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By Sylviane Gold
“It took a while,” Jeff Edwards says with a laugh. But some 30 years after his first audition, he’s finally signed on with a Broadway musical.
“I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer when I first came to the School of American Ballet,” he says. “I wanted to be on Broadway.” So, fresh off the bus from Butler, Pennsylvania, an SAB scholarship kid of 14, he tried out for A Chorus Line. “I stood on that white line in a cattle call of 400 men,” he recalls. “And when I stepped forward and said my name and did my time step and my double pirouette, the producers laughed. And they said ‘Come back in five years.’ ”
He didn’t. Five years later, in 1984, he was dancing with New York City Ballet, where he rose to the rank of soloist. Looking to expand both his choreographic and geographic frame of reference, he joined companies in Zurich and Lyon. Then, after retiring from the stage and getting a degree at Brown, he became associate artistic director at the Washington Ballet and associate artistic director and ballet master at Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses. What’s finally brought him to Broadway? A gig as a resident choreographer at Billy Elliot.
Of course, there’s no actual choreographing involved; Peter Darling took care of that chore in Tony- and Olivier-winning style when the 2000 movie became the hit show, first in London and then in New York. But with five pre-pubescent boys playing the title character, Billy Elliot needs a combination dance captain/hall monitor/répétiteur/den mother/ballet coach/ scheduler/child psychiatrist. At least that’s how the job sounds when Edwards describes it.
And, he adds, it meshes perfectly with his background and temperament. To begin with, Billy’s story, set in England’s coal country among hardscrabble mining families, resonates with his own. “My grandfather was a coal miner,” he says. “My father worked at United States Steel. No one in our family was ever involved with the arts.” His first ballet classes were meant only to improve his floor exercises in gymnastics.
He ended up at SAB with the help of Jean Gedeon of Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company, leaving behind his family and his sense of alienation. “From a very young age I knew I wasn’t in the right environment,” he says. “I loved my family, but I could sense that I didn’t fit.” Being in New York and going to SAB just “clicked” for him. And his experience with master teachers like Violette Verdy and Stanley Williams made him “very much a teacher,” too, he says. He’s taught in a variety of settings, and the Washington Ballet’s school was a key element of his job there.
“As a performer you’re so focused on yourself,” he says. “I was actually excited when I stepped away from the stage to start focusing on other people.”
The job at Billy Elliot draws on many aspects of his past. It’s up to Edwards to coordinate the elements that keep his five charges “healthy and prepared and inspired”: physical therapy, cardio workouts, Pilates, acrobatic training, drama, ballet, and tap. “Being associate director in Washington and rehearsal director with Morphoses was good training,” he says. “There are so many moving parts, and you’re trying to take care of the artistic piece and also managing a lot of logistics.”
Ballet, though, did not help much in getting each Billy’s dancing to express character rather than just technique. “You’re tapping into what makes each of the boys tick—they’re all so individual, they work in different ways. They’re coming from different training, different cultural backgrounds. Getting the best out of them requires a sensitivity to how they work.”
It also requires Edwards to watch the show eight times a week. He says he’d always wondered what it would be like to work on a Broadway show, repeating the same material night after night instead of constantly dipping into the extensive repertory of a ballet company. So far, he reports, so good: “I am not bored at all,” he says. “The show is fantastic.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Edwards rehearses Jacob Clemente; Michael Dameski looks on. Photo by Kyle Froman.