In March, I sat down with Broadway dancer and native Texan Kurt Froman on his first trip back home since 1994. He was in town to visit family and friends and to promote the opening of Billy Elliot at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which opens tonight.
Froman is the resident choreographer for the second national tour of Billy Elliot. He is also playing the role of “Older Billy” to young actor Kylend Hetherington’s “Billy” and is double cast as “Scottish Dancer US.” In an empty Winspear Opera House with a crew building a set behind us, we talked dancer-to-dancer about the ins-and-outs of our career choice in a place more comfortable than both of our homes – a stage.
Danielle Georgiou: How has it been for you coming back to Texas?
Kurt Froman: Great! So much of my life I couldn’t wait to leave [laughing] because I wanted to dance in New York, but it’s so wonderful to bring this show back to Fort Worth and Dallas. The show [“Billy Elliot”] is so strong, it has such a great book, great music, and obviously, the dancing is fantastic. I feel like it’s my story. I feel like I was the boy who was trying to valid wanting to dance, to the community, to my father, to everyone else. So, I take a lot of pride in coming back with this.
D.G.: I’ve seen the film version and it’s an inspiring and relatable story whether or not you’re a dancer. How is the stage version different, or is it basically the same?
K.F.: There are a lot of similarities and if you loved the film, you’ll love the stage version! It’s live and in your face and you can feel the energy of the characters. And the dancing…in the movie, it’s not that he is a good dancer; it’s just that he wants to be. He’s pretty rough around the edges. But in this [the stage version], he wants to be a good dancer, and he is.
…It’s this collage of scenes and experiences that add up to this story about this boy who wants to fulfill his dreams of being a male dancer, and how it is his salvation while this city is crumbling around him. It’s what rescues him.
D.G.: As a teacher, I’m excited for my students to see it because I have a lot of male students who always wanted to dance but it wasn’t until college that they could, or they felt comfortable enough to try. A lot of them are dealing with family issues and negotiating how to tell them that they’re dancing now.
K.F.: Right. At least now there are many more examples of dancing, even if it is “So You Think You Can Dance,” at least, you’re seeing something. And with the Internet, there is a much more even exchange of ideas and video, so you can always research stuff. When I was growing up, I didn’t really have a lot at my disposal. I remember going to the library to rent choreography by Balanchine, this 1978 PBS Dance in America broadcast, because it was amazing footage of these great American dancers, but I had to really seek out information. It was definitely hard being a boy growing up in Fort Worth with not a whole lot to compare it to, to anyone else. We [dancers] have to be so physically strong. We ride that line between being injured and in peak performance; meanwhile, it’s an art form, not a sport. You’ve got to smile and make it look easy and effortless.
D.G.: This resurgence of dance on film is starting to allow people to be more aware of it. People look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s just dance,’ but when the physicality of it is in your face, you can’t deny its masculine beauty. And you’re right, it’s not a sport, but it is so physically demanding; it’s more demanding than a lot of sports.
K.F.: It’s totally not an effeminate thing! I mean, even though you have to have a certain amount of grace…I can’t think of anything more grueling at times, but also more special. It feeds your soul. It can be so moving. You are communicating things without language so it becomes a transcendent experience for the audience.
D.G.: How did you first begin dancing?
K.F.: It all started with my sister and the studio she was going to, Dance Concepts. I think they are just about to celebrate their 40th anniversary…I have a twin brother and we used to just beg our mother and sister about starting to go to dance class. We wanted to do tap and jazz, but ballet, we didn’t care about it at all! But our sister was really smart in pushing it. You know, in order to have good technique, we were going to have to start going to ballet class…
When we [him and his brother] were about 14, we started taking classes with the Fort Worth Ballet. That was the first time I knew I wanted to be a serious dancer, because of the demands of the technique and all of that Balanchine [the core technique of the Fort Worth Ballet, now, Texas Ballet Theater], all of that rep that I had never been exposed to. When I realized how much more there was to learn and how much more there was to improve upon, how different ballet could be…
D.G.: How long were you with the company?
K.F.: It’s complicated. When I was in high school, my brother and I were taking classes at the school. Once school got out, we would get a ride to the Ballet and just dance our asses off for four, five hours a day, on top of being in high school! So those were very grueling years. I just remember being tired and sore…but I always felt like I was leading a double life. My brother and I kept it very quiet that we danced. I’m sure most people knew it, but I didn’t make a big deal about it, because I knew they didn’t have any real idea what was involved in dancing. It was just easier to downplay everything. I was afraid of being found out as a male dancer and things like that. But once I graduated, I just felt this weight lifted of my shoulders, because now all I had to worry about was just dancing, which is what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.
D.G.: So how did you end up in New York?
K.F.: I started going to SAB [the School of American Ballet] when I was 15 for summer courses. They kept asking us to stay the year, so it was a good gauge for my brother and I as to where we stood nationally. It became real that we could actually be dancers. But my father was really adamant that we finish high school first, so we kept turning them down.
[After graduation, and after a year with the Fort Worth Ballet], I was 18 and went to New York for one final summer course and my brother and I were offered the Rudolf Nureyev scholarship [they were the first recipients] and it was something that I just couldn’t turn down. It paid for everything. I knew that I would never get this shot again…never in my wildest dreams did I think I could dance with the New York City Ballet, event though I was obsessed with the company, but here was the chance…I knew it was something I just had to do.
And it was a perfect time, the City Ballet was retiring a lot of older dancers, so they needed new blood. Within six months, I knew we were going to be apprentices in the company. Everything happened very, very quickly. From then on, for the next seven years, I danced [as a featured dancer and soloist] for the City Ballet and I thought I would be happy to spend my entire career there. But near the end, I started feeling like opportunities weren’t going to come my way anymore…I saw so many examples of people who were becoming bitter, or settled for the safety of being in a company and didn’t venture out on their own…so, when an opportunity came up for me to audition for “Movin’ Out” for Twyla Tharp and doing a Broadway show, I knew I had to try for it.
D.G.: Is that how you transitioned from ballet to Broadway?
K.F.: Yes. It was that one audition. Twyla was looking for a dancer to do the matinees, the part of James. Basically, I went in, and had one of those amazing auditions that don’t come around very often. I just felt completely confident in myself and danced really incredibly in front of her. I remember doing eight or nine turns, like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so on my leg! Something better come from this!’ [laughing]. I found out the next day that they wanted me. And I had promised myself that if life presents you something, be ready to jump on it. So when I got that phone call, I knew I absolutely had to do it.
D.G.: What was it like to work with Twyla?
K.F.: Amazing and so very different. I adore Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins. I love the technique, but it was interesting for me to work with someone who deconstructed everything. It was about dropping into the floor and not hitting positions, but making dancing a real series of transitions and to change your musicality. It was kind of the polar opposite of everything that I had known up until that point, and to learn her technique was tough but wonderful! And she was so giving to me as a director. She wanted me to think about what I was doing, but wanted me to trust myself. I kind of felt like the ceiling lifted for me. For feeling boxed in, as a twin and as an insecure ballet dancer, for someone to tell me to just trust myself, it made me raise the bar for myself. I felt like my dancing and confidence and eagerness to try many different things, really changed after that.
D.G.: You’ve done so much in such a relatively short time, dancing with a variety of ballet companies and choreographers, to being on Broadway, to working on films, and you have such a positive energy and love for the art form. What you would tell a young dancer seeking the path?
K.F.: I would say educate yourself in as many ways as you can about your field. To not lose sight of the goal. To work really hard because it is worth working for and it’s worth sweating for. We’re such a rare breed as dancers, not everyone can do this. You have to have a very strong spirit; don’t be afraid of rejection and don’t take anything personally. For Billy Elliot, I auditioned for it the first time around and got cut, and I stayed in the loop and ended up with it. Other shows, same thing…like “Movin’ Out,” I auditioned for it twice before I got it. So, I think it’s about not taking things personally. Just going in and doing your work and working hard. If you are lucky enough to be a professional dancer, there’s nothing more spiritually, physically…it’s the most gratifying job you could ever have.
Billy Elliot June 8-19 at the Winspear Opera House.