Local ballet director is real-life ‘Billy Elliot’Written by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Nigel Burgoine settles into his seat in the Stranahan Theater on Oct. 2 for the opening night of “Billy Elliot,” he will be watching a musical that eerily mirrors his own childhood.
At 58, Burgoine has enjoyed a diverse career as a professional dancer, choreographer, director, classical ballet instructor, dance advocate and artistic director of three Ohio ballet theaters. This is his sixth year as artistic director of Ballet Theatre of Toledo, a company established in 2006 by the dancers and parents of his Toledo Ballet students who wanted to keep Burgoine from leaving Toledo.
Burgoine grew up in Wavendon, a village of about 500 people in Buckinghamshire County in southeast England.
Like Billy, who is motherless at age 11 when the “Billy Elliot” musical begins, Burgoine began life motherless when his birth mother left him at the hospital only hours after giving birth. Three weeks later, he was adopted by Marjorie Brooks, a mother he said “worked herself stupid to take me to a private kindergarten when I was 4.
“Every week, she took me down to ‘Musical Movement,’ and this lady would play the piano. If the music was loud, we leapt around. If it was soft, you had to creep and hide.
“Well, the teacher said to my mother, ‘The moment the music plays, Nigel leaps around. We can’t stop him. You should really put him into dancing.’
“And my mother said, ‘I can’t even afford this private school. We can’t put him into dancing.’”
Burgoine said his childhood teacher intervened.
“‘I know the teachers at the ballet school,’” she said. “Let me have a word with them because they’re always looking for dancers, for boys.’
“So I went down there and I did skipping for two weeks. I just skipped up and down to see how the rhythm was. And then they started with dancing, and I didn’t stop.”
From age 4 to 10, Burgoine studied dance and performed in festivals around England, the equivalent to dance competitions in the U.S., where he almost always won first place.
When he was 10, a member of the Buckinghamshire County Council who was friendly with Sir Anton Dolin, England’s leading dancer at the time, invited Dolin to watch Burgoine dance.
“I had been auditioned to go and dance at the Princess Grace School of Ballet in Monaco,” Burgoine said. “And he came and saw me and said, ‘Nope. You’re going to go to the Royal Ballet School in London.’
“I auditioned and was accepted, and I left home, like Billy Elliot did, at the age of 11 and I was a boarder at the Royal Ballet School from the age of 11 to 16. Then at the age of 17 and a half, I joined the London Festival Ballet.”
In 1965, when Burgoine left home, “all the governments wanted to make the arts something that people could do,” he said. “So I had a complete scholarship from the age of 11 to 17 at the Royal Ballet School, which was about $15,000 a year back then. Can you imagine?”
Children of the ’60s were no different than children today and Burgoine said he was often bullied growing up.
An English boy who danced ballet in 1965 was called a sissy, a poof and a pansy, Burgoine said, just like many American boys who dance ballet today are called “fags, or that sort of thing.”
“Yep. Yep. You’re gay. You’re a girl. You do what girls do. You’re not a boy like us,” Burgoine said.
“So you just have to learn to fight. It was like, ‘Fine. Let’s go outside and fight.’ And the minute it was over, you had another friend.”
Burgoine said although his current male students do get teased, the situation has gotten better than it was when he was a child.
“With television programs like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and all of that, it’s sort of making dancing quite cool now,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot better. I think it’s respected a lot more. But in those days, it was only ignorance.”
Burgoine said the bullying stopped when he returned to his village at age 17 as a professional dancer.
“When I can back, it was, ‘Oh, you’re famous now, aren’t you?’” he said.
Burgoine graduated from London’s Royal Ballet School in 1972 to become a world-renowned performer.
From 17 to 33, Burgoine performed as the principal dancer with the London Festival Ballet, dancing 26 principal male roles in 22 ballets. He also performed 21 additional roles in 19 ballets and made 15 guest artist appearances in 15 ballets in four international ballet companies.
His career has taken him to 57 cities in 16 countries on six continents. He has also performed on three television shows and in two films and has worked as a guest teacher at 10 schools in Brazil, England, Japan, New Zealand and the U.S.
“Billy Elliot” opens in Toledo on Oct. 2 with 8 p.m. performances through Oct. 6. The final two days of the show, Oct. 6-7, will have 2 p.m. matinee shows as well. The evening show Oct. 7 is 7:30 p.m.