Interview: Brodie Donougher A REAL LIFE BILLY ELLIOT STORY!

From U.K.'s West End to the U.S.A., and is now here in the US chasing his dreams as a professional Ballet dancer!

By: May. 28, 2023
Interview: Brodie Donougher A REAL LIFE BILLY ELLIOT STORY!
Credit: Brodie Donougher

What do you get when you have a ballet dancer who dreams of making it professionally and showing the world that guys can dance too?  You have a real-life Billy Elliot story, which is happening to someone who played the titular role of Billy on the West End back home in the UK, and is now here in the US studying and training in professional ballet making his dancing dreams a reality! Not only does he dance, but he has done a few acting roles as well and even participated in a professional opera as a dancer. He is taking the role, and making it his real-life story!   At the end of the musical, we see Billy leaving his home and family to head off for training at the Royal Ballet School, so this is like getting to see the story continue beyond the stage!  Broadway World Detroit got a chance to catch up with Brodie Donougher, the last person to play the role of Billy, and see what he’s up to since his days on the West End stage 7 years ago!

Broadway World Michigan: Can you give our readers a brief background of yourself and then your theatre and dance career as an introduction?

Brodie Donougher: I didn’t grow up with any theatrics in the family. None of my family members are performers or have any creative backgrounds, so when I started dancing, it was a whole new world opened up within my family.

Interview: Brodie Donougher A REAL LIFE BILLY ELLIOT STORY!
Credit: Brodie Donougher

I was a very keen gymnast when I was younger, I had competed nationally and regionally, winning gold and first place in most of the competitions I entered. But I first started dancing when I was about 8 years old. I joined The Royal Ballet’s Primary Steps Program. After that, at age 9, I auditioned for The Royal Ballet School, Elmhurst Ballet School, and Billy Elliot the Musical, on the West End.  As I was successful in being offered all of them, I had to make the brave decision of what I wanted to pursue. Even at such a young age, I knew that my decision could determine the direction of my future.

I took on the role of ‘Billy’ in Billy Elliot the Musical, and performed in 144 shows, over the course of 2 years. I was chosen to represent Billy Elliot for Best West End Musical, at the Olivier Awards in 2015, and performed on ‘The Late Late Show’ in Ireland.

After Billy, I enrolled as a student at Elmhurst Ballet School, in Birmingham, England, where I studied for 4 years, learning Ballet, Contemporary, Jazz, Flamenco, and general academics.

When Covid-19 appeared, I moved to San Francisco, and became a student at San Francisco Ballet School for one year, before being promoted to Trainee for an additional year.

I am now a professional Artist with Grand Rapids Ballet, in Michigan.

Interview: Brodie Donougher A REAL LIFE BILLY ELLIOT STORY!
Provided by: Brodie Donougher

What made you first interested in wanting to dance/ participate in ballet?

The Royal Ballet School had set up a scheme called ‘Primary Steps’ which is a national program to provide class groups (age 7-11) with a positive introduction to ballet and creative ballet training for selected children who would not otherwise have the opportunity. And fortunately, I was one of those selected children to participate in a weekly 1-hour class. Then I was inspired when I meant my first male Ballet teacher, Mr. Gray.

What are some of your favorite memories of dancing and performing? 

I would say that my favorite performance was in 2014 when I had my debut in Billy Elliot the Musical.  Not only did I have fun doing it, but when I was looking out to the 3,000 people in the audience after each scene or act… I just realized that the audience was cheering and applauding for me. And I think that’s when I realized that I was there, performing, putting on a show.

But I would say that my most cherished memory on stage has to be when I played the role of ‘Rookie’ in 3-time Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler’s ‘Remember Our Song’ at Grand Rapids Ballet in April 2023. The role he gave me made me push beyond my limits and create this character who was lost in himself and scared for his life.  I would sometimes go home and still feel like Rookie was a part of me.

Interview: Brodie Donougher A REAL LIFE BILLY ELLIOT STORY!
Credit: Alistair Muir

You starred in Billy Elliot on the West End and performed the role for TV and Award shows. Do you feel the training for Billy influenced you and made you want to go into ballet as a career and pursue your own real Billy Elliot story?

Absolutely! Playing Billy definitely influenced my career, even to this day. When you are a 9-year-old kid who had only been dancing for 1 year, and then suddenly, you're doing it daily from the minute you wake up at 9 am until the end of the show at 11 pm… It becomes your whole personality. It becomes your personality, influences your traits, and develops your character in many ways that would be different from every other kid my age.

So, yes, I would say the training from Billy Elliot gave my further training and now career, a big head start. It made me want to continue Ballet as I really did feel like Billy. From a small town, where Ballet isn’t for boys, and even if ballet was around, then it’s not very common and it was certainly only for girls. I started off taking Taekwondo lessons, but I didn’t enjoy it, much like Billy Elliot didn’t enjoy boxing.  Then when we both found dance… we felt whole. We felt joy. We felt free!

Can you please tell us about your experience in dance, which some would say is very much like Billy’s? 

Linking this back to the previous question, my start in the dance industry is very much similar to Billy’s story. The only difference between me and the character I played was the enormous support I received from my family. Especially from my Mum and Dad. Billy’s dad came around in the end, but my parents were supportive from day one.

They stated that they didn’t think ballet was for me, and they said that they were sure I would quit and stop dancing. I proved them wrong, as here I am in Michigan as a professional Ballet Dancer in one of America's prestigious Ballet Companies.

Interview: Brodie Donougher A REAL LIFE BILLY ELLIOT STORY!
Credit: Ernst Makkreel

For those readers who wonder: What was the process like taking you across the pond, from the U.K. to the U.S.A? 

I spent my first 9 years living and growing up in a small seaside town in the Northwest of England, called Blackpool. That is where I went to school, and first find my love and enjoyment for dance.

When I was a student in Birmingham, England, I had already lived away from home for two and a half years, due to being in Billy Elliot and immediately joining Vocational Ballet School when it closed in 2016. After 4 more years of independent living, I was ready to make my next big move.

I moved to San Francisco, where I studied for 2 years with San Francisco Ballet School, and we went on a small tour to Idaho where the trainees put on a show of both ballet and contemporary works.

I was then offered a 1-year contract to work with Grand Rapids Ballet, in West Michigan, under the directory of James Sofranko.

Do you do any special preparation you do when learning a piece for dance?

I like to keep a cool head. I try to make it fun and keep people laughing. It is very important to know when to pay attention when you are learning a new piece in a studio… always.  I just stay level-headed and focused, and take each step one at a time.

Interview: Brodie Donougher A REAL LIFE BILLY ELLIOT STORY!
Provided by: Brodie Donougher​​​

Do you have a special pre-show or post-show ritual you do?

I like to go to my fellow performers to wish them luck and make sure that I go over my part or choreography.

Most importantly, I don’t stress. I like to stay as normal as possible, whether that’s talking to my friends in between turning practice and staying warm or singing in my head as a stretch.

What do you do during the ‘off-season” to keep up your art? 

During the off-season, I like to work out at the gym, stay fit and keep up my stamina by riding my bike around the city and local parks, and decorate my apartment.

It is my hobby to create canvas paintings and other styles of art, such as drawing and sketching.

I also really like to catch up with my friends that I don’t see very often. We like to hang out and wander around Art galleries, Zoo, and other creative exhibitions nearby.

You just participated as a dancer in the GR Opera production of Aida.  What was that like, coming from a musical theatre background?

Being asked to participate in an Opera was very interesting. I had such a fun time, and it was a great experience. I met many talented people at the Grand Rapids Opera and some of whom I know I can call friends for a long time to come.

I met some amazing singers and learned a lot being there too. I haven’t sung professionally for about 2 years now, and I was able to be taught by some of the Music College students.

You could tell that the Opera and Musicals have similarities, in the way the directors work, how performers act, and the post-rehearsal or show lifestyle. When a dancer finishes rehearsals, they pack their bags and escape quickly. But in this industry, the musical industry… you tend to see a lot more talking and planning to get together after a rehearsal. Not always, of course, but sometimes.

I remember when I was in Billy, so many of the adult actors would rush out of the stage door, and then you would see them all having a social drink at the pub in the train station before they went home.

Being a part of both sides of this is interesting to see how similar and different they both are.

Interview: Brodie Donougher A REAL LIFE BILLY ELLIOT STORY!
Credit: Ray Nard Image Maker

And finally, could you tell us what the next stage in your career is?

 I am now a dancer with Grand Rapids Ballet, and I have performed in the Nutcracker (The Nutcracker Doll, Spanish, Chinese, and Russian), Romeo + Juliet (Montague and Understudy Benvolio), Jumpstart, and Ballet + Broadway. As it is the off-season for the Ballet, I am excited to be a part of the faculty of Grand Rapids Ballet Schools Summer 2023 Ballet Intensive. I am looking forward to teaching many young children of all different ages and gender, and I hope to inspire them as much as Billy Elliot inspired me to become the artist I am today.

I am eager to continue my job next season with Grand Rapids Ballet Company, as a professional artist and performer.  I am ready for what is to come, no matter the challenge. That's what makes it a Billy Elliot story.


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