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Entertainment & Arts

Billy Elliot, all grown up: The boy who originated the stage role dances into Matthew Bourne’s ‘Cinderella’

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Liam Mower, a dancer in Matthew Bourne’s company New Adventures, and a file photo from 2006, when he won an Olivier Award for actor in a musical for “Billy Eillot.”
(Ivan Boleslawsky, left, and Max Nash / AP)

If “Billy Elliot” had a sequel, it might look like the life of Liam Mower.

At age 12, Mower won the title role of the original West End production of “Billy Elliot: The Musical” in London. Now 26, the dancer travels the world with Matthew Bourne’s company New Adventures, performing roles that most male dancers only dream of: the Lilac Fairy from “Sleeping Beauty” and the fairy godmother from “Cinderella” — roles that come with a particularly Bourneian twist.

In “Sleeping Beauty,” Mower plays not a mauve-clad queen of the fairies but a blood-sucking Count Lilac. In Bourne’s “Cinderella,” which had its U.S. premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1999 and is back in L.A. through March 10, he’s a fairy godfather-like figure known as the Angel.

“He’s more of a symbol of hope, I guess, and of positivity, and of Cinderella’s fate,” Mower said of the spirit whose presence hovers about Bourne’s World War II-era re-imagining of the classic fairy tale, set during the Blitz of London. “He maneuvers quite a lot of the story. … Sometimes that’s not good, because there are times in the story where things are not going so right for her. But he’s always in charge of what happens.”

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CINDERELLA
Liam Mower, dancing with Ashley Shaw, in Matthew Bourne's "Cinderella."
(Johan Persson)

Mower’s life has imitated art in unexpected ways. Hold up his résumé against that of Billy Elliot, the fictional working-class boy who dreams of dancing ballet in the Stephen Daldry-directed film and musical that followed, and it’s impossible not to notice similarities.

Both grew up in northern England in working-class families — Elliot’s dad a mine worker; Mower’s, a pipe fitter. Both were bullied for being boys who took ballet, both went on to study at the Royal Ballet School, and both ended up dancing in Bourne’s company.

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“It’s totally weird, and obviously, it’s something that I never planned,” Mower said last month via Skype from a New Adventures tour stop in Washington, D.C. “But actually, now looking back, it’s just so uncanny how my life was panning out and the similarities I had with the role.”

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Mower was cast as one of three Billys in the original 2005 production after a nationwide search. Though he shared the role, his opening night performance quickly thrust him into the spotlight. He became one of the youngest winners of an Olivier Award, sharing the honor with his fellow Billys, and during his 18-month run in the role, he performed at the Met Gala at the invitation of Anna Wintour.

“I remember at the time being like, ‘You’ve got to soak this experience up because … you’ll probably never go to the Met ball ever again,’ ” he said. “You’ve got your few hours at the ball, and then, you must leave.”

But Mower’s real-life Cinderella story took a turn when he struggled balancing his ballet studies with playing Billy.

“I was a boarder at the Royal Ballet School, and I would do my school during the morning, and I would get picked up in the afternoon, after my ballet classes, by a chaperone, and they would take me to the show in town,” Mower said. “Then, I’d perform the show, and then, they’d bring me back in a taxi. I did that for about eight months. It got to be too much, I think, and I needed to make a decision.”

Ultimately, Mower gave up his scholarship and place at the Royal Ballet School. He took his final bow as Billy Elliot at age 14 and chose to return home to complete his secondary education.

“I had this amazing experience in London, but a lot of the time, I was homesick,” said Mower, a self-described “home bird” from Kingston upon Hull. “To go home and not have a schedule, apart from going to school, was really lovely.”

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Mower ultimately did return to “Billy Elliot,” dancing the role of Older Billy in a live broadcast of the musical in 2014.

“It was almost like coming home,” he said.

I remember at the time being like, ‘You’ve got to soak this experience up because … you’ll probably never go to the Met ball ever again.’
Dancer Liam Mower, recalling the celebrity that came with playing Billy Elliot as a child

After graduating from the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, plum roles with Bourne’s company soon followed, including another life-imitating-art moment: playing the Prince in Bourne’s “Swan Lake.” This ballet, with an epic ensemble of male dancers as swans, is the final scene in the film “Billy Elliot” and had inspired Mower from an early age.

Seeing Adam Cooper as grown-up Billy, dancing in this ballet, “in the swan makeup and the pants — it was so relevant to what I was doing at the time,” said Mower, who recalled thinking, “Oh my God, I can jump like that!’ ”

Swans, fairies and delicate creatures of the night are not roles men typically play in classical ballets. For that reason, Mower has found his gender-bending roles with the company to be among the most meaningful.

“Especially in classical ballet,” Mower said, “women play fairies and the princesses. And then, men are like princes and the knight in shining armor. I just think it’s always amazing that we, we as men, get to portray these roles, because where else would you get to do them?”

And in a line that could apply to his own fairy tale life, he added, “I think it’s just a nice modern twist to the story.”

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Matthew Bourne’s ‘Cinderella’

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through March 10 (check for exceptions)

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

Tickets: $30-$175 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with two intermissions)

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