Dream Catchers
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Dream Catchers
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Dream Catchers

Starring in Billy Elliot the Musical is a dream come true for the Stratford Festival’s youngest performers

11-year-old Nolen Dubuc (centre) makes a career leap as Billy in the Stratford Festival’s production of the much-loved musical.

At age five, when Nolen Dubuc saw his first performance of Billy Elliot the Musical, it sparked a fire within him. “It became a goal for me to play this role,” says the Vancouverite, now 11-years-old and making his Stratford Festival debut as the lead in the iconic musical.

Co-star Emerson Gamble, 13, was also five-years-old when he saw the show that would change his life: a Broadway performance of Newsies. “It was unforgettable – the sheer talent of these male dancers – all of them jumping, soaring and hovering in the air. Watching them tap dance perfectly in sync and so crisp was fantastic … and it showed me where I could end up,” explains the London, Ont.-born actor, who plays the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend.

Emerson Gamble (left) plays Billy’s best friend Michael and says the character has inspired him to find confidence in his own evolution as a performer.

Emerson Gamble (left) plays Billy’s best friend Michael and says the character has inspired him to find confidence in his own evolution as a performer.

Like the movie that inspired it, Billy Elliot the Musical is about realizing your dreams during those in-between years that can feel especially thorny and hard to navigate. Set in a bleak mining town during England’s mid-1980s miners’ strike, the story traces 11-year-old Billy and his love of ballet in the wake of his mother’s death – and his father and brother’s disapproval. Alongside Billy’s journey into dance, Michael poignantly explores his own sexuality and personality.

Sneak Peek: Go behind the scenes with Nolen Dubuc during rehearsals for the popular production that's been extended to November 24, 2019.

Fortunately for the show’s young performers, their own paths are far less contentious and are supported by their parents. Emerson has been dancing since age three and is currently a student at Canada’s National Ballet School. Nolen started dance at age four and soon branched out into voice lessons and acting. At age nine, he auditioned for his first stage role, in a Vancouver production of Mary Poppins. “We haven’t stopped since,” his mother, Kristin, says.



BUILDING CHARACTER

Kristin and her husband, Yannick, weren’t counting on theatre to ignite Nolen’s ambitions. For them, cultural activities are just one aspect of a well-rounded childhood.

“We have three boys, and we made sure they saw everything – they saw sports, they saw arts. It was not, like, ‘You’re a boy; you’re only going to do sports,’” Kristin explains.

While the pairing of boys and dance is largely a non-issue today, childhood gender stereotyping recently hit the news, after Good Morning America host Lara Spencer poked fun at British royal Prince George’s ballet lessons. So Billy Elliot the Musical remains a timely tale, one that continues to challenge theatre-goers of every age to embrace the arts with more joy and less judgment.

Emerson adds his character’s self-discovery elevated his acting skills and evolved his perspective. “Michael is a very out-there character, and it showed me that you can be who you want to be, but you have to be confident with it,” he explains.

In the musical, Billy’s father (Dan Chameroy) ultimately gives Billy the support he needs to succeed.

In the musical, Billy’s father (Dan Chameroy) ultimately gives Billy the support he needs to succeed.

His mother, Allison, says Emerson’s performing arts training has positively shaped his outlook and that of his younger brother, Oliver, 11, who is also cast in the production, in a variety of ways.

“It has affected their self-confidence. Being in the arts has allowed them to meet many different kinds of people and to be open to different situations. And I’m always amazed by their resilience and endurance with performances, training, school and commuting,” she says.



A ballet sequence featuring Dubuc and Colton Curtis as an older Billy hints at the successful future of the young dancer.

A ballet sequence featuring Dubuc and Colton Curtis as an older Billy hints at the successful future of the young dancer.

SPARKING CONVERSATIONS

Ultimately, catching a matinee with kids is about more than chasing Broadway dreams (dreams which can include any number of creative and behind-the-scenes roles in set design, lighting, costumes and more).

“Theatre feeds the soul. It teaches empathy, it teaches storytelling and it allows viewers to put themselves into other people’s situations,” Allison says.

Kristin adds that theatre also sparks meaningful discussions. “So many of the shows we’ve seen as a family have triggered insightful conversations.

Hamilton opened dialogue about both the American Civil War and the importance of diversity in casting. Dear Evan Hansen started conversations around teen suicide and the dangers of social media.”

And Billy Elliot’s spirited story will inspire young theatre-goers to explore their passions with heart, soul and – most of all – grit.

Sir Elton John – who composed the Tony Award-winning show’s music – captured the musical’s central message in an interview when it premiered in Toronto in 2011: “Let your kids chase their dreams.” You never know where they may take them.

Blythe Wilson stars as the ballet teacher who fires up Billy’s love of dance and encourages him to pursue his passion.

Blythe Wilson stars as the ballet teacher who fires up Billy’s love of dance and encourages him to pursue his passion.



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Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann

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