Remembering when Lex Ishimoto was our 'Billy Elliot'

Lex Ishimoto. Billy Elliot. Doug BlemkerLex Ishimoto, right, was one of four young actors who played the lead role in the 2011 national touring production of ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’ that visited Denver. On Monday, he was named ‘America’s Favorite Dancer’ for Season 14 of ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ From left: Giuseppe Bausilio, Kylend Hetherington, Daniel Russell and Lex Ishimoto. Photo by Doug Blemker.

‘America’s Favorite Dancer’ of So You Think You Can Dance played the title role in the 2011 tour that visited Denver.

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The world at large met Lex Ishimoto this summer on So You Think You Can Dance, culminating with his being crowned “America’s Favorite Dancer” for Season 14 last night. 

But Denver Center audiences know the California Kid as British Billy Eliot. Ishimoto was one of four young Billys who played the lead role of the coal-mining kid who just wanted to ballet in the hit Broadway tour of Billy Elliot the Musical that visited Denver and other cities in 2011. 

Lex Ishimoto. Billy Elliot. Doug BlemkerIshimoto came to Denver as a 13-year-old Asian-American hip-hopper from Irvine, Calif. The creative team was so taken with Ishimoto, they rearranged the Elton John song “Electricity” as a hip-hop ballet that was performed that way only on the nights Ishimoto played Billy.

By 2011, Ishimoto already had been dancing for six years. But he had never performed in a  musical and he hadn’t seen the 2000 source film when he was asked to audition. When he was cast, he told me in a 2011 interview, “At first, I didn’t believe one word of it. I thought they were playing with me. I didn’t think it was an important thing, and now I’m here, and it’s such a fun and amazing experience for me.”

In that same interview, Ishimoto said his biggest shock was realizing the national touring production wasn’t for TV but was rather ongoing performances in front of live audiences.

More than 3,500 qualified youngsters were seen for the title role in three North American productions of Billy Elliot the Musical. And only 28 ultimately got to play a role that requires proficiency in ballet, tap, singing, acting, acrobatics and dialect — by age 11.

Finding Nemo was easier than finding Billys with the skills that role requires. “It’s mind-boggling to think about what Billy has to do in three hours on that stage,” said Billy Elliot the Musical children’s casting director Nora Brennan. When the Broadway production opened in 2008, all three original Billys shared the Tony Award for best actor in a musical.

Director Stephen Daldry firmly believed that Billy could be played by anyone of any look, as long as he was short, had an unchanged voice and could meet the demands of the role. So the four touring Billys ended up being an Australian, a Swiss, a Michigander and Ishimoto. Brennan called her quartet “a United Benetton of Billys.”

So what kind of kids are these, really? The kind who know exactly what they want at such an early age, and work with unchanging focus to achieve it?

“It takes tenacity and determination to do this, and that really has to come from the boy,” Brennan said. “A kid can’t get there if he’s doing it for somebody else. You can tell when they are little and you are watching them in their ballet classes. You can tell the ones who are so focused that their little legs are shaking because they are trying so hard. They are the ones who are going to stick to it until it’s perfect. Those are the ones who are going to get there.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

A Lex Ishimoto Billy Elliot Quote

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