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The Royal Ballet’s real Billy Elliot

The persistent hard work and open outlook of rising Welsh dancer William Bracewell has landed him firmly on his feet. He talks to Hannah Sargeant about lockdown training, breaking ballet’s traditions and his life’s uncanny resemblance to the blockbuster film

Not many would describe it as “giving the Royal Ballet a go”, but for William Bracewell, a relatively low-key attempt to join one of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies worked out spectacularly. “I did think it was a bit of a long-shot, but here we are”.

Born in Swansea and known affectionately among friends and family as ‘Billy’, the 29-year-old pursued a career that began on the floors of a local Welsh dance school and has gone on to see him enrolled into the Royal Ballet School, be part of the Birmingham Royal Ballet for seven years, and tour the U.K. and Japan before earning his spot as a first soloist for the Royal Ballet.

Despite moments of uncertainty after a serious injury, Bracewell went on to star as Romeo in his feature film debut Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words, a cinematic ballet-drama adaptation of everyone’s favourite love story, alongside dancer Francesca Hayward.

I met Bracewell when I was 15 when my parents shipped me off to join his family, friends of ours, at Greenman Festival in the Brecon Beacons. It was here that I became awestruck with Bracewell’s ballet ability, based partly on jealousy and partly on an unreciprocated teenage crush.

Fast forward over a decade and I’m gathering friends into the living room on New Year's Day, making it clear that we will be watching Romeo and Juliet that’s about to air on BBC1. Maybe it's the New Year’s hangover, but the sheer beauty of Bracewell’s Balcony Pas de deux scene performed with the unmatchable Haywood - as her dress floats around them in the the breeze of a moon-lit evening - leaves me staring dewy-eyed at the screen while I chomp on my soggy homemade bread and butter pudding.

It’s been twelve years since we last spoke, and yet Bracewell remains pleasantly the same: quietly introverted, thoughtful, sweet.

He is video-calling me from his home in the Barbican that he shares with his (also professional ballet) boyfriend of two years; a small studio flat that has doubled-up as a training space throughout the pandemic, and in what seems like a thoroughly British response to the crisis, Bracewell began using tins of baked beans for weights.

Bracewell first discovered ballet at Pamela Miller Ballet School in Swansea around the age of eight. In the same year, Billy Elliot, a film about a young lad who hides an unlikely new-found interest in ballet from his family while pretending he is at boxing lessons, and eventually lands himself a place at the Royal Ballet School, was released. Bracewell’s story - and name - strike up such undeniable parallels to the film at times that it becomes laughable.

While Bracewell did not need to hide his diversion into dance from his parents, he did so from his peers after a spell of bullying. “If I was going to ballet class after school, I would say it was karate because I didn't want to tell anyone. I kept it secret,” he remembers. But the bullying stopped after the local news dubbed him the ‘Welsh Billy Elliot’, ultimately helping turn his hobby from being a topic of mockery, into something impressive.

Receiving his own acceptance letter from the Royal Ballet School at 11 harks back to a similar scene in the film: the envelope propped up against the condiments on the kitchen table, the anxious family gathered around, enduring a painful wait before Billy reveals, “I got in”. “We were all waking up and getting this letter, and I think I just started crying and thinking ‘wow, this is crazy’”, the real Billy says. “Then it starts sinking in that you're going to have to leave home.”

Looking back on his days at the Royal Ballet School, Bracewell struggles momentarily to sum it up. Fun was had but the rules were strict and the training process rigorous. How rigorous? “I wouldn't be able to do it again now at this age”, he says. One thing he can’t deny about his school days was it gave him all the essential tools he needed to excel in such a demanding and niche career.

“At the minute at the Royal Ballet, there is a big craving for change”, he tells me, but as the division of gender is a common value in ballet and storylines are exclusively heterosexual, how does a gay man find his place?

“As I get older, I ask why does it have to be so gender binary conforming? I'm not asking to wipe out the history of ballet, but I think that as an art form it could tell many more varied stories than it currently does.

“But it's not just about diversifying the stories and the artists, but also the audiences. I think there are so many people that ballet doesn't feel relevant to. And I don't personally buy into the fact that it has to stay like that.”

A career as a professional ballet dancer, however, does not last forever. Retirement usually comes in the mid to late thirties, but Bracewell takes the eventuality of this in his stride. “I see it as like I get the chance to just do something completely different at some point and I don’t know what that will be. Not yet, anyway.”


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