Biographies & Memoirs


Chapter 18

Like Flying

“Shhh,” Nora whispered as she opened the door to the theater. Inside, I could hear the music from “Dream Ballet” playing softly. During this number in the show, Billy dances with a shadowed version of his older self. It was one of my very favorite parts.

Nora and I crept down the darkened aisle and slipped into two front-row seats. Because it was a rehearsal, the house was empty aside from a few members of the crew. It was my first week back in New York, and I was about to meet the three original Billys. I sat on my hands to keep myself from fidgeting nervously.

Onstage, I watched Kiril Kulish, the Billy I was going to replace, grab the hands of his dance partner. Tendrils of fog swayed around their feet, and cool blue lights indicated the scene’s dreamy unreality. The two actors began to turn faster and faster. Kiril hopped into the air and his partner spun him around in wide circles, just like Dad did to me when I was a kid.

Then his partner let go, and Kiril shot off into the sky. His body remained perfectly level as he soared up into the rafters of the theater. Soon he was whirling, dipping, and flying all over the stage. As the music grew stronger, he danced an elegant partner ballet in midair.

“Wow,” I couldn’t help but exclaim. It was so beautiful and surreal. That’s what I love about theater. If this had been a movie, the special effects would have been CGI or green-screen, but on Broadway, you knew it was real. He might be strapped into a harness, but Kiril was actually flying.

And that’s pretty much how the last few months of my life had seemed: like flying. From the moment Julian said I had the part, I’d been going nonstop. I had about a million things to do for homework: start tap and singing lessons, practice the exercises I’d been given, study the script, etc. Then there was the small matter of finding a place to live in New York, figuring out what to do with our house in Iowa, finding a new school for Matt, packing, saying good-bye. . . . Every time I thought about the list of things we had to do, it seemed impossible. So instead I focused on one chore at a time.

Dad must have been smiling down on Mom as well as me, because the New York City College of Technology offered her the job in New York the week after I got the part. Not only did that mean we could afford to live in the city, it also meant they’d hire people to move our stuff, taking one headache off our plates.

It felt sad to say good-bye to the only home I’d ever known, but in a way, I felt like I’d left that life behind when Dad died. Since then, everything had been in a constant state of flux. Transporting our entire lives across the country to one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world somehow felt more stable than my previous two years in Iowa. At least now I knew what I was doing, and I’d kept my promise to Dad.

But those last three months at home felt like a movie montage, a parade of perfect moments shooting swiftly past me. I got to take dance classes with Michael and Eloy and practice gymnastics with Dmitri, Sasha, and Matt. I rode my bike down Teg Drive, out by the university, and up around the reservoir. I put my rod and reel in storage (along with nearly everything else) and vowed that I’d be back for a fishing trip as soon as possible.

A few days before I left, Michael and Eloy reserved the university’s new Athletic Hall of Fame, a giant glass-and-steel complex, to throw me an amazing good-bye party. More than 150 people showed up to give me their blessings. All around the room, videos and photos from my past were being shown. When I looked to my left, I was five years old and dancing around the living room to Dad’s Chinese pop tapes. When I looked to my right, I was eleven and dancing for his memory. If I spun in a circle, I could watch myself grow up. It was just like in the “Dream Ballet,” except here I was dancing with my past, which was about to let me go, upward and onward into a beautiful unknown. When the last guests left, and Michael and Eloy hugged me good-bye one final time, I felt like I was ready for the city—or at least as ready as any kid from Iowa could ever be.

“Great job guys, great job!”

BT’s voice interrupted my thoughts. The lights went up onstage. Kiril stopped dancing and was slowly lowered to the ground. From the wings, two other boys in identical outfits emerged. I knew from reading online that they must be Trent Kowalik and David Alvarez, the other two original Billys.

“Boys, I have someone I’d like you to meet,” Nora called out. The three Billys peered out at us, hands to their foreheads to shade their eyes from the stage lights. Nora urged me up, and I stood and waved at them tentatively. Even though I was technically a Billy now too, I felt shy meeting them for the first time.

“Hi there,” I said. “I’m Alex. Alex Ko.”

“He’s the new Billy we’ve been telling you about,” said BT. “Come up onstage, Alex.”

“Welcome aboard,” said Trent, reaching down to help me up. “Good to meet you.”

David and Kiril rushed over to shake my hand. Soon, I was surrounded by Billys in triplicate.

“So you’re taking my place, eh?” Kiril said, frowning at me.

I froze for a second, unsure how to respond. “Um . . . I guess so?” I said. I hoped he wasn’t mad that I’d been cast.

“Kiril, be nice,” said BT.

Kiril flashed me a winking smile. “I’m just teasing. Though you are technically taking my place. But it’s cool—that’s the thing about being Billy: eventually, we all age out.”

“I guess that’s true,” I said. I’d been concentrating so much on getting the part, I hadn’t thought at all about what would happen after.

“You won’t have to think about that for a while,” said David, playfully punching me in the arm. “Shorty.”

Hanging out with the three of them felt like hanging out with my brothers. We had that same playful, teasing vibe.

“This will be one of the first numbers we have you work on,” said BT, gesturing toward the flying harness that Kiril still wore.

“Don’t worry,” Trent said. “They hardly ever drop us.”

Everyone laughed.

“So is this what rehearsal’s going to be like?” I asked, curious. I still had ten days before I started.

“No,” said BT. “Most of your rehearsals will be with the choreographers, dance captains, musical director, etc. You won’t be onstage with the rest of the company until the last few weeks, when you have your dress rehearsals and put-in.”

“You’ll get an email from company management on Sunday evenings,” BT continued as he helped Kiril remove the flying harness. “It’ll have your schedule for the week. I’m warning you now, it’s going to be intense.”

“I hope so,” I said. “I’ve only got three months, and I don’t just have to learn to dance—I have to learn to fly!”

Trent tossed his arms around my shoulder.

“Stick with us, kid. We’ll show you the ropes—literally,” he said, laughing.

I think I’m going to like working with them, I thought.

“Want to grab lunch?” Trent asked. “I can tell you all about the show.”

“That’d be awesome!”

“Is that cool, BT?” Trent said. “I’m done, right?”

BT looked down at his clipboard, then nodded. “Sure. But you’ll have to stay in the theater.”

I pulled a brown paper bag out of my backpack. “I brought my lunch,” I told Trent. Even though Mom had a great new job, we were still trying to be frugal. Plus because we Billys were so young, the show had to have a guardian watching us anytime we left the theater. So it was less of a headache for everyone if I brought my own food.

“Great!” said Trent. “I’ve got leftovers in my dressing room. Why don’t you come up and I’ll show you backstage?”

“I’ll wait here for you,” Nora said. “I’ve got some things I need to do anyway.”

That was all I was waiting to hear. With a grin, I followed Trent into the back of the theater.

“Have you been here before?” he asked as we climbed the narrow staircase up to the dressing rooms. I was amazed at how many little hallways and staging areas there were. It was like a maze, but one where every square foot had a purpose.

“Once,” I said. “During previews. I saw you perform.”

“I hope it was a good night!” he said, throwing his hand against his forehead in mock concern.

“It wasn’t good,” I said, and paused. Trent spun around so fast he nearly fell down the steps. “It was amazing.”

“HA!” He laughed. “I like you.”

All the Billys shared a dressing room, and it was nice but small. There was a sink, a tiny fridge, and an iPod connected to two portable speakers. Trent had decorated his side with pictures of his friends, newspaper clippings, and odds and ends that were gifts from people who’d come to see him after the show.

“It’s smaller than I thought it would be,” I said. My only concept of Broadway dressing rooms came from movies. In real life, even big stars had small rooms. Space is always hard to come by backstage.

“You know why it’s called show business, right?” Trent replied. “Because all the show is in the front, and all the business is in the back.”

There certainly were a great number of people bustling back and forth outside his dressing room: carrying laundry, talking into headsets, and moving props. It takes a lot of people to put on Broadway shows, and while they may seem lighthearted and fun from the audience, they run on incredibly tight schedules, where every second counts.

“Thanks for showing me around,” I said as Trent pulled his lunch from the fridge. I picked at my peanut butter sandwich. “Everything’s still a little intimidating,” I confessed.

“Don’t worry.” Trent smiled. “I felt the same way at first. You get used to it. Besides, I should be thanking you for distracting me from the nominations.”

“That’s right!” I exclaimed. “I forgot—congratulations, how exciting!”

Trent, David, and Kiril were all up for the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. If Trent won, he’d be the youngest winner ever. The show had received a total of fifteen nominations, for everything from Best Lighting Design to Best Musical. In fact, Billy Elliot had tied The Producers for most Tony Award nominations ever.

“Thanks,” Trent said, dipping his head. I knew exactly what he was feeling, that same mix of shyness and pride that I get every time someone congratulates me. I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Trent and I were going to be great friends.

“So how are you liking New York?” he asked as we ate.

“It’s great!” I rushed to answer. “It’s so . . . fast!”

“Big change, eh?”

“Our apartment is about the size of my bedroom in Iowa!” I let out. I didn’t want to complain, but Mom and I were amazed at how small New York City rooms were. “And the kids here are so . . .”

“Spoiled?” Trent laughed again.

“Ha! I was going to say ‘confident.’” I’d been amazed at the little kids—way younger than me—who took the subway all on their own.

“Give it time,” Trent replied. “What kind of video games do you like?” he asked, but before I could reply, his eyes darted past me to the door. “Jess! Hey! Come here.”

I turned to see a young, dark-haired woman carrying a pile of shoes.

“Alex, this is Jess. She’s a dresser on the show—in fact, she’ll probably be your dresser. Jess, this is the newest Billy, Alex Ko.”

“Good to meet you.” She smiled. “Welcome!”

“Thanks.” I tried to shake her hands, but the shoes were in the way.

“How’s your throat?” she asked Trent.

“It’s great—thanks for the pastilles.”

“It’s my job!” Jess said. “See you guys around!”

With that, she popped out of the dressing room.

“Your dresser is one of the most important people on the show,” Trent whispered to me.

“Why’s that?”

“Dressers do everything. Someone comes to see you backstage? They run interference until you’re ready. No time to grab dinner? They get it. If you’re feeling sick, Jess will know before you do—and she’ll get medicine for whatever it is. Plus she’s also the one who gets you ready for each scene, makes sure your costumes are laundered, and all that.”

“It’d be dorky to start taking notes on this stuff, right?” I asked with a laugh.

“It’s overwhelming at first.” Trent nodded. “But you’ll get used to it. Let’s see, what else should I tell you?”

For the rest of the afternoon, Trent told me stories about working backstage: who everyone was, what they did, where was the best place to grab a nap between performances on a two-show day, etc. It was like the Cliffs-Notes version of life on Broadway. I just hoped I could get it all down before they started me in actual rehearsals in ten days. Luckily, between Nora, BT, Trent, Jess, and everyone else I met, I already knew I had some people I could rely on.

Now it was just a matter of proving that they could rely on me.

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