship win in 2006.
Looking back at the competition that brought him that title, Trent is nonchalant. “Once you get out on the stage and start dancing, you forget everything,” he says. It seems, then that Trent was not only born a dancer, but also born to entertain. But how did his experiences with Irish dance competitions translate to a London stage?
According to Trent it was hard work but nothing he couldn’t handle. To hear him describe it, acting came fairly easily. “At first it was really hard to do. But it’s another thing once you start doing it more and you feel more like Billy.”
Trent had been shown the Billy Elliot movie by his parents before there was any mention of the part in London. Surrounded by girls in both his dance classes at Dorothy’s and his Irish dance lessons, he related to the character of Billy. “It was a very inspiring movie because I was in a dance class and there were no other boys.”
After hearing of the London auditions from New York-based Irish dance instructor Niall O’Leary, Trent decided to give the part a try. One of the most intimidating things about the auditions for Trent was the fact that he’d never seen so many other boys who were great dancers. The other fear he had to face was singing in front of an audience for the first time. “I was nervous at the auditions,” he says. “I’d never done anything like that before.” But he is quick to note, “I absolutely loved it by the end of the audition. From there I went to two more auditions and then they finally told me that I got the part on the West End.”
When comparisons between himself and the character Billy Elliot are made, Trent is quick to note that unlike Billy, he has an extremely supportive family. Living in London from the fall of 2007 to spring 2008 to perform in Billy Elliot proved challenging, as Trent was faced not only with his first acting gig, but also with being apart from his family for the first time. “At first it was really hard,” he notes, “because my parents weren’t with me, but after a while it sort of became home.” It helped that Mike and Lauretta got to visit once a month, and Trent was able to establish bonds with other actors who lived with him in the “Billy House” where the younger cast members – the role of Billy was shared by Trent with two other boys – were looked after by “house parents.”
Trent’s experience in Billy Elliot in London proved essential when it came time to cast the Broadway Billy. Especially his mastery of the Geordie accent, which he says he just “picked up.”
“We had lots of accents and dialect lessons,” Trent notes, “but when I started in London I had English accents all around me. We actually had some people who spoke in the Geordie accent. Most of the cast members were English, but there’s also been an Irish Billy and a Scottish Billy.”
All right, so Trent has the accent down, the singing is fine and the dancing is superb, so what were the other challenges he faced going into the show? And how did Irish dance translate to the ballet that is required for the Billy role?
“Well actually, I started doing ballet about the same age as I started Irish dance,” Trent explains. “I did other types of dancing but I was just very focused on the Irish step dancing.”
There were some challenges when he was first starting both ballet with Mrs. Mendico and Irish dance at Inishfree. “I remember being in ballet class and having them tell me I was way too stiff in my upper body. Because when I did Irish dancing you have to be really straight and stiff in your upper body.”
Clearly, the differences didn’t prove too problematic and Trent found that he could easily shift between the two without mixing up steps. But does he prefer one to the others? Not really, though he says he likes tap for “the fact that you can make your own beat and you get to match your feet to the music.”
Mostly though, Trent loves to dance because he loves to jump. He even says his parents gave him a pogo stick one Christmas for that reason. After all, despite his many talents, Trent is a kid at heart. He loves being back in New York, the city he calls his “home town” with the support of his family and friends.
Though he currently lives in an apartment in Manhattan to be close to the theater, Trent gets a chance to go back to his home in Wantagh, N.Y. on his day off. At home, Trent says he usually plays video games or goes to his cousin’s house or to movie theaters, it all depends on how he’s feeling that day. Traveling and being away from his family has actually strengthened his relationship with his sisters. “When you don’t see them as much, you appreciate them more,” he says.
Trent is certainly appreciating the support from his family these days as the media whirlwind surrounding Billy Elliot reaches a high point. This fall alone Kowalik, along with Billy counterparts Kiril Kulish and David Alvarez, have been interviewed in The New York Times, The Daily News and New York magazine as well as appearing on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and having their pictures featured in Vanity Fair and Vogue.
All the newfound fame doesn’t seem to have affected Trent in a negative way. He says that he’s glad he gets to share the spotlight with Alvarez and Kulish because he recognizes that the role would be grueling on his own. And he does his best to keep in touch with old friends from Irish dancing and from the London production through e-mail, facebook and even his own blog.
In addition to living in London to perform in Billy, Trent’s dancing has also taken him to Ireland several times to compete in the World Championships in Killarney and in Belfast. While there, Trent got a chance to see a few tourist sites like the Ring of Kerry. When asked how he found the Irish people, Trent answers like any typical thirteen-year-old: “They’re just like us, except for the accents, obviously.”
Unlike most thirteen-year-olds, Trent seems to have a sense of a kind of artistic inspiration that takes over when he’s on stage. After practicing the part, Trent claims that he’s now able to channel the Billy character before he goes on stage. “You have to really get yourself in the part before you go on. That way you can really be Billy when you get out there.” At one point in the show, Trent is hoisted into the air to give the illusion of his “flying” over the stage. Trent describes how it was “really scary at first. It felt sort of like a roller coaster, but after doing it a lot, now it feels like a really nice breeze. Like I’m in a fast car that doesn’t have any top on it.”
For now, Trent is willing to follow the roller coaster ride and see where acting takes him. Though his Irish dancing days may be past, Trent notes that they are not forgotten.
“I’ve always loved Irish step dancing,” he says, “but I think that after doing this part I want to focus more on acting. But I’ll always remember it.”
UPDATE: Trent gave his final performance as Billy Eliot on March 7, 2010. He is currently continuing his dance education at The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School – Pre-Professional Division American Ballet Theater.