Billy Elliot – Arts Club Theatre Vancouver – Interview with Matthew Cluff

Billy Elliot

From May 12 to July 10, 2016, Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre produced the musical Billy Elliot at the Stanley Theatre. With music by Elton John, lyrics and screenplay by Lee Hall, and based on the acclaimed film (dir. by Stephen Daldry, 2000), the musical is an inspiring tale of courage, ambition, and overcoming adversity. Set in 1984 County Durham’s coal miners community during Margaret Thatcher’s austerity politics and the miners’ strike (1984-85), this story focuses on 11-year-old Billy (Nolan Fahey), who finds his way into Mrs. Wilkinson’s (Caitriona Murphy) ballet class following his boxing lesson. Enthralled with dance and showing inherent ability, Billy is encouraged to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London, but he fears the reactions of his father (Warren Kimmel) and brother (Danny Balkwill), who are wrapped up in the escalating strike situation. Winner of 10 Tony Awards, this musical challenges gender stereotypes and celebrates creativity and arts despite the most severe economic and conservative obstacles.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

Directed by Bill Millerd and choreographed by Valerie Easton, under the musical direction of Ken Cormier, this musical also features an incredibly talented cast, who sing, dance, make you laugh and contemplate life’s injustices and triumphs. Particularly impressive are the performances of Nolan Fahey who plays Billy and transforms on stage into a professional dancer. Former Ballet Victoria male lead dancer Matthew Cluff plays Older Billy and performs the most moving pas de deux with young Billy, who is slowly beginning to realize his artistic potential. Vancouver-born actor and performer Valin Shinyei plays Michael (and Billy understudy) and almost steal the spotlight from the lead with his voice, charm, and humour. Also noteworthy is the performance of Barbara Pollard, who plays Billy’s feisty and witty Grandma.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper   Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

Hall’s screenplay was inspired in part by A. J. Cronin’s 1935 novel about a miners’ strike, The Stars Look Down, to which the musical’s opening song pays homage. The musical premiered at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End in 2005 and was nominated for nine Laurence Olivier Awards, winning four, including Best New Musical. The production ran through April 2016. After Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, according to director Stephen Daldry, the audience were given the choice to decide whether the song “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” would be included in the performance that day, since the lyrics include the sentence: “We all celebrate today ’cause it’s one day closer to your death.” As only 3 audience members voted against it, the performance went ahead as normal. The Broadway production opened at the Imperial Theatre on November 13, 2008, directed and designed by the London production’s creative team.The production received fifteen Tony Award nominations, tying with The Producers for the most nominations ever received by a Broadway show, and winning ten, including Best Musical. The Broadway production closed on January 8, 2012 following 40 previews and 1,312 regular performances.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

The Arts Club Theatre Company is the largest theatre company in Western Canada with three venues: the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, Granville Island Stage, and Revue Stage, as well as a touring program throughout the province. Its popular productions range from musicals and contemporary comedies to new works and classics. Founded in 1958 as a private club for artists, musicians, and actors, it officially became the Arts Club Theatre in 1964 when the company opened its first stage, a converted gospel hall at Seymour Street and Davie. The company’s twenty-seven years at Seymour Street are an important part of Vancouver and Canadian theatre history. The tiny 250-seat stage helped launch the careers of Canadian talents such as Michael J. Fox, Bruce Greenwood, Ruth Nichol, Janet Wright, Winston Rekert, Lally Cadeau, and Brent Carver, while introducing Vancouver to works by Canadian playwrights such as Michel Tremblay, David Freedman, and Carol Bolt. The original Arts Club Seymour Street Stage was closed for demolition in 1991. The company added the current Granville Island Stage in 1979, and the smaller Revue Stage next door in 1983. The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage opened to the public with Dean Regan’s record-setting production of Swing in October 1998, and it is now considered the company’s flagship venue. An intimate version of a Broadway or London classic theatre, this elegant venue has permitted the company to move into the exciting arena of producing larger musicals, 20th-century classics, and acclaimed productions from around the world. For a historical look back at the Arts Club, explore the show archives.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper   Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

I interviewed Matthew Cluff, who performed in several lead roles with Ballet Victoria this season, and who is originally from Prince George, BC, where he graduated high school and Judy Russell’s Enchaînement Dance Centre, and then embarked on professional ballet training in San Francisco. Upon graduation, he was hired as the male lead dancer in the Ballet Victoria company in 2013. He was kind enough to take the time to answer my questions.

Billy Elliot photo by David Cooper

K.S.: What motivated you to become a ballet dancer? Did you always know you wanted to do it professionally or were there other careers that were appealing to you? 

M.C.: For me, it’s kind of ironic – I never went to ballet school to ultimately become a ballet dancer! I knew two things coming out of high school: (1) That I wanted to dance / perform professionally, and (2) I wanted to gain as much technique as I could while I was still young. For me, that meant trying to get into ballet school. I attended San Francisco Ballet School’s Summer Intensive in 2010 with hopes they’d accept me into the year-round program. I didn’t really have a fallback option. Luckily, though, they accepted me and from there, just being around the “aura” of ballet – other kids auditioning for all these companies and all – it’s just kind of where the wind took me at the time, first dancing professionally with Ballet Victoria, and now this. It’s exciting to see where it’ll take me down the road, too. While dancing / performing has always been a main interest for me, I’ve always simultaneously tried to keep myself engaged in other passions that I have, too, in the evenings, to help stimulate my brain and allow me to experience and learn as much as I can in life.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

Once you decided to become a professional dancer, what were some challenges or considerations that you faced that are different from dancing as a hobby? 

It’s competitive out there! Getting your foot in the door of the professional world of ballet is certainly a challenge in and of itself, as nowhere near the amount of people who want to become dancers ultimately get a chance to simply because of supply and demand. Many companies are so subjective to body types, too, what they’re looking for, and just straight up whether or not they like you, so you really have to work hard technically and performance-wise to try to stand out from the competition. Therefore, during my training, it was always important to stay motivated and keep pushing myself in order to improve my dancing to a level that would be associated with a professional standard. Being involved in such a hard-working environment in San Francisco with other like-minded, driven students really helped out. It wasn’t like we were always fighting or competing with each other; just always pushing each other to improve – it was great! Finding the motivation to get whatever you want is key.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

You’ve been with Ballet Victoria since 2013 – what were some of the highlights of your time with the company so far? 

Don Quixote, I think, was the highlight for me. I’ve always loved the tricks and turns that guys especially get to do in ballet, and Don Q, I feel, is pretty much as good as it gets in that regard for ballet. Romeo and Juliet was an incredible program to get to lead in, too, in regards to classical repertoire! For contemporary, I think my favourite by far was The Rite of Spring, as well as the many Bruce Monk pas de deuxs – Quantum Entanglements and Nocti-Luxe, specifically – that I got to perform with Andrea Bayne. Throughout my time with Ballet Victoria, though, I feel like the biggest highlight was all of it – getting an opportunity to perform all the lead male roles in all of the ballets we performed! It’s such a rarity to get that kind of experience straight out of ballet school, so I feel quite blessed to have experienced that, and I feel like it’s helped improve my dancing immensely over the years to get me ultimately to where I am today.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

What has your experience been like working with Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre on Billy Elliot

It’s been such a big change of pace from ballet for me, but I’ve been loving every second! One thing I do miss, though, is not being able to start each day (unlike a ballet company) with ballet class… or have time to fit that into my current rehearsal schedule, for that matter! (I plan to get back to it once we get into the theatre and start our days later, though). All of the people I’m working with here are so talented. It’s been really inspiring to work with them and has created a good challenge for me to try and come up to their level (especially for the singing and acting that I have to do) by working hard on those everyday when I have the chance. It’s also been really wicked to tap so much (close to everyday) in preparing for the dance choreography involved throughout the show – I just love being able to tap dance so much again!

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper   Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper   Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

Is the work on a musical different from the work on a ballet? Is the rehearsal time and process similar or different? 

One noticeable difference from what I’m used to is the timeframe for rehearsals before we start performances. With Ballet Victoria, we generally had about 6-8 weeks to learn and rehearse rep for an upcoming program, which even then seemed pressed, at times. For Billy Elliot, we only get just over 3 weeks of rehearsal before our first show! So it’s definitely been a push to put it all together in such a short amount of time. You also aren’t always going to be guaranteed rehearsal time each day to work on the bits and pieces that you really want to, so even moreso now, I have to really take it upon myself to rehearse and perfect the parts that I specifically need to work on. The process is also different with the lines and musical aspect of it – learning the songs, rehearsing those before starting the choreography, etc. Sometimes, it can actually be quite challenging to both sing and dance intensely at the same time, which makes for quite a unique experience relative to ballet. Another major difference I’ve noticed is with the dancing. In the ballet world, everyone dances; that’s what they do and everyone is subsequently able to pick it up quite well with relative ease. However, in musical theatre, some people classify themselves much more as actors or singers than as dancers. So it’s been a great opportunity for me to try to assist some of the cast in picking up the choreography or noticing the choreographic details, as some of them simply aren’t used to having to do that as frequently like this.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

What is your favourite part / scene of the musical? 

It’s all great! I really enjoy the song “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” – it’s really catchy and a lot of fun to sing. For the dancing, I actually really enjoy the tap sections a lot, specifically, Younger Billy’s “Angry Dance” that closes out Act One. While that dance is not part of my role, I got to learn the choreography for it, and it’s just so raw and unleashing and the tap rhythms are really cool in it, too. We also started with the flying sequence in the “Dream Ballet,” so I think that’s going to be a lot of fun to be a part of.

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What was the audition process like for Billy Elliot

We did some ballet class exercises – mainly jumps and turns. The main role they were auditioning for was Older Billy in the Younger Billy / Older Billy pas de deux in the 2nd act of the ballet (although, there is ensemble work also involved, as we have such a small cast), so the ballet technique was an important aspect to what they were looking for. After the ballet section of the audition, we did a tiny little 24-count tap combo, just to get a sense of if we tapped and how quickly we could pick it up. Finally, we sung Happy Birthday one at a time for the musical director and panel of judges to show our basic singing range and abilities.

Billy Elliot, photo by David Cooper

Do you have favourite places / cafes  / shops in Vancouver or Victoria? 

I wouldn’t consider myself someone who gets out shopping or goes for coffee a ton, but some places I’ve been to that I really enjoy include The Flying Pig restaurant in Vancouver, and the Board Games Café in Victoria – that place is so much fun!

What are your summer plans, and are your next projects? 

Just recently, actually, I got a contract with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal for next season! So, once I’m done this show, I’ll first be going to Kamloops to teach a week-long dance workshop, and then from there immediately onto Montreal to start dancing straight away. My contract there will take me all the way to May 2017.

Photos by David Cooper.

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2 Responses to Billy Elliot – Arts Club Theatre Vancouver – Interview with Matthew Cluff

  1. Pingback: Cinderella – Ballet Victoria – Interview with Andrea Bayne | Suites Culturelles

  2. June Fourth says:

    The character of Billy does not transform into a professional dancer on stage before our eyes.

    He gains admission into White Lodge, the Lower School of the Royal Ballet School, by the musical’s end and thus gets to begin his transformational journey towards attaining a vocational level of dance artistry.

    In the movie version of the tale we see him performing as the accomplished, professional dancer he has become years later, in the final scene. But in the stage version we only see him soaring to great heights in his mind, in the Dream Ballet… alongside a professional calibre partner, the subject of the interview.

    Rule of thumb: it can take between something like 8 – 10 years of intensive training to develop the skills and other attributes necessary to dance ballet professionally.

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