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Joshua Horner - Dancer, Billy Elliot

Joshua Horner
'I was with all the girls'” it was fantastic, and all my mates were jealous.

Growing up as the only male ballet dancer in his country hometown of Wyong means Josh is well qualified to play the grown-up Billy Elliot in Sydney's production of the musical adaptation of the movie.

Josh was a member of the Australian Ballet for five years before his long-time passion for musical theatre saw him make an all-singing, all-dancing career change. Before playing Billy, Josh worked in the UK's West End playing the lead role or Tony in Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel's Movin' Out. He also toured the UK in Guys and Dolls.

When did you start dancing?

I originally started dance training when I was six years old to help improve my asthma. I started out swimming, but the chlorine gave me infections so the paediatrician said to try dancing because it had similar benefits. It was just a means to improve my health and strengthen up my lungs, but I haven't stopped.

How often did you train?

In my teens, I started at a dance studio in Sydney and my parents would drive me to training at least three or four times a week after school. I was training in all styles of dance and I would also spend all of Saturday at the studio.

What did everyone think about you dancing?

It wasn't normal for a boy to be doing ballet, but I still enjoyed it. I was with all the girls – it was fantastic, and all my mates were jealous. They are even more jealous now I'm older.

Was it a slow transition for it to become your career?

The studio I went to was run by David Atkins, who produced the Sydney Olympic Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies. When I was about 13, David and his wife asked if I wanted to make a career out of dancing. I wanted to do musicals, but they said I had a really good ballet technique so I ended up going to the Australian Ballet School down in Melbourne. That was the most intense training I've done in my entire life, and it's paid off because I've used that technique for my whole career. With dancing, ballet is the essential technique from which you can branch off and do any style.

What's the lifestyle like with the Australian Ballet?

It's very easy to get stuck in your own world. I had ballet class at 10.30 am, followed by rehearsals all day and a performance at night. I was rehearsing and performing different shows, so it was interesting to constantly have different projects. You end up waiting to see the cast board for the next production – and that tends to dominate your thinking a bit. You might think you are totally suited to a lead role in a production, but then you find that you're a spear holder in the back row. In the ballet ranking system, you get ranked from the Corps de ballet up to principals. Things worked out strangely for me, because I was in the Corps de ballet but was doing lots of principal and soloist roles. It was frustrating because I was doing the harder roles but never getting a promotion and the benefits that go with that.

Is that one of the reasons you moved into musical theatre?

Partly. Also, my passion for ballet started dwindling and I had always wanted to do musical theatre. I played the lead in a show we did with the Sydney Dance Company called Tivoli and I knew straight away that it was more what I was into. I feel a bit naughty in a sense, because I went on a travel scholarship with the Australian ballet to see what the performers were like in America. I ended up seeing 14 Broadway shows and then only did a couple of classes with New York City Ballet. I certainly got the bug after that. I came home and made the very difficult decision to leave the Australian Ballet. So many kids and young dancers want to get in and here I was resigning, but in my heart I knew it was the right decision.

What did you do after leaving the Australian Ballet?

I got straight into the musical of Dirty Dancing, where I was the lead understudy for Johnny. Oh my God! That was so much fun! I was having the time of my life. It was a lot more relaxed, I didn't have to stress my body out with the rigorous training and I was learning so much more with the acting side of things. It was so stimulating to do something new, fresh and different. It was about a year and a half later that an American agency called to tell me to say I had been headhunted for a show called Movin' Out. They were doing it in London, so I got the lead role over there.

What's the day-to-day work like in musical theatre?

Unlike in the ballet, where I was at classes first thing in the morning, we have rehearsals from 12.30 pm onwards and I have loads more free time during the day. I also have personal training sessions twice a week to keep my body in absolute peak performance and singing lessons once a week. With some extra spare time, I also do some teaching. It's nice to put something back into the community and guide the kids with their own little journeys to maybe becoming professional dancers and performers.

What about the young Billys? What are their backgrounds and what opportunities do they have?

They come from very similar backgrounds to me, but it's really interesting watching their journeys blossom quite early. If there had been a show like Billy Elliot around when I was that age, it would have been amazing. They are so dedicated and talented it's ridiculous. Some of them have very good ballet technique and want to eventually get into the Australian Ballet. Other boys are probably more interested in the acting side of things and musical theatre. However, even though they are getting this great insight into the industry, I also tell them how important school is. If they get injured or have a big change of heart, they have to have a dream for something else.

To do what you are doing today, do you have to start at a young age?

You can definitely move into it later on, although you might not be playing the lead roles. The ensembles of musical theatre are often meant to look like normal people, so the dancer physique and the funky hairdo isn't always what a show is looking for. There's a guy in the ensemble for Billy Elliot who was doing marketing or accounting, but he always had a passion for musical theatre so he decided to move into it full time and totally change his life. If someone wants to move into dance halfway through his or her career, they can certainly do it –they just have to have the passion and dedication.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Entertaining people. I love to see people watch the show and get taken away from their normal, everyday lives. The applause is always lovely. You can't get much better than being paid for something that you love to do.

Any bad bits?

The social hours are really bad, because when friends have birthday parties, weddings, christenings or even just after-work drinks I usually can't go. Monday is my day off, but that's when my friends are working so I usually just spend it at home doing the laundry. I also get very tired and it's a little bit monotonous because I do the same show everyday.

What are you plans for the future?

To get a job a Roger David at Westfield Tuggerah. Just joking! That's my favourite joke, because when I was in Year 10, I put in a casual application for Roger David. Some days, when I'm really tired from the shows, that job can look really appealing. Actually, I'm totally hooked on the entertainment industry. I will dance for as long as I can, and then I will move into choreographing, producing and directing shows. It's big business out there! There are lots of other avenues I could branch off into throughout my career.

What would your advice be for people who want to follow in your footsteps?

No one is better than yourself to get yourself out there. If I want to do something, I use my head and I think what's the best way to do it and who's the best contact. We all have agents who let us know when auditions are on and negotiate our contracts, but it's really about being extremely proactive.

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