Dance, Billy, Dance!

Forget Brad, Ronan and Becks. There's a new kid on the block and he's got talent in bucketfuls. Discovered by British film director Stephen Daldry at the tender age of 13, he has already achieved what others can only dream of.

The whirl surrounding the boy from Billingham, England, started when he was cast as the eponymous hero of the film Billy Elliot. Since then Jamie Bell has managed - with his adolescent charm and superb skills - to thrill millions of viewers all around the world and turn the British production into a smash hit.

The film, which quite unexpectedly gained such recognition and acclaim (first-time film director, first-time scriptwriter and Bell), is set in a small, English mining town during the final battles between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the coal-mining unions in 1984. The political setting, though, only acts as the backdrop to a moving and emotionally dramatic story about Billy Elliot, a boy from a working-class family in Northeast England, and his fight for the passion he discovers and comes to value most - ballet.

Billy and ballet

The oft-encountered prejudice towards male ballet dancers is enhanced by this provincial community. Yet, despite this and his many other trials and tribulations (he is raised by his father after his mother's death and due to the strike they are penniless), Billy manages - with the support of his dad, who finally accepts his choice - to achieve what he craves most. And eventually he makes it as a professional ballet dancer in London. The person who really helps to turn this duckling into a swan is his ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters), who, seeing real potential in Billy despite his family's antagonism, encourages him to stick at it. Jamie Bell demonstrated all the verve of a budding Baryshnikov exquisitely.

Close to home

What is most amazing is that Jamie's own life is almost a blueprint of the character he played. Like Billy he also experienced humiliation by narrow-minded people, who saw men in ballet shoes in one stereotyped way: "poofters". He also experienced poverty, rejection and smirking behind his back. He, too, was raised by a single parent, his mother, who made every effort for her gifted child to be able to develop his numerous talents. Bell has been practising ballet since he was six and started acting classes later on. This role was made for him.

Stephen Daldry says it was a miracle he actually found him. "We were afraid we would never find a boy to meet the varied criteria the role required," he explains. "This situation was completely different from the other auditions, because we needed a 13-year-old boy who already had some acting experience, who at the same time should be a good ballet dancer, and, last but not least, who could speak with a northern accent!" Miracle or not, they finally found Bell from among 2,000 other candidates.

Just and unjust rewards

But this was just the start of the success that followed. His passionate and moving acting brought him several film festival awards, among them a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award for Best Actor in 2000, whilst there was much booing that he was not nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars.

The power of his charm and acting has brought the film the status of legend, arguably surpassing its hugely successful British predecessors, The Full Monty and Brassed Off. It is one of the greatest British films of recent years.

Jamie has also become an idol for thousands of young kids all over Britain. Thanks to him the art of dance is enjoying a great revival. And, even more importantly, the film and Jamie's creation have changed people's attitudes towards ballet in general, in that it is no longer just associated with girls in tutus. Boys are starting to perceive it as "a cool thing" to such an extent that
ballet schools all over England have no space for the incessant flow of new candidates. Jamie Bell, however, knows that ballet is not a piece of cake at all, but a big challenge. "When my friends saw how strong you have to be to perform on stage," he explains, "they were really surprised."

The emotions connected with this new youth idol could also be seen at the Supreme Court in London. A barrister
representing a talented boy from a poor family who was refused a scholarship at a ballet school referred to the character from the film...

How does Jamie explain his success? "Sometimes when I had a feeling that I couldn't go on any more, I turned to my mum and she would say: 'Practise, practise and I'm sure something will come out of it', and it already has," he says: "Billy Elliot!"