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Which Way You Going, Billy?

May 7, 2009 By:
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Billy (Trent Kowalik, one of three Tony-nominated boys in the role) puts his best foot forward Photo by Alastair Muir

Set to spring and soar among the Tony Award seraphim after stepping to the forefront of Broadway's best following this past Tuesday's record-tying nominations (15) announcement, "Billy Elliot" is operating on all jetés.

And while this movie-based moving musical about an impoverished young lad from an English coal-mining town burnished into a diamond at dance class has raised the barr of everything about the ballet -- while proving a sensation at the box office -- it is Mrs. Wilkinson, his grumpy, grinch of a teacher with a soot-stained stone heart -- a flimsy layer of doubt and dust atop the gold beneath -- who gets first billing in the life of Billy Elliot.

For it is the wickedly wanton Wilkinson, whose one daring glance could drain all the water from "Swan Lake," and have Sleeping Beauty reaching for the Anacin, who is Billy's belltower of strength, the one who helps mine his potential so the coal mines never enshroud him as one of their own.

Mrs. Wilkinson has a will of her own, even if beaten down a bit by teaching gangly giggly girls the grace notes of an art as fragrant as a fleur de lis and as daunting as a dandelion weed amid a cloudburst.

In this perfect storm of a musical, she is the forecaster, forever shaping the shifting talents before her so that one day they may walk out of her makeshift studio as studies in finesse. Well, at least not as failures.

Mrs. Wilkinson is alive and well -- and dancing -- in Wissahickon, in the graceful shape of Nancy Malmed, whose ministrations to many over the years from inner city to outside the country have made her point en pointe: Dance is a dash of the soul against all barriers and biases, a breakthrough of hope over hurdles that defies gravity on its leap to greatness.

There are some modifications, to be sure: Malmed is no Wilkinson malcontent, nor is she besmirched by the benign neglect of a community who steps outside her circle. Refined where Wilkinson is rough-hewn, gracious where the other is grouchy, this West Oak Lane native and artistic director of the Wissahickon Dance Academy is celebrating her 25th year at its helm, bringing life and learning to its location on School House Lane.

School is in session: It is there where the Penn State grad who earned a master's in dance from Temple University has mastered the art of movement and where students have been stepping up to the line for decades.

If this woman of the red slippers had slipped from the local scene -- her reach is international, having created the American/Ukraine Ballet Exchange, a precursor to the International Ballet Exchange -- it would have been a major step backward for the city's art movement, which has been enriched with her as dance doyenne, youthful as she is.

A scan of her success stories is an X-ray of the extraordinary; five-six-seven-eight ... her minions have been many, fully extended throughout the major dance world.

Is John Gluckman her Billy Elliot? Now a member of the internationally heralded Joffrey Ballet, he took his first steps at the academy, molded in part by terpsichorean Talmudist Malmed -- and, like Billy, the lone boy amid a gaggle of girls.

Indeed, he started at age 5, in 1986, receiving "good training there. And because it was a very small school, I got to do a lot of parts, which prepared me for the real world of dance."

But then, he's seen "Billy Elliot" -- the movie, not the show -- and he's known his share of Billy Elliots ... but he's no Billy Elliot. And for that, he is thankful -- for his love of ballet was not held back by a backward father like Billy's, who saw "sissy" in every step.

"We do come from different backgrounds," says the Jewish student-turned-star who hails from a supportive family. "Billy chose ballet to escape; I chose it because it is something I knew I wanted and had to do."

Unlike Billy, Gluckman was "an athletic kid" -- in this aspect, the English lad was far from okay, kayoed in boxing class before he could lace up his gloves -- and "it wasn't until I applied to college [Indiana University] that I realized I really loved to dance."

There was no love lost between Billy and the townspeople who saw his interest in ballet as a bit tutu much. But for John, his leap of faith was met halfway. "Outside of class, I had a lot of friends, but you did have to develop a thick skin."

And as far as being a Y chromosome adrift in a class of girls, well, he says X marks the spot: "It was no big deal; in fact, it was pretty great being the only boy."

And great is the relationship he has had over the years with Malmed and her husband, an attorney. "Nancy is a loving, caring person -- and I still come back to see her and have dinners with her family."

Jessica Hershberg, 23, has had a taste for dance since "being very young -- maybe 4, and pointing my toes in the bathtub, asking to take dance classes."

A class act from West Mount Airy -- having been Bat Mitzvah at Germantown Jewish Centre -- she took classes at the University of Michigan, earning a BFA in musical theater last year.

Is Billy Elliot her BFF? "I have seen 'Billy Elliot,' though I saw it several years ago in London," where the show originated prior to its international incarnations.

"I enjoyed the show, found the story line to be touching."

Indeed, "anything involving parents and children and following dreams usually brings the tears out for me."

But did it bring out empathy? Jessica didn't "feel a huge connection between Billy's journey and my own. I didn't have the same obstacles that Billy did in the story. My family was incredibly supportive and though, yes, maybe my father wished I had played some sports growing up, I didn't feel any kind of pressure to be something else."

As for mentor Malmed -- she was something else. "Nancy Malmed does not look like an '80s Jane Fonda workout video extra gone wrong," she kids, contrasting Mrs. Wilkinson's wayward appearance and Malmed's comely and physically fit refinement.

"Nancy is a lovely woman and ultimately in the ways you mentioned -- involving inspiration and courage -- well, of course, yes, there are definite similarities," even if one's mirror is more dusty than the other's.

"Nancy and my other wonderful teacher, Viktor Yelihon" -- the academy's Soviet-born ballet master and choreographer -- "were my teachers, coaches, mentors and really my second family," she says, adding a punchy parenthetical punch line. "A lot like family in that I sometimes loved them and hated them!"

What she did for love left a lasting impression, and Hershberg has impressed others: She has gotten a national tour with the musical version of "Little House on the Prairie."

Nothing small about the support she received at home: "I would not be doing this if I had not grown up in a house where I was allowed to pursue my dreams and been in schools with teachers who could help foster my abilities."

No doubting Sarah Hollister's abilities, unholstered during a run of three years with the Carolina Ballet in North Carolina and more than a year after that with other companies.

At 30, the erstwhile Mount Airy resident fetes the academy for the early exposure she had to great dance and dancers. "I attended Wissahickon from when I was about 6 until the end of high school," going on to graduate college.

The turning point for the dancer? "Some students from [Wissahickon] had the opportunity to perform with a professional dance company from Donetsk, Ukraine, and it was my first exposure to professional dancers and the world of professional ballet.

"Once I realized professional dancers existed -- and that maybe I could dance for a living -- I was sold."

And on her feet: "What attracted me to ballet and performing was the accomplishment that you feel; when you are able to execute a certain step, combination or dance."

The combo of Malmed and the academy experience "provided me with great training, individualized attention and wonderful opportunities," including a chance to dance and train in the Ukraine.

Chalk these lessons up to a life-altering decision on the periphery of the dance proscenium: "The outreach that Nancy did to public schools had a large influence on me," including taking part in a "traveling show of 'Peter and the Wolf'; I was the bird."

Perched on a different ring of the dance-world ladder, she landed on her feet, having "an opportunity to visit many different types of elementary schools and be part of an important arts outreach effort."

Reach out and touch someone ... ironically, Hollister was the one touched, gaining a foothold in a new direction: "I see now how these experiences influenced my desire to pursue a career in education policy." Hollister is now an analyst in the Pennsylvania State Department of Education's Office of Policy.

Class dismissed -- but not before an assignment talking to its teacher. The shoes are off -- her students', that is -- and now Malmed can, as they say in a different musical, lay it on the line.

Is this elegant, educated, energy force the Jewish dance doppelgänger of Mrs. Wilkinson? Mirror, mirror on the wall, what's the greatest feat of all?

"If it means she took a child and let him be smitten with the possibilities of dance and opened his eyes ... well, yes, I'd like to think I am like Mrs. Wilkinson."

Awake and, if not sing -- dance! Indeed, Malmed's longtime association with Simon Gratz High School -- in which inner-city kids stepped up to the barr of ballet -- pays off May 22 when those students in residence with the International Ballet Exchange exchange their inner city cores for the externals of a life on stage, joining Wissahickon students at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside for performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

All part of the lifelong dream that is Malmed's, a woman who "is not one to toot my own horn; I work quietly."

With a cymbal's crash of results and credence. Not that everything is beautiful in the ballet world: "Dance does not get the respect it deserves in this city; it is totally neglected by the schools."

No denying the impact of dance, which held sway over Malmed early on as she performed professionally with the Contemporary Dance Theater and has, for decades, been a proponent and teacher of the Soviet-sourced Vaganova Method.

"This is where I need to be," she says of her role as teacher/ mentor.

And that is where her kids want her. "When you do ballet, it's like a language," and one -- which her many students will tell you speaking through every step that they take in life -- that leads to a polyglot of possibilities.  

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