By Diana Nollen
When Iowa City native Alex Ko returned to his starring role in mid-March, the real Billy Elliot was there.
“He looked well — he was very good,” says Peter O’Brien, 61, who grew up in the coal mining region of northeastern England, went on to a storied career with the Royal Ballet in London and now lives in New York, focusing primarily on teaching and choreography.
He first worked with Alex on ballet technique at Steps on Broadway in 2008 and is obviously proud of his protege.
“For a kid of that age to be able to get through that kind of show is quite an achievement,” O’Brien says by phone Monday before heading off to teach another class. “His technique was good.”
Seeing Alex return to “Billy Elliot” after spending five months recovering from a serious knee injury “was very emotionally charged, as well,” O’Brien says. “The show is really a tremendous achievement for such a young dancer.”
He helped point Alex toward that path.
“I introduced him to that scene,” O’Brien says. “I thought he would be very suitable for the role.”
He recognized Alex’s talent right away and saw a little of himself in the young boy from Iowa City.
“He was very quick to pick up the exercises and held himself really well. You could tell there was a major talent there — not necessarily a fantastic physical ballet shape, but that could change. Little boys at that age come in strange shapes. I was the same as Alex; I was 4 feet 8 inches, then I grew 10 inches in three years,” O’Brien says.
“When he progressed to class, I could see he had a vitality that a lot of kids don’t have. I recognized that immediately. He also had a wonderful sense of balance and pirouette, a natural sense of turn. All my job was to do was to make sure he turned in the correct position and had the correct line to his body.”
O’Brien, who hasn’t worked with Alex since he landed the Billy role, noticed growth in his former pupil, but also sees other aspects that haven’t changed.
He’s grown about an inch and in technique, “his line is much more clear,” O’Brien says. “In personality, he’s still the same sweet kind of young guy — very inquisitive to know what’s going on around him. He’s clearly very focused but in a humble way, even though he’s aware of what he’s achieved, it still hasn’t sunk into him that he’s a star.”
For O’Brien, seeing his life story unfold on stage is “pure nostalgia,” he says.
Unlike Billy’s father, who is portrayed as a coal miner in the play, O’Brien’s father was in the local government. Two of his uncles were miners, however, and his brother went down in the mines as an engineer. So the fighting that happened when the government tried to break up the miners’ union in the 1980s was very real for O’Brien’s family.
“The guy that plays the father looks just like my brother. It’s weird — he looks just like my brother. It’s also very emotional,” he says. “I remember those days when the miners went on strike. It was brother against brother, father against son. Margaret Thatcher was the instigator. She was determined to break the unions, and she did. It destroyed the coal mining in the northeast. They didn’t have money. People were desperate.”
O’Brien was not part of that fray. He had left the area to study at the Royal Ballet in London.
His mother was a dancer, so she encouraged her son’s artistic path, but as in the play, O’Brien’s father did not.
“My father tried to get me to stay in the northeast until the very last moment. When I danced on the Covent Garden stage before the Queen of England, my parents stood next to the queen. When I received my applause, my father turned to my mother and said, ‘I don’t think Peter’s going to come home.’”