Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 15

Callbacks

After the Billy audition, my days in New York went like this:

Get up, check my messages, train at Steps, check my messages, go home, work out, check my messages, have dinner with Mom and Matt, pray, talk to Dad, check my messages. If I could have checked my messages in my sleep, I would have.

Even though I was going crazy. I loved my classes at Steps. Every day I felt like a better dancer: a little more flexible, a little stronger, a little steadier. No matter what happened with Billy, coming to New York had been good for me.

“I don’t think I got the part,” I said to Dad late one night. “It’s August, and we head home next week. If they wanted me, I’d have heard.”

I decided to let it go. It was enough, for now, to have been asked to audition. Next time, I’d be better prepared.

Still, I couldn’t help but be sad. It’s funny how your expectations change. When I couldn’t afford PNB, all I wanted was a scholarship to a summer program somewhere. But once Broadway was on the horizon, it was hard to settle for anything else. I tried to be happy with the gifts I had been given, but it took a while to accept.

When we got back to Iowa, I avoided talking about Billy Elliot. Instead, I threw myself back into my regular routine with Eloy at the Dance Forum. I’d improved so much while I was gone that Eloy recommended the university accept me as a student in the dance department. In September, I became the youngest person ever admitted to the University of Iowa in any major. I have to admit, that felt pretty good. Maybe not Broadway good, but not too shabby. Plus it technically means I got into college before John did, which was a great thing to be able to rub in his face when we argued.

“You deserve this,” Eloy said as he handed me my shiny new college ID. “Now put that audition aside and focus.”

I took Eloy’s advice and pretty much forgot about Billy Elliot. Then one night in October the phone rang during dinner.

“Got it!” I yelled, expecting Sasha on the line. But the caller ID listed an unknown 212 number, and 212 was the area code for Manhattan.

“Mom!” I yelled, tossing the phone to her. “It’s them! I think it’s them!”

“Hello?” Mom answered. “Oh, yes. Of course. Hi.”

For the next ten minutes, I scrunched myself into my chair and listened as Mom said, “Uh-huh. Yes. Of course! I’ll tell him,” and similar things. I couldn’t make out a word from the other end of the line, but it had to be the people from Billy Elliot, I just felt it. I was so desperate to know what was going on that I texted Mom.

What r they saying? I wrote, but when I heard her cell buzz in the other room, I knew I’d just have to wait.

When Mom finally hung up, I exploded out of my chair.

“What was it? Who was it? Was it them?!”

“You’re not going to believe this,” Mom said.

“I got the part!” I yelled.

“No.”

I stopped jumping.

“Then . . . why’d they call?”

“They want you back for a second audition! They’re still interested.”

“YES!” I went back to jumping, though not quite as high this time.

“They want you to prepare a solo,” Mom said, and she smiled. I knew we had the same thought: my solo for Dad. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate piece to do for this audition, and I’ll never forget a single step of the choreography as long as I live. It was perfect.

After that phone call, I had so much nervous energy, I didn’t sit still for more than five minutes in the next month. Which was good, because I needed to spend every moment preparing. Mom called all our relatives and friends to tell them the good news and declared an early Christmas. For my present, she gave me tap-dancing and singing lessons. I wasn’t going to be caught off guard again!

Or at least, I wasn’t going to be caught off guard by the audition. Getting there, however, nearly proved impossible.

Moneywise, we were at one of the lowest points we’d ever been. In fact, we had to cash in everything Dad left us just to be able to afford the lessons and the trip. The show paid for our hotel, but everything else was on us. Because my solo depended on having the chair, I had to bring it with me, which added another expense. But we didn’t have the money to ship it. Instead, the morning of my return to New York found me carrying a giant cardboard box to the airport. We decided to pass it off as my luggage.

As we got to the airport, one of the porters came running over to help us.

“It’s okay,” Mom said. “We can manage.”

But I knew the truth: we didn’t have the money to tip him. Mom had budgeted this trip literally down to the last dollar, and we couldn’t afford extra expenses.

“What’s that?” the woman behind the United Airlines counter asked when she saw my box. Her name tag read Gayle.

“It’s my luggage,” I mumbled, embarrassed already.

“Your luggage? Oh, no.” Gayle began shaking her head, her long black curls flying. “That will never fit. Sorry, can’t take it.”

Above her head, a giant digital clock read 8:17 a.m. Our flight was in less than an hour, and the audition was first thing tomorrow. If I couldn’t get the chair on the plane, there was no point in me getting on the plane, because without the chair, I had no solo.

Oh, no, I thought. It’s happening again. It was all going to fall apart. Somewhere, a giant set of scales was slipping out of balance, I could feel it. I started breathing heavily. I looked at Mom in shock. In all our planning, we hadn’t prepared for this. Behind us, a long line of passengers was forming. I could hear them grumbling loudly. I looked at Gayle. In her crisp white United uniform, she looked so official. There had to be some way she could help me.

“I . . . I need it,” I said. I could feel my tears welling up. “Please. Is there anything I can do?”

Gayle looked at the line behind me, then at her screen, and let out a long sigh. I was certain she’d say no. Then she looked at me—really looked at me—and wavered. I tried to seem as pitiable as possible.

“Oh, fine!” Gayle said, and began pulling things out of a drawer beneath her computer. “What’s in the box? Do we have any room to maneuver?”

“It’s a chair,” I said.

Gayle gave me the side eye.

“It’s a long story,” I said. “It’s for a competition, kind of. I’d tell you, but—”

“I know, I know,” Gayle responded. “Gotta make the plane.”

She pushed scissors, a roll of packing tape, and a ball of twine my way.

“See this sign?” She pointed to a large poster with suitcases drawn on it. “Your box has to be smaller than these. You got fifteen minutes. Get cutting. Next!”

I grabbed those scissors so fast, it was like I was on Project Runway. Mom and I wrestled the box to the ground and started slicing. Other passengers had to file by us to reach the counter, but we ignored them. The whole airport could have watched and I wouldn’t have cared. The only thing that mattered was that box. Come hell, high water, or TSA regulations, I was bringing that chair to New York City.

By the time I was done, the cardboard was so cut up it looked like the box of Frankenstein. But Gayle pronounced it small enough to fit and gave us our boarding passes.

“Hey!” she yelled as we walked away. “Whatever you need that chair for—good luck!”

I smiled all the way to New York.

Pretty much every person in Manhattan stared at the box as we made our way from the airport to the hotel. At first, I was excited to be back in the city, but the more people pointed and whispered, the more embarrassed I became. How could I ever imagine being cast as the lead in a Broadway show when I so obviously didn’t fit here? If my life were normal, we’d have mailed the chair to our hotel and it would have been waiting for us when the taxi dropped us off. But here I was, dragging it around through the subway for people to laugh at.

“Hey,” Mom said as we exited at Times Square. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled at my shoes. I didn’t want to talk about it, since it wasn’t something we could change, but Mom knew I was lying.

“Stop for a second,” she said. “Right here.”

“But Mom, there are people everywhere! We’re in the way,” I protested.

We were right in the center of the most crowded part of Times Square, which was the most crowded part of the city. We couldn’t stop!

“Let’s take a picture,” Mom said. “Come on, everyone does it. We should be proud, Alex.”

She paused.

You should be proud. Look how far you’ve made it already. You’re in New York. A Broadway show invited you to come all the way from Iowa to audition! Now get your phone and let’s take a picture.”

She’s right, I thought. I should be proud.

I held that box up like a trophy. I had made it to Broadway—technically. I was standing at the intersection of Broadway and Forty-second Street. And it was only a matter of time before I was on Broadway for real. For all I knew, tonight I could be celebrating my first part in an actual show.

This time, the audition was held at a place called Ripley-Grier Studios. I brought a thermos of herbal tea and wore a scarf to keep my vocal cords warm on the cool November morning. I’d been so worried about catching a cold that I’d actually been sleeping with my scarf on all week.

I arrived about thirty minutes early to the audition. I hate being late for things, and arriving early means I have time to prepare myself. Usually I sew my ballet shoes while I wait, because they come with “some assembly required.” Since they need to fit perfectly, you buy them in your size and then sew in elastic to get the exact fit you need. At first it seemed weird to have to sew them myself—especially considering how expensive they can be—but now I find it meditative. It helps me clear my mind before I have to perform.

The studio was divided by a big white curtain, with kids on one side and parents peeking around from the other. There were nearly forty of us auditioning. The last audition had mostly been kids from the New York City area, but the callback brought in every boy they were interested in from across the country.

Mom took one look at the room and shook her head.

“Do you want me to stay?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.

“It’s cool,” I said. “You should go.”

Honestly? I find “helicopter parents” who hang around their kids’ auditions kind of creepy. Mom hates small talk, and even the nicest show-business parents are really competitive. I can’t imagine talking to them is much fun.

That’s not the real reason I don’t like them, though. The kids with the most overbearing parents tend to be the ones who try the least. Maybe it’s because they don’t really want it, or maybe they’re just used to having someone else push them. I don’t get that. To make it, you have to have your own drive.

Without Mom at my auditions, I knew everything was riding on me, which meant I had to be responsible. I think this attitude is a big part of what’s gotten me as far as I am today.

After Mom left, I sat down against the wall and started sewing my shoes, but it wasn’t long before I noticed all the whispering.

“What the heck is that for?”

“Was he worried they’d make him stand?”

“Why’d he bring a chair?”

It wasn’t hard to guess who they were whispering about. Generally, theater people are pretty nosy. Because we have to play so many characters, everyone is always trying to understand the people around them. It’s like constantly doing research for a role you might get someday. At auditions, it’s worse because everyone is nervous and hypercompetitive, so they like to peck at each other. Mostly I try to keep my mouth shut and not get involved, but sometimes it drives me crazy and I just want everyone to be quiet.

When one of the kids finally worked up the nerve to ask me about the chair, I told him it was for my solo and left it at that. A dozen people all asked me about it over the next fifteen minutes. It was a relief when a tall, blond woman with a clipboard walked in and everyone started whispering about her instead. At first, I didn’t recognize her, but as she walked by me, she squeezed my shoulder.

“Good to see you again, Alex,” she said. It was Nora, the casting director.

“Good morning, everyone!” Nora said brightly. The room went silent. “Please follow me and bring your gear.”

Nora led us into another studio, where eight people sat behind a long table. Each had a pile of head shots and résumés in front of them, along with a bright red pen. Suddenly I understood how the contestants on American Idol felt.

“This is the creative team behind Billy Elliot,” Nora told us. “Should you be cast, these will be the people who will teach you, direct you, and train you. First, let me introduce Stephen Daldry, the director.”

Everyone clapped, and Stephen gave a gentle wave and nod of his head. He had salt-and-pepper hair and bright twinkling eyes. His voice was soft and he had a British accent, which reminded me of Dad. Eventually, he would become a close family friend and mentor, but at the time all I could think was Oh, wow! No pressure here. . . . Yeah, right.

I’d done some research and found out that Stephen was a big deal. On top of the Billy Elliot musical, he’d directed the movie of Billy Elliot and the critically acclaimed movie The Hours. Auditioning for him could make or break my career.

The rest of the panel was impressive as well: the choreographer, assistant director, dance captains, etc. These were the people who created Billy Elliot. I couldn’t mess up in front of them!

When the intros were done, one of the dance captains stood up and walked to the center of the room. Click, click, click went her heels. I looked down and saw that she was already wearing tap shoes.

“Okay, everyone, watch me,” she said without preamble. She broke into a quick tap routine. “Pick it up as best you can, and you’ll have a few minutes to practice while we get in lines.”

I tried not to get nervous that we were starting with tap again. I made my way to the back corner of the room, slipped on my tap shoes, and began practicing. Around me, I noticed a few kids who got the routine instantly, but most needed a little time, like I did, which made me feel better. The tap lessons paid off, however, and I was faster and smoother than I’d been last time. By the time we actually performed the routine, I had it down.

Somewhere in the middle of the number, however, my left foot began to ache. Maybe I’d grown a bit in the intervening months, or maybe my foot was swollen, but either way, the shoe was way too tight. I was still using John’s old pair. I hadn’t told Mom they hurt, because I felt bad about how much this trip cost already. I figured it was just one more audition. But I could feel blisters forming on my foot, and every time I kicked my heel against the floor, the leather scraped my skin.

After forty-five minutes, we finished the tap portion of the audition. I thought I did pretty well, overall, but there were some amazing tappers in the room. As soon as we finished the last combo, another coach stood up.

“M’name’s Kate, and I’m the show’s associate choreographer,” she said, with a bright Australian lilt to her voice. “I’ll be teaching you a ballet routine.” All around me, kids started running for their shoes. There was no time wasted in this audition. Either you kept up, or you didn’t. I wanted to check on my foot, but I didn’t have time to leave, and I didn’t want anyone to know it hurt. They might make me stop dancing, and I hadn’t come this far just to get knocked out over a stupid blister. I switched shoes as fast as possible so no one would notice the red, irritated patch on my heel.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about my foot, even as Kate taught us a strange ballet routine. It was very precise and rigid, and all of our movements reminded me of soldiers marching. It was only thirty seconds long, and it ended with a long series of turns.

“Got it?” she asked after she’d run the number a few times. “Practice for five, then we’ll do it for real.”

Everyone started practicing the routine, but my foot was throbbing so much it was hard to concentrate. When I got to the section with all the turns, I did a few, then stopped.

Maybe if I rest for a second, I thought to myself, it’ll stop hurting.

All around me, boys were turning and turning and turning. I felt awkward standing still. I looked at the panel and noticed that Peter Darling, the show’s choreographer, was staring at me. He had the weirdest expression on his face, as though he’d eaten something bad. When he caught me looking, he turned to Kate and whispered in her ear. They didn’t look happy.

My blood froze. I started turning like a tornado. The worst thing you can do in an audition is freeze. Mistakes happen everywhere—even on Broadway—so if one happens in an audition, I just roll with it. Show the casting people that you can think on your feet. Never, ever give up.

The ballet routine was actually kind of easy for me, which was a nice surprise. I’d say I did as well as anyone else in the room, and better than most. But my foot was burning, and I knew I was going to have problems for the rest of the audition.

“Great,” Kate said when we were done. “You guys did great.”

Our solos were up next. They brought us back to the room with the curtain and told us that we’d be here for the rest of the day. They read the list of soloists, and I was toward the end. In gymnastics, being at the end of the roster was generally a good thing. That’s where you put your strongest performers. I had no idea if the same was true on Broadway, but I told myself it was, because it made me feel more confident.

“You can leave that there,” Nora said as she saw me carrying my chair out of the studio and into the solo room.

“It’s actually for my dance,” I responded, blushing.

“Oh! Of course,” she said. “Bring it in.”

Well, I’m definitely going to stand out, I thought. Jacob, one of the other boys, had gone back to grab his tap shoes, and I knew right away he was going to be the best tapper among us.

Watching the other kids’ solos wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. They were all really good, but I felt like my solo had been special. By the end, I felt pretty confident in my skills—it was my foot that worried me. I wanted to check on it, but I also didn’t want to take my ballet shoes off and risk injuring it more. I bit my lip and told myself I could check once my solo was over. But my heel had gone from feeling tight and achy to hot and liquid-y, and that couldn’t be good.

Right before me, Jacob went up. His solo was amazing. He was one of the best tappers I’d ever seen in my life. If Billy Elliot had been about a kid who wanted to be tap dancer, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

It’s a show about ballet, I whispered to myself as his feet flew across the floor. I’ve just got to show them great ballet.

“Alex Ko,” Nora called out after the applause died down.

I walked to the center of the room, stepping gently on my left foot. Every eye was on me—or well, on the chair. I nodded to Nora to cue the music. The three seconds of silence before it started were the longest three seconds of my life. The room actually spun before me, and all the nerves I hadn’t felt up until that moment came crashing down on me. What if my foot gave out? What if I didn’t remember the dance as well as I thought?

What if they just didn’t like it?

Then the music came on, and the worries were wiped from my mind. Good or bad, all I could do now was dance.

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