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They Shared a Tony for ‘Billy Elliot’. What Did They Do for an Encore?


They Shared a Tony for ‘Billy Elliot’. What Did They Do for an Encore?

It was — good gosh, can this possibly be right? — 11 years ago that I met the Billys Elliot, all of us gathered in the fluorescent delirium of Dave & Buster’s in Times Square. They ate pizza and drank milkshakes, because that is how old they were, three kids unknown to Broadway at that point, the last boys standing from a nationwide culling of young dancers. They were on the verge of being huge.

Trent Kowalik, 13, Kiril Kulish, 14, and David Alvarez, 13, would shoulder “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” an $18.5 million Broadway production about an aspiring ballet dancer growing up in English coal country in the Thatcher era. Ten years ago this June, they walked up together onto the Radio City Musical Hall stage to receive the Tony Award for best performance by a leading actor in a musical, the first trio ever to do so.

Broadway runs come to an end, as does prepubescence. By the time “Billy Elliot” closed on Broadway in 2012, the original trio had long scattered. To where? It’s an odd exercise, asking what happened to people who are still at an age when most people haven’t happened at all yet. But no one comes out of the teenage years unchanged, not even Billy Elliot.

On a recent gorgeous Friday night in Manhattan, Mr. Kowalik and Mr. Alvarez strolled into the restaurant Bond 45 — Mr. Kowalik fresh from teaching a studio of young tap dancers, Mr. Alvarez from rehearsing for his role as Bernardo in the coming Steven Spielberg production of “West Side Story.”

Once again on the verge of showbiz hugeness, Mr. Alvarez seemed serene about it all, in an intentionally Buddhist sense. Back in the day, when the trio would rotate in the title role, each bringing his own personal quality, Mr. Alvarez was the Angry Billy, who would come off the stage tear-stained with emotional intensity. Now he is all easy smiles and Eastern philosophy.

“Whatever happens,” he said, “is going to happen.”

“Are you saying the future is predetermined?” Mr. Kowalik asked. (They both studied philosophy in college.)

Mr. Kowalik, by his own account, was the Vulnerable Billy, rule-bound and reserved. Now 24 and, as the afternoon in the dance studio confirmed, as agile on his feet as ever, he is one of the more engagingly and acutely introspective people you could meet.

“I think about this a lot,” he said. “Have I actually changed? I don’t know if I’ve actually changed. Maybe just the way I present myself has changed.”

I asked these same sort of things a few days later in West Hollywood over dinner with Mr. Kulish, who had come to the restaurant from teaching a ballroom dancing master class.

“It’s hard to describe your own self,” he said.

Undoubtedly true. But over dinner each Billy gave it a shot, telling his own story of lucky breaks, setbacks, ambitions, injury and the dance of growing up.

“When I was little I wanted to do everything right,” Mr. Kowalik said.

He was at dancing school before he turned 4 and had won an Irish dancing world championship before he turned 12. Though the youngest of the three, he was a veteran Billy before the musical even opened in New York, having played the role in London, and he stayed on Broadway the longest.

Back to dance school afterward, then high school, then Princeton University, where he majored in philosophy and earned a certificate in dance. His senior dance thesis project was inspired by his “work on backward time travel and decision theory.”

It was all work at the very highest levels. But who was he doing it for? The question nagged.

“Other people expect me to be super good at things,” he said of his life in performance. “I have to live up to their expectations.”

During the Broadway run of “Billy Elliot,” Mr. Kowalik received what turned out to be a life-changing gift: an iPod shuffle. With a download of “Lip Gloss” by Lil Mama, Mr. Kowalik’s independent study had begun. “I found myself constantly listening to music,” he said.

In a world of elite dance and elite academics, music was his own private thing, just as dancing was Billy Elliot’s thing in a world of coal mines and striking workers. He listened to psytrance and electronica, downloaded GarageBand and stayed up all night working on music of his own.

After two decades of performing before thousands of spectators and teachers and fellow dancers, Mr. Kowalik was doing something that no one knew he was doing, and he loved it.

“I feel like it’s easier to kind of make your own decisions about what you want when you feel like you don’t have to prove yourself,” he said.

Since graduation, he has been living at home, unsure exactly where he will end up. He is considering going to work for his father, a land surveyor. He still teaches dance class and performs in an Irish dancing company, but he has already danced on some of the biggest stages in the world.

It’s the music now that gets him excited, partly — perhaps mainly — because “I’m absolutely no one when it comes to my music.”

He plans to produce an EP soon, he said, and release it under a pseudonym.

Mr. Kulish, now 25, is also planning to produce an EP. And go to film school. And continue to dance. And teach. And act. And choreograph. “Being not limited to one craft is what I understood I wanted to do,” he said.

It is hard to find much that he is not doing, or has not done, or has no plans to do soon. Mr. Kulish saw himself as the Sincere Billy, and this is still a good description. He is sincere in that L.A. way, seemingly neurosis- and regret-free, matter-of-factly cataloging his achievements without a scent of vanity or self-consciousness.

There was a lot to catalog, though not on Broadway: world ballroom dancing competitions, ballet concerts at the Kennedy Center, work at the Geffen Playhouse, shows at resorts in Las Vegas and Puerto Vallarta.

If there were an impulse for Mr. Kowalik’s sort of self-analysis, or the kind of soul-searching that Mr. Alvarez would describe, Mr. Kulish did not betray it. What he did confront were the limitations of the dancer’s most essential tool: the body.

“I have a really high pain tolerance,” he said, having truly learned enough to say this.

Three years ago, immediately after his debut season in the dance troupe on “Dancing With the Stars,” where he really discovered his love for choreography, when doors seemed to be opening for him everywhere, he learned that he had been dancing for months with fractures in both feet. This probably explained the excruciating pain.

It also meant wearing medical boots for a whole summer, the longest pause of his career. He would fully recover (he recalled those months as an opportunity “to get my upper body really strong”). But it was a reminder of why he had decided, about a year after a deepening voice had nudged him out of “Billy Elliot,” not to become a professional ballet dancer.

He had been on his way to doing that, training at the American Ballet Theater. But he saw company members still in their 20s discussing their knee operations and hip replacements. “Do I really want to do ballet for the rest of my life, as a career?” he asked.

The day after a Kennedy Center performance, he told his mother the answer: No, he didn’t. They moved back to the West Coast, and he has not looked back.

In the fall of 2018, Mr. Alvarez was heading into his sophomore year at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland when the casting director for “West Side Story” found him.

He had moved to Ohio in part to be near his father, not to drop out of show business. After backpacking through Mexico the previous year, reading Plato and the Bhagavad Gita, he had come to an understanding about his place in the world.

“As you get older the stresses of life make you lose that confidence, that belief in yourself,” he said. “I needed to find that child that I was.”

After he left “Billy Elliot” and finished high school, Mr. Alvarez enlisted in the Army. Few in the dance world seemed to know what had happened to him. “People thought I was dead,” he said.

For most of the next two and a half years he served with the 25th Infantry Division at Fort Wainwright, in Fairbanks, Alaska. He never told his fellow soldiers his background — not out of fear of how it would be received, he said, but, much like Mr. Kowalik, because he sought the luxury of being unknown.

“I always wondered what it would have been like growing up going to a normal public school,” he said.

After his tour of duty, the Tony Award in his duffel bag, Mr. Alvarez returned to Broadway, landing a role as a swing in “On the Town.” It is difficult enough for soldiers to re-enter the civilian world. Few outside the military seem to understand the tight camaraderie, the sense of mission. But going from the barracks to the stage, even if you’re playing a sailor on shore leave, is a particularly intense disorientation.

“In the military, it was a strict mind-set of being a warrior,” Mr. Alvarez said. “With the arts, it’s a completely different mind-set. It’s all about being vulnerable so you can create.”

It was a rough adjustment — “a battle,” he said. As soon as “On the Town” ended, he bought a one-way ticket to Mexico, where he knew no one. By now, this had become a very David Alvarez thing to do.

“I wish I could be more like that,” Mr. Kowalik said.

But the thing about taking a break from life is that you can’t. Just weeks into his self-imposed exile, Mr. Alvarez got a call. “Billy Elliot” was coming to Mexico City and the production needed help training the young Billys. So Mr. Alvarez spent the next four months teaching, and learning many things about the show that he had never known or appreciated.

He even performed in the production for a few months. In Act II, alone and downhearted after a Christmas party, Billy begins dancing to “Swan Lake,” in the musical’s dream ballet. He is joined in the dance by Older Billy, his vision of the dancer he would become. This is the role Mr. Alvarez played in Mexico.

He was still young, 22 at the time, but he was now Older Billy, a Billy who had hit some dead ends, who had endured the dislocations of adulthood, who had, as Mr. Alvarez put it, “gone AWOL” so he could figure out who he really was. He would soon leave the production and return to his wanderings in Mexico for some months before going off to college.

The life-changing call from “West Side Story” was nearly two years in the future. He knew none of this while playing Older Billy, but he did know, by that point, how humbling and unpredictable life could be.

The younger Billys in Mexico City would presumably learn these things themselves at some point, just as Mr. Kowalik and Mr. Kulish had. But the Billys in Mexico were still young, working as hard as they ever had and elated to have the biggest break of their lives, just as Mr. Alvarez had once felt.

“Closure,” he said of the whole experience. “I was giving all of this to someone else.”

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