From dancing champ to Broadway star in 'Billy Elliot' - at age 13
Trent Kowalik's journey from championship Irish dancer to Broadway star
Published Tuesday, June 28, 2011, 7:28 PM
Updated Tuesday, June 28, 2011, 7:28 PM
Even his mother, Lauretta, has trouble believing that her son has gone from Irish dancing to Broadway.
"Who would've thought?" she says.
Implausible perhaps, but not entirely unexpected.
At the age of 11, he became the youngest American to be placed first at the 2006 World Irish Dance Championships in Belfast.
And he is more than just a dancer.
Trent must also act, sing and speak in Northern England's distinctive Geordie accent while bringing the story of a working-class boy in a mining town to the audience. A difficult task for most performers, especially a thirteen-year-old boy with no prior acting experience.
So how did Trent manage to score the Billy part not only in London's West End production but also on Broadway?
Trent was born into dancing.
His mother, Lauretta Kowalik, used to say that when she was pregnant with Trent, he was "dancing in the womb" because he moved around so much.
He grew up in an Irish-American family with three older sisters. Trent's father, Mike, and mother, Lauretta, are both fourth-generation Irish-American, with Lauretta's family coming from Co. Roscommon.
From early on he was surrounded by dance with all three sisters being Irish dancers. Before he turned three, Trent was discovered wearing his sister's tap shoes, standing in front of a TV mimicking Michael Flatley's dance moves.
Since he was too young to start Irish dance classes, Trent's parents enrolled him in dance classes at Dorothy's School of Dance in Bellmore, Long Island, NY. Under the tutelage of Dorothy Medico, Trent progressed from ballet and tap to hip-hop, jazz and acrobatic tumbling.
Here is where the Billy Elliot parallel comes into play, with similarities being drawn between Mrs. Medico and Billy's colorful dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson. Trent agrees that the two are a bit alike and hastens to add that Mrs. Medico was with him "every step of the way."
When he turned four, Trent was enrolled in Irish step dancing lessons at the Inishfree School of Irish Dance in Long Island. Under the instruction of Sean Reagan, he quickly mastered the form, succeeding in regional competitions before moving on to national and world competition and culminating in Belfast's World Championship win in 2006.
How did his experiences with Irish dance competitions translate to a London stage? It was hard work, he says, but nothing he couldn't handle.
"At first acting was really hard to do,” he explains. “But it's another thing once you start doing it more and you feel more like Billy."
Trent had been shown the "Billy Elliot" movie by his parents before there was any mention of the part in London. Surrounded by girls in both his dance classes at Dorothy's and his Irish dance lessons, he related to the character of Billy.
"It was a very inspiring movie because I was in a dance class and there were no other boys."
After hearing of the London auditions from New York-based Irish dance instructor Niall O'Leary, he decided to give the part a try.
One of the most intimidating things about the auditions for Trent was the fact that he'd never seen so many other boys who were great dancers. The other fear he had to face was singing in front of an audience for the first time.
"I was nervous at the auditions," he says. "I'd never done anything like that before."
"[But] I absolutely loved it by the end of the audition. From there I went to two more auditions and then they finally told me that I got the part on the West End."
When comparisons between himself and the character Billy Elliot are made, Trent points out that unlike Billy, he has an extremely supportive family.
Living in London from the fall of 2007 to spring 2008 to perform in "Billy Elliot" proved challenging, as Trent was faced not only with his first acting gig, but also with being apart from his family for the first time. "At first it was really hard," he says, "because my parents weren't with me, but after a while it sort of became home."
It helped that Mike and Lauretta got to visit once a month, and Trent was able to establish bonds with other actors who lived with him in the "Billy House" where the younger cast members - the role of Billy was shared by Trent with two other boys - were looked after by "house parents."
Trent's experience in "Billy Elliot" in London proved essential when it came time to cast the Broadway "Billy." Especially his mastery of the Geordie accent, which he says he just "picked up."
"We had lots of accents and dialect lessons," Trent notes, "but when I started in London I had English accents all around me. We actually had some people who spoke in the Geordie accent. Most of the cast members were English, but there's also been an Irish Billy and a Scottish Billy."
He loves being back in New York, the city he calls his "home town" with the support of his family and friends. Though he currently lives in an apartment in Manhattan to be close to the theater, Trent gets a chance to go back to his home in Wantagh, N.Y. on his day off.
At home, Trent says he usually plays video games or goes to his cousin's house or to movie theaters, it all depends on how he's feeling that day.
Traveling and being away from his family has actually strengthened his relationship with his sisters. "When you don't see them as much, you appreciate them more," he says.
Trent is certainly appreciating the support from his family these days as the media whirlwind surrounding "Billy Elliot" reaches a high point. Last fall alone Kowalik, along with Billy counterparts Kiril Kulish and David Alvarez, have been interviewed in The New York Times, The Daily News and New York magazine as well as appearing on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and having their pictures featured in Vanity Fair and Vogue.
All the newfound fame doesn't seem to have affected Trent in a negative way.