Saturday, September 23, 2023 Sep 23, 2023
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Theater & Dance

Like Billy Elliot, Kurt Froman Had to Defy His Father to Learn Ballet

Kurt Froman taught Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis how to dance in Black Swan. Now he’s teaching an ensemble of boys how to be Billy Elliot.
By Peter Simek |

In the movie Billy Elliot, the hero has to sneak out of boxing classes to learn ballet because his hardheaded father, a miner, doesn’t think boys belong in tights. So it is fitting that one of the two resident choreographers of the 10-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on the film also had to overcome his father’s objections to dance.

But Kurt Froman’s father was no brutish miner; he was a singer. In fact, he met Froman’s mother, who was a dancer, while the two were performing for the St. Louis Municipal Opera. Froman and his twin brother, Kyle, were the youngest of six siblings, and when they showed an interest in dancing while growing up in Fort Worth, they had to look no further than their eldest sister’s dance studio for lessons. There were obstacles, though. It wasn’t until his parents divorced that he finally could take a class.

“My father was very adamant that we not dance, because my brother and I always begged,” Froman says. “I think just to spite him a little bit, my mother threw us in once they got a divorce, because she knew there was nothing that would piss him off more.”

That’s partly what makes Froman’s story so interesting. Although he came from an artistic family, and his parents were show business veterans, finding his way from Fort Worth to the New York City Ballet took no less grit, tenacity, and courage than Billy Elliot needed to pursue his passion. Then there was the social taboo that stands between young men and the ballet stage. “For years, my twin brother and I would keep it a secret that we danced,” Froman says. “We didn’t want anyone to know, because we knew that there was no way that they would understand what was involved. They thought it was jumping around in a tutu.”

Once he and his brother did start taking classes, they excelled. Within a year of beginning in ballet, they switched studios to the Fort Worth Ballet. Then they auditioned for the prestigious American School of Ballet, a feeder program for the New York City Ballet. At the age of 15, they were offered full-time spots in the program, but their father insisted they finish high school first in Fort Worth. So summers were spent in New York with the ballet school, and the school year was spent with the Fort Worth Ballet. When the brothers graduated, they both left Texas for the Big Apple on a prestigious scholarship for young male dancers who showed exceptional promise.

Like a weary native in a Horton Foote play returning to his hometown, Froman has changed a lot in the years since he left Texas. He says he rarely returns now for more than a few days. It’s hard to understand when he would have the time. After seven years with the New York City Ballet, he left for Broadway, earning a starring role in the popular Movin’ Out, as well as parts as an actor, dancer, and coach in other Broadway productions. With his New York City Ballet credentials, he belongs to an elite community of dancers. He has staged performances at the Paris Opera Ballet, and, a few years ago, when choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied needed help training some actresses as dancers for a new Darren Aronofksy film that revolved around ballet, he called his old friend Kurt Froman.

For the movie Black Swan, Froman helped turn Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis into convincing ballerinas. The experience, he says, was unforgettable, especially for a film buff who prides himself on his ability to bridge the worlds of dance and theater. But it is Billy Elliot the Musical, he says, that has been a real career milestone—not just because of the prestige of the Broadway play but because of how close he feels to the story.

“I never thought I would do this,” Froman says about the grueling, nomadic existence that a Broadway tour demands. “But when the opportunity came up, I couldn’t pass on it.”

Froman’s job is to work with the dancers, in particular the lead female actor and ensemble of young boys who play Billy—training them, teaching them, blending their dancing and acting into a single artistic expression. One dance stands out. Called “Electricity,” it comes as Billy Elliot is asked what dancing means to him, and, standing in front of his father, his words explode into action, dancing erupting into soaring flight.

“To get to come back to Texas with something like this, it is very personal,” Froman says. “People know it is about a boy who dances, but it is so much more than that—the themes of following your truth, going against the grain, following your destiny. This is this boy’s salvation in the same way that it was my salvation. I had to go to New York, and I had to have this life.”

Photo: Kyle Froman