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Terry Gilbert - The Real Billy Elliott!

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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Terry Gilbert – The Real Billy Elliott?

`determined to become a dancer'

The award winning film `Billy Elliott’ is set in a pit village in the north of England during the miner’s strike of 1984 and tells the remarkable tale of a young man (Billy Elliott) who, against all the odds – and the express wishes of a macho father and elder brother on picket-line duty, is determined to become a dancer.

Billy is the cause of outrage in the Elliott family when he secretly abandons his weekly boxing club for ballet lessons - and eventually wins a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London.

`sometimes truth is stranger than fiction'

The film is of course pure fantasy – but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and in an amazing parallel of this box-office sensation, the truth reveals that Derbyshire has it’s very own `Billy Elliott’!

Like the fictitious Billy Elliott, Terry Gilbert was also the son of a miner and born in a pit village in the north of England – but unlike the film there wasn’t a Geordie accent for miles – for the pit was Bonds Main and the village was Temple Normanton, near Chesterfield.

The true story of Terry Gilbert goes far beyond the bounds or even the dreams of his fictional counterpart, for this real-life `Billy Elliott’ went on to dance his way to international success on stages around the world.

Currently founder and Artistic Director of the Henfield Opera Project Trust, Terry Gilbert was born in 1931 and attended Bonds Main School before winning a scholarship to Chesterfield Grammar School in 1942. Here he developed a love of music and theatre and quickly became a favourite in school plays and with local drama societies, whilst being trained as a boy soprano by Dulcie Knowles at Hasland.

At the age of sixteen Terry was awarded a grant by Derbyshire County Council to study at the world famous Ballet Rambert School, becoming the first boy in England to gain such an award, he began training in 1948.

With fleeting steps he danced on the whirlwind of fate and in his own words “changed my name from Bown to Gilbert…..as Bown was so often mis-spelt in programmes” and “ran away to join the London Ballet Theatre….then the Glyndbourne Opera at the Edinburgh Festival” - before returning to join the Ballet Rambert for a British tour.

Trained and rehearsed by ballet masters from the Diaghilev Ballets Russes and Anna Pavlova’s Company, Terry became a principal dancer in Dame Marie Rambert’s world renowned ballet company, but – “ran away again to audition for Gene Kelly’s last huge musical, `Invitation to the Dance”.

Fate could not have choreographed it better for Terry danced into the part becoming the youngest boy in the cast, and met fellow principal dancer Selena Wylie who was destined to become his future wife and mother of his three children. They married in 1954 and continued together as leading soloists with Ballet Rambert before joining the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) international touring company, and danced their way around the world performing at fabulous venues in Paris, Monte Carlo, Nice, Geneva, and places as diverse as Tel Aviv and Copenhagen.

In the early sixties, along with the birth of their first child and the burgeoning opportunities of television and cinema, Terry began freelancing as a dancer and choreographer and his talent and experience were utilised in productions from the Billy Cotton Band Show to the early Tommy Steele films. Whilst continuing commercial work as a dancer he also gained a foothold in film production, providing dancers and crowd scenes for dozens of films, working on `Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, and with Cliff Richard on `The Young Ones’ and `Summer Holiday’.

“This kind of work broadened my scope as a choreographer and taught me a lot about camera work”, explained Terry. “It also provided excellent preparation for working with film director Ken Russell - a friend and colleague of mine who had suddenly burst into the movies”.

Terry Gilbert choreographed the famous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in the screen adaption of D.H.Lawrence’s “Women in Love” and went on to choreograph scenes in such films as “The Boyfriend”, “Richard 111”, “Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves”, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Elephant Man”.

He has since earned himself a world-wide reputation as a fine director and choreographer of international repute in the different artistic genres of film, theatre, and television, and has travelled the world producing, directing and performing classical ballet and opera. Not bad for a miner’s son from a pit village in Derbyshire!

In the 1980’s he was invited to teach at the National Opera Studio, Trinity College of Music, and became the producer of `Opera on a Shoestring’, an award winning company based in Glasgow.

In between engagements, and giving master classes to the new generation of dancers in London where he was based at the time, Terry took time out to turn his hand to a different artistic medium and became a published author. “Dim White Phlox” was published in the Derbyshire Heritage Series in 1989 by Hall & Sons of Derby. Subtitled, “A Decade of Distant Childhood Derbyshire. 1937-1947” the introduction says - “this novel evokes in powerful word pictures the burgeoning of a child in a world of slag heaps, pastures, woodlands, alleyways and gennils, populated with the half forgotten figures of his memory. Gilbert traces with skill and much affection the shadowy traces of his childhood and the remarkable people of his village…and dedicates his book to them”.

In recent years Terry and his family have moved to West Sussex where four years ago, and `partially retired’ (his own description of his status!) he set up the Henfield Opera Project Trust, whose productions of `Madame Butterfly’, `La Traviata’ and more recently `Hansel & Gretel` have received rave notices in the press. He is currently planning the next production, to be staged at Easter 2002, of `Cavalleria Rusticana’.

Of Terry & Selena’s three `children’, Jasper, now 39, is Production & Touring Manager with the Royal Shakespeare Company; Emma, 36, is a Director of the Peter Bedford Trust; and Seth, who was a soloist with the English National Ballet until his career was thwarted by injury is now an independent landscape gardener, who has exchanged Covent Garden for St.George’s Field, the largest private garden in London!

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. The fictitious Billy Elliott danced himself as far as London – but the real Terry Gilbert who sang, produced, and directed around the world danced all the way to the stars. Not bad for a miner’s son from a pit village in Derbyshire!

Contact Tom: reblee.tom@gmail.com

 
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