GARY AVIS MBE “IN CONVERSATION” WITH AMANDA JENNINGS
21st October 2019
The LBC audience on 21st October had a very illuminating evening with Gary Avis, the Principal Character Artist and Senior Ballet Master with The Royal Ballet (RB). Questioned by the guest host, Amanda Jennings, of Dance Europe, Gary talked enthusiastically about how he had come to go into ballet, various aspects of his dancing career, his preparation for his roles, and his work as a ballet master. He also gave some details of his charity activity in his local community in Suffolk and about his involvement in the RB’s Create and Dance programme.
Gary began by explaining that he had started Disco Dancing at aged 11 and had moved on to learn ballet, tap and modern in a local dance school. He recalled watching the backing dancers on the Grace Kennedy TV show and aspiring to be in musicals so that he would stand a chance of appearing in a Royal Variety Performance. However, when he progressed to vocational training at the Doreen Bird College for the Performing Arts, he was encouraged to focus on classical dance on the basis that he would have the option of moving to musical theatre at a later stage. After 2 years at Bird College, a teacher encouraged Gary to audition for The Royal Ballet School (RBS), which he managed to do with a bit of subterfuge. By that point, he only had 12 months of his grant left, but this proved to be sufficient as he was given a contract to join The Royal Ballet (RB) after only one year at the RBS – coincidentally alongside Adam Cooper who had also arrived at the RBS via a more theatrical background.
Gary feels that he was very fortunate as a student as he had opportunities to appear on stage with the RB. In those days, the final scene of Romeo and Juliet opened with a ‘body’ on a tomb and Gary was often cast as that dead person, terrified each time that he might fall asleep. Also, in Romeo and Juliet, Gary played Tybalt’s aid, whose main job is to give Tybalt a replacement sword if his original one breaks. Nevertheless, this provided an opportunity to “make something” of the character and Gary was able to capitalise on that. In the context of the RBS itself, Gary played The Young Man in The Two Pigeons at Holland Park. He wasn’t given the main stage performance at the ROH, but this role cemented in Gary’s mind the importance of portraying a story through ballet.
From very early on, Gary sensed that he was not going to be “a ballet prince” and was very conscious of his limitations. However, as he danced his way to Soloist, he was very aware of the shining exemplars of acting all around him - Leslie Edwards, Derek Rencher, David Wall, and Stephen Jeffries, for example – and this reinforced in his mind the important place held by character dancers in the overall scheme of things.
Despite achieving promotion and being cast in a range of primarily character roles, at aged 30, Gary still felt the need to do more actual dancing. Therefore, when the ROH closed for re-development and Tetsuya Kumakawa (Teddy) secured sponsorship to start K-Ballet in Japan, Gary unexpectedly found that he had “an amazing opportunity to be a DANCER”. Leaving the RB was a hard move to make: on the one hand, there was the security and family atmosphere of the RB; on the other (and despite support from Tokyo Broadcasting System) was the leap into the unknown with Teddy’s group needing to manage themselves and arrange their own classes and rehearsals in both London and Japan. Gary added that, within “the cotton wool” of a company, it is very easy for dancers to be complacent about the facilities and the various forms of support they receive, perhaps, especially, if they have come through White Lodge. However, although Gary’s training had been more varied, the experience with K-Ballet represented an important learning curve for him.
There was also the wrench of leaving his partner, his family and his friends behind for a significant proportion of the year – and fans were expressing disappointment too.
In terms of its programme, K-Ballet had tried to be innovative initially and Gary was able to “get the need to dance out of his system”. However, it wasn’t long before the sponsors were pushing for a more classically-based repertoire, at which point Gary began thinking to himself, “I could do that in the UK”!
Gary commented that he had been extremely fortunate, throughout his career, insofar as “pieces in the jigsaw seemed to come in the right sizes and shapes, and at the right time for him.” At the time of Gary’s return to the UK, he was asked to dance Bob Cratchit in Christopher Hampson’s A Christmas Carol in Cardiff., with Kevin Richmond as Scrooge. At the same time, Christopher had been working with Matz Skoog, the Director of ENB at that time, and had mentioned to Matz that Gary was back in the UK and looking for employment. Subsequently, Gary was employed by ENB to dance a couple of shows as Tybalt and, in March 2002, he was offered a contract as a Senior Soloist. He enjoyed his time with ENB very much and liked to opportunity to dance in different productions such as Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet and Derek Deane's Swan Lake in the round. Although Gary had toured with the RB in Dance Bites, the tours with ENB took up a greater proportion of the year and that involved a different kind of mindset for him.
He had spoken to Monica Mason on his return to the UK (in 2001) but that was during Ross Stretton’s tenure as Director and nothing had materialised at that juncture. By 2004, Gary would have been more than happy to continue to be a part of ENB; but, to his surprise, he received a phone call from Monica to say that she and Christopher Newton were in the process of reviving Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia and they would like him to dance Orion in Zenaida Yanowsky’s cast. Thrilled at the prospect, Gary replied that he would ask Matz for leave of absence to do that; whereupon Monica clarified that it was, in fact, an invitation to re-join The Royal Ballet. Although delighted, Gary had, and retains, the huge regret that his mother had not lived to see him become part of the RB again.
The mention of Zenaida Yanowsky led to Gary talking about the various partnerships he had enjoyed. He had originally joined at the same time as Darcey Bussell (1999) and, upon his return, was soon partnering her in Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. But this was just the beginning and, among the many highlights of dancing with Darcey, Gary mentioned: playing the Man opposite her Woman in Darcey’s farewell performance of Song of the Earth in 2008, doing her arena tour (Viva la Diva) with her; dancing with her on Strictly Come Dancing and then being one of the four men with her at the closing ceremony for the 2012 Olympics. All of these, said Gary, tapped into his “theatreness”.
Concerning the last event, Gary said that it was impossible to believe that it was him involved in something so special. There had been little opportunity to rehearse since the practice area was in the Ford car park in Dagenham. A previous run-through had left the surface so slippery with oil that they were unable to stand up. It was even more scary on the day because their sound was fed to them through earpieces which had to be inserted so far ahead of their appearance that there was the ever-present risk of the batteries running out.
Turning to his repertoire with the RB, Gary explained that, once he is listed for a role, he looks at how everyone before him has interpreted it and then thinks deeply about what would fit him, “always respecting the choreography”, he added. As times goes on, Gary feels that each role stays in his body and this makes returning to each character very different from dancing something new to him.
As he spoke, Gary was preparing to be Elgar in Enigma Variations for the first time and he very much wanted to honour the portrayal of Derek Rencher while “ensuring that a bit of Gary was in there as well”. He wanted all his characters to “have a beginning, a middle, and an end” and, in order to make them live, he spent a lot of time watching people. Despite the RB’s “amazing wig and make-up team”, Gary preferred to do his own make-up. This was, firstly, because, he didn’t like to have to sit around for over an hour in his wig and make-up but, more importantly, because applying his own ‘paint’ felt like “putting that character” on himself “layer by layer”.
In some cases, getting the essence of a role could prove elusive. For example, Liam Scarlett has very definite ideas as to how Von Rothbart in his new production of Swan Lake should be and Gary had found it difficult to follow Liam’s guidance and, at the same time, lend gravitas to the dual role. Gary found himself wanting to offer his own interpretation of the power Von Rothbart exerts. He also felt that keeping the same wig would help the audience understand that it was one and the same person despite his two manifestations.
Returning to the RB had afforded Gary the opportunity to continue dancing while also enlarging his list of character roles. He added that becoming a Principal Character Artist meant that, unlike many dancers, he would not experience having to “die twice” – on retirement as well as at the end of his life! Recently described in a press article as ‘the oldest male dancer’, Gary had, in fact, stopped doing class when he was 42. It wasn’t so much a case of “I’m not doing it anymore” but a natural growth in his understanding as to what he needed to do for himself by way of exercise and preparation to be fit for the stage – including a dancing role in Woolf Works when he was 45.
At a less energetic level, Gary was due to debut as Jaeger (as well as Elgar) in Enigma Variations. Coming up in 2020, he had a role in the Cathy Marston’s The Cellist and was to play Virgil in Wayne McGregor’s new work, The Dante Project .
Gary briefly mentioned that he “looks after” Wayne McGregor’s works and helps prepare them when they return to the repertoire with new casts. He is also a very busy Senior Ballet Master where he aims to concentrate on the acting required of the corps. He enjoys operating in the context of a team and had been working on Manon with Julie Lincoln and Robert Tewsley, striving to “nurture the group” and “make everything work as a whole”. He advised members of the corps to “go out front and concentrate on the people at the back” so that they could get another perspective on the importance of there being a community on stage. Where one on one coaching is concerned, for example for Hilarion, Gary will pass on as much as possible about what he has learned from playing the role but will then try to ensure that each dancer is able to interpret the character in their own individual way.
Gary had also compered the Gala from Hull and enjoys presenting things, although it still feels strange to him to have to open his mouth rather than speak with his body. He feels that social media is a very useful medium for making ballet more accessible.
Hailing from East Anglia, Gary is especially keen to try to put something back into the community there and inspire young people to become involved in dance. He is Patron of the Choreographic Development Fund for Dance East and has been instrumental in bringing RB dancers (who come “for free”) to galas in Ipswich. They had needed to have 2 shows to ensure that the venture was financially viable and Gary found himself deploying a range of organisational skills to “make it happen”.
Asked by Amanda whether that kind of experience might encourage him to think about becoming a Director at some stage in the future, Gary replied that that would require a wide range of organisational and managerial ability but, above all, the vision to see the direction a company should be going in and the knowledge to construct a programme “to get you there”. He added that a company like the RB “changes so quickly”. One minute, Matthew Ball was Gary’s Fritz in The Nutcracker and then, a few years later, “there he is fighting me as Romeo to my Tybalt”. “They grow up so fast”, added Gary.
When Gary was promoted to Senior Ballet Master, he had stipulated that he wanted to continue to dance. Nevertheless, he had become an Ambassador for the RB’s Create and Dance programme. Focusing initially on Alice, The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet, the aim was to create a learning platform for primary and secondary school teachers to tap into and take back both dance and musical interpretations into their ‘normal’ school lessons. Gary felt an affinity with this project because its purpose was to nurture young people’s interest and talent.
Asked how he felt when his portrayal of certain characters caused people to describe him/them as “odious” or “repugnant” (as in respect of Monsieur GM and The Gaoler in Manon), Gary replied that, as long as people were not referring to him personally (!), the use of such words was the highest of compliments.
In response to another audience question, Gary described his “journey” with Kenneth MacMillan as “quite extraordinary”. For example, his role as the husband in Winter Dreams was “devastatingly sad” and it was such a privilege to “portray it, live it, and feel it”.
In response to Amanda enquiring about any roles “which got away”, Gary mentioned Rudolf in Mayerling because of the opportunity it provided to inhabit the character – “although I couldn’t do the Act 1 solo”, he added. People tended to mention Widow Simone in La Fille Mal Gardée to him but Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty was higher up his own ‘wish list’.
The last question concerned people whom Gary had particularly valued working with. He said that there were so many but he “owed so much” to David Wall at ENB and, for a shorter period of time, to Sorella Englund who came to the RB to play and coach Madge in Johan Kobborg’s La Sylphide and had been “so giving” in passing on important aspects of her tradition.
Gary found the time to come and speak at a very busy point in his schedule and Amanda expressed. the heartfelt thanks of everyone present who showed their appreciation with a prolonged round of applause.
Written by Linda Gainsbury
Edited by Gary Avis and Amanda Jennings
© The London Ballet Circle 2019