Gary Avis: ‘Without Suffolk, I wouldn’t be where I am today’
- Credit: Bill Cooper
Our county has produced some incredible talent over the years, there’s no doubt about that.
And one of our brightest shining stars has to be Gary Avis. Suffolk born and bred, the 51-year-old began performing in his teens, and has since gone on to become one of the nation’s most revered ballet dancers and character artists.
But how did a boy from Ipswich find himself catapulted into international stardom?
“I actually began dancing when I was around 12, and I started purely because my mum thought it might bring me out of my shell,” he explains.
“I was quite a shy person growing up, and I always sat at the corner during family parties, so my mum thought disco dancing lessons might help change that.”
Organised by Tom and Pait Lait of Lait Dance Club, Gary headed off to his first dancing lesson at the Corn Exchange – and was hooked from there.
Like a duck to water, Gary excelled from the get-go.
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And after a performance at his former primary school, Whitton Primary School, a friend’s mother suggested he audition for Co-op Juniors – the UK’s largest amateur theatre group.
“I went for an audition there, and the rest is history,” he says.
From there, Gary was able to specialise in all types of dance and performed in the annual panto at The Gaumont (now the Regent Theatre).
“It was during my time at Co-op Juniors that I was sent to the Linda Shipton School of Dance in Ipswich and I learned early on that dance technique and discipline are a necessity, so through Linda and the Juniors that was instilled in me from the beginning.
“Linda essentially guided me through my teen years, and oversaw me as I developed my ballet, jazz, tap, and modern dancing. She was my guiding light in setting me on the right path for my dancing career.”
During his formative years, Gary spent every evening after school putting in the hours at training. And with boyhood dreams of wanting to be on stage, he knew what he had to do to make his dreams a reality.
“Very early on, I saw a production of the Royal Variety Performance and I knew I wanted to be in a West End show. From starting off as a Co-Op Junior, I realised the next stage of my progression was going to musical theatre college to train for three years, to allow me to become a professional dancer.”
After applying to three prestigious performing arts colleges at the age of 16, Gary decided to accept a place at the Doreen Bird School of Performing Arts (now known as now Bird College) to study musical theatre training.
“While I was there, I had an amazing ballet teacher there called Marjorie Fields who was very prominent in the world of ballet.
“She said to me: ‘I think you’ve got something special in ballet, and you need to pursue it. I know you want to be a West End performer, but if you’re going to do ballet, do that first otherwise you’ll lose your technique very quickly. Do your ballet, get a career in that, and move onto musical theatre afterwards.’
“At the time, I laughed. I knew I wanted to be a musical theatre dancer, and while I did enjoy doing ballet numbers, it wasn’t what I wanted to do fulltime.”
Nonetheless, Marjorie’s words resonated with Gary, and he eventually decided to go for an audition at the Royal Ballet School.
“When she suggested it, it was obvious that she believed in me. So I went to the head of the college, Doreen Bird, who didn’t think it was a good idea – but Marjorie actually forged the papers so I was able to leave college and go to the audition.”
And thanks to that fateful forgery, Gary’s path in life was to change from then on.
He nailed his audition, received a callback and just a few months later was accepted into the Royal Ballet Upper School in London.
“I think Doreen didn’t want me to leave in my third year, and I can see why she wanted me to stay, but I also can see why Marjorie thought it was good me to go,” he says.
As Gary was in his final year of training, he only spent one year at the Royal Ballet Upper School – but immediately made waves.
He became one of the principal dancers in the school’s end of year performance at Holland Park – and was offered a contract into Royal Ballet Company upon graduating in 1989.
“It was honestly the stuff of dreams. It’s one of those magical stories where you go on a path you don’t expect to go on. I was extremely lucky, and out of my whole year at the Royal Ballet School, one girl and two boys were accepted into The Royal Ballet – and I was one of them.”
Working his way up through the ranks during his time at The Royal Ballet, Gary was then offered another amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - and found himself being asked to co-found a ballet company with five other male royal ballet dancers in Japan.
“I was young and wanted to dance as much as possible, so I decided to grab this opportunity with both hands and run with it. I left The Royal Ballet in January 1999 and headed to the other side of the world, where we created K-Ballet Company which is still going strong to this day.”
Following a two-and-a-half year stint in Japan, Gary moved back home where he freelanced before signing a contract with the English National Ballet. It was during this time that he took to the stage and performed in a number of productions touring the UK including Nutcracker, Romeo & Juliet, and Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall.
“During that time, I was receiving great reviews and notices up and down the UK. So I was surprised when the director of The Royal Ballet rung me up and said they were doing a new production of Sylvia, a revival of an old Ashton ballet, and they wanted me to be a part of it.
“I said: ‘I’ll ask my current director if I’ll have the time,’ to which they said: ‘No, we’re offering you this because we want you to come home’.
“That was incredible because once you leave The Royal Ballet, people never return. I was unbelievably fortunate to receive that phone call.”
In addition to spending most of his sparkling career at The Royal Ballet, Gary has also worked closely with dance royalty Darcey Bussell, collaborating with her on a number of projects.
“I partnered with her during her farewell performance in June 2007 when she retired from The Royal Ballet, and following that I was asked to be her dancing partner on her Viva la Diva arena tour with Katherine Jenkins. And in 2012, Darcey was asked to perform in the Olympic closing ceremony, where she had four male ballet dancers plus 300 female dancers - and I was one of those four guys. It was simply amazing.”
More recently, Gary has worked with a number of the dance world’s top choreographers including Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor. And in 2019, he was appointed senior baller master at The Royal Ballet.
“That was an incredible honour, as not only does it mean I’m still on stage performing but I’m on the management team too. It’s a real privilege to be able to pass my experience and knowledge on to the next generation of talent.”
Things were undoubtedly going from strength-to-strength for Gary, and he was living a life most us can only dream of.
He was riding (or dancing) sky high.
But in early 2020, that all came crashing down as the entire world came to a halt due the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent global lockdown.
"It felt like the rug was pulled out from under our feet. We were in the midst of a really amazing season of the Royal Opera House, and we’d just opened Swan Lake. And at the time, none of us realised how much of the day-to-day we took for granted.
“The thing that makes me tick is being on stage. I love it – there's no bigger thrill, and I revel in taking people on a journey with me. Lockdown made me realise The Royal Ballet really is the thing that makes Gary Avis who Gary Avis is.”
But earlier this summer, the government gave the arts and event sector the greenlight to reopen once again after a tumultuous series of lockdowns. And Gary couldn’t be more excited to be back on stage and in the studios at the Royal Opera House working again.
“During that time, we all recognised what we’ve missed out on, and we’ve all realised how much arts and creativity plays a big part in who we are. We were starved of that, and we saw how devastating it was when we weren’t able to get together, share stories and perform.”
That’s why this weekend, Gary will be taking to the stage for a night in conversation with his good friend, presenter, author, and host Christine Webber.
The one-off event – which will be taking place on Sunday November 14 at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds – will be a two-hour long retrospective, in-depth discussion about Gary’s incredible life and times.
It will give fans the chance to gain an up-close insight into his ongoing 32-year career in dance, and will also feature a variety of photos and film clips.
But why Bury, rather than somewhere in London?
“Bury has been so generous to me in the past. It’s in my home county of Suffolk, I recognise the heritage and the history of the venue. And I want to give back to Suffolk and I would like to raise as much money as possible for the theatre’s pandemic recovery fund.”
Gary is no stranger to philanthropy, as back in 2011 and 2016, he managed to bring The Royal Ballet to Ipswich’s Regent Theatre in two sparkling ballet galas which raised over £150,000 for the arts and culture fund here in Suffolk.
His spectacular fundraising efforts later saw him receive an MBE from the Queen in 2018.
“I cannot wait to bring what I’ve experience so far in my career to Suffolk this weekend as a thank you.
“Without Suffolk and all those people who helped me along the way, they all deserve my heartfelt thanks as I wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” he says.
To book tickets for ‘Gary Avis MBE, In Conversation with Christine Webber’, visit theatreroyal.org