The four boys sharing the lead in the musical Billy Elliot in Toronto share as much in common with each other as they do with the character they play.
Cesar Corralles, Myles Erlick, Marcus Pei and J.P. Viernes are taking turns performing the lead role in the production based on the hit movie about an English boy from a mining town whose love of ballet gets him in conflict with his macho environment.
The four pint-sized pros beat out thousands of would-be-Billys to get starring roles in the musical that has been called a "global theatrical phenomenon," taking in over $20 million in its Broadway incarnation alone.
But before winning the role, they all shared common challenges as young boys — years of being teased for their love of ballet — just like the character they play.
'My friends would sometimes make fun of me, like ballerina boy and twinkle toes.'—Myles Erlick, lead dancer in Billy Elliot
"When I was a bit younger at school my friends would sometimes make fun of me, like ballerina boy and twinkle toes," recalls Erlick.
Corralles recalls similar taunts.
"Some other people even told me, 'Come on, that's for gay people.' I was like, 'No guys, come on!' It was a really hard experience," he said.
High-energy thrills required
And like the character they play, each of the boys also had their Mrs. Wilkinson, the supportive teacher who nurtures Billy Elliot's passion for ballet.
For three of the boys that teacher was "Mrs. Bowes," or Deborah Bowes, who has been teaching for almost 40 years at the National Ballet School in Toronto.
During those years Bowes has taught hundreds of boys, including three of the four young stars of Billy Elliot, and in that time, she has learned a few lessons of her own about keeping young boys interested in ballet.
Bowes said when it comes to ballet, you have to teach boys differently than girls. That means making sure that boys get the high-energy thrills that their developing masculinity needs.
"I don't want to sound like a cliché, but if you're doing exercise on which you're focusing on the very detailed part of their training, you want to make next one that is going to travel across the floor at top speed, where they are using their larger muscles and having that sense of adventure and risk they need," she says.
But how the boys of Billy Elliot fare in making the big leap beyond the supportive atmosphere of their ballet schools to the scrutiny of the stage also depends on the support they receive from home.
Myles Erlick's family, based in Burlington, Ont., now spends most of their time in Toronto, shuttling Myles between performances and tutoring sessions.
"It's not a sacrifice, it's a lifestyle choice," his mother Franci Nicassio told the CBC.
But these days, those family compromises, hours of practice and even the teasing seem to the last thing on the minds of the four young stars.
Now, it's their time to show Canadian audiences that real boys do dance ballet.