Brandon Becker hasn't seen "Billy Elliot," the story of a boy who painfully trades boxing for ballet, but it's not because Becker's afraid of reliving any painful boyhood experiences of his own he doesn't have many, actually, and he hasn't had much time for movies since Richmond Ballet's "The Nutcracker" kicked off Dec. 9. Becker stars as the Snow King and performs three other roles in this year's ballet. The 27-year-old Fresno, Calif., native received a degree in ballet teaching and performance from the University of Utah, then helped found the Aspen Ballet, where he danced for two years before joining Richmond Ballet in 1997. His roles here have included Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet," Iago in "The Moor's Pavane," the champion roper in "Rodeo," and, it still cracks him up to say, a stepsister in "Cinderella." Style spoke to him last week on one of his a rare days off. Style: How did you get into dancing? Becker: It started when I was about 5 years old. I was over at my parents' friends' house and they were playing "The Nutcracker," and I was just dancing around to that. Their friends suggested putting me in dance lessons, and my parents told them, "Sure, if you pay for it." And they said: "You're on." [Laughs.] And their friends really paid for my first session. I started in what is called creative movement, learning various coordination skills, just skipping and so forth. When I was 7, I also did gymnastics for a year, and I think I was 9 when I started really taking dance seriously. I went to a performing arts high school and also studied vocals and theater, but as a dancer, you have a much shorter career span, so I decided to pursue that first. Style: This is the 17th year of Richmond Ballet's "Nutcracker." Aren't you all tired of it? Becker: [Laughs.] I have to be careful here because I love my job. [Laughs.] Seriously, I think the way we keep it fresh and new is because of the children. You can really see how the children who perform in it grow and improve. It's fun to see how much they enjoy performing, so I think that makes it new and exciting for us. Kids are surprisingly smart. I started teaching them when I was a sophomore in high school, and I have been constantly amazed at what they are able to do. This year, in particular, it was amazing how quickly we were able to get everything together. They start rehearsing in October, and they work very hard. They're very good and very attentive. I think the main thing people don't realize about "The Nutcracker" is the dedication of the students in the show, and their parents. They all put in a lot of hours, and it's not all fun and games. I think they are just amazing, dealing with all that pressure, and having fun doing it. Style: Where do you get these kids? Becker: There are two casts of students from the School of Richmond Ballet, about 120 kids for 60 roles, so most students do about half of the 14 performances. Some of the roles are really difficult. The party children have a lot to do, but I would say the soldiers are the most difficult roles the kids perform, because they have to march in very difficult formations. The music can be difficult to stay in time with; you've got these explosions, and, of course, the rats are running around everywhere. Plus they've got props, and there is a horrendously fast costume change halfway through. It's a real traffic jam backstage. Style: That all sounds very vigorous and athletic, but does ballet appeal any more to boys now than when you were growing up? Becker: I think so. Ballet is one of those things that, because a lot of guys cannot physically do it, it really makes you stand out in a good way. It gives you a lot more opportunities farther on and it's so athletic, it really keeps you in shape. There were times in junior high that I didn't really want to be known as a dancer, but it's becoming more accepted. I've been very excited about the number of boys that are becoming involved. They bring a nice energy and enthusiasm. One of our students has come up through the school from where he was the only boy in his studio, so he was happy to find others here. We've actually had quite a few male students who have continued on with professional training programs. Style: How do you get more kids involved? Becker: We're doing a lot of things around the city to get more boys and girls involved. I teach three fourth-grade classes each week at Woodville Elementary for our Minds in Motion program, which culminates in a performance at the end of the school year. Some of those students then transition into the ballet school. We hold lecture demonstrations at all the elementary schools in Henrico and Chesterfield. We mentor kids, send them postcards when we're on tour, a lot of different things to expose them to something they really wouldn't ever experience otherwise. Richmond Ballet's "The Nutcracker"
Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts: Wednesday, Dec. 20, 8 p.m.; Thursday, Dec. 21, 8 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 22, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 23, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets: $22 and up for adults; discounts for students and seniors.Especially for children: Party with Clara and friends after the Friday, Dec. 22, 2 p.m. performance from 4:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at The Jefferson Hotel Rotunda. "Clara's Holiday Party" features music, refreshments and autographs from your favorite "Nutcracker" characters. Bring a camera. Tickets: $12.50, free for kids younger than 3.Tickets from Ticketmaster: 262-8100, www.ticketmaster.com