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Co-op Juniors helped Royal Ballet star Gary Avis beat the bullies

Gary Avis chats to the cast of the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express. Photo: James Fletcher

Gary Avis chats to the cast of the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express. Photo: James Fletcher

Picture:James Fletcher

Once a Co-op Junior always a Co-op Junior. Renowned Royal Ballet Star Gary Avis talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about how the group took a bullied young boy and helped turn him into the man he is today.

Gary Avis in one of his many Co-op Juniors outings. Photo: James FletcherGary Avis in one of his many Co-op Juniors outings. Photo: James Fletcher

Gary Avis is who he is because of The Co-op Juniors Theatre Company. Bullied as a young boy for being seen as different, they gave him the chance to be himself.

“I was 12 or 13 and used to have to find different routes to get home from school because I knew there were certain people who would be waiting for me at street corners. I used to cycle home and I was spat at. I would walk in the door and my mum would have to take my coat off immediately and put it straight into the washing machine,” he recalls.

“It was a time of my life when I wasn’t necessarily sure of who I was, what I wanted from a career. It was really difficult, also with all the pre-conceived ideas and prejudices that go along with being a dancer; nobody could see the bigger picture, they just saw I was Gary and I was ‘different’.”

His mum had taken him to disco dancing lessons as a youngster and he went on to appear in a couple of shows at his comprehensive school when a parent suggested he join the Juniors.

Gary Avis in one of his many Co-op Juniors outings. Photo: James FletcherGary Avis in one of his many Co-op Juniors outings. Photo: James Fletcher

“I started in 1981. My first show was Babes in the Wood when I was 11. It was at The Gaumont, now the Regent. I was just in the chorus and was thrilled to be part of this amazing group of people. It was really strange because I was the only boy who was a dancer. All the other guys involved were slightly older and taking on parts... It’s really interesting when I look back at photos, it’s just one boy standing in the middle of all these girls,” Avis laughs.

Quiet and withdrawn during his school days, the dancer – who has remained at the pinnacle of world ballet for almost three decades – puts much of his confidence and success down to his early experiences on stage, in particular with the Juniors. He found a new group of friends and a place he could fit in.

“I loved dancing at the Co-op Juniors. They gave me a chance to broaden my horizons. Every Friday night, every Sunday I was allowed to be me. It was so immense the opportunity the Juniors gave me just to become Gary. It was a great bunch of friends I had, those were really special times and times I wouldn’t want to ever change or give up.”

Avis, now principal character artist and ballet master with The Royal Ballet, remained with the Ipswich-based group until leaving for performing arts college in 1986, although he came back at Christmas to perform in their pantos until 1988. He’s still in touch with former members from those days.

Gary Avis in one of his many Co-op Juniors outings. Photo: James FletcherGary Avis in one of his many Co-op Juniors outings. Photo: James Fletcher

While on tour in America with the Royal Ballet last year he met up with another Juniors alumna.

“She lives out there with her family and we spent the whole day wandering around Chicago not really believing we were there together with the history we had and reminiscing over old times, friends and bringing up names that suddenly came into our head.”

With continued cuts to arts in education, organisations like the Juniors are vital says Avis, who dropped by their Paul’s Road studios at the weekend to see how rehearsals were going for Starlight Express, which takes over the Hush House, Bentwaters Parks, from June 15-19.

“As soon as I started to perform, and especially dance, I unlocked a passion and discovered a talent I would never have discovered if I hadn’t had access to those volunteer-run community arts groups. They need to be sustained in whatever way, whatever capacity possible. There are a lot of people still very vulnerable, very lonely who are struggling out there.

Gary Avis chats to a member of the Co-op Juniors. Photo: James FletcherGary Avis chats to a member of the Co-op Juniors. Photo: James Fletcher

“Having groups like this is really important because it brings people together and bridges boundaries and diversities.”

He hopes his star-studded international gala, coming to the Ipswich Regent from September 10-11, will raise money for the Suffolk Community Foundation’s arts and culture fund which will be used to help community arts projects across the county.

“That’s something that’s really special to me because having experienced it myself, with the bullying and feeling alone, I think if you can engage youngsters nowadays to get involved in groups, to realise it’s not just about sitting behind an iPad or iPhone, to get out there and do something physical – learn an instrument, see an opera, a ballet, go to the theatre...

“The experiences you gain in life are so important and you don’t realise that until much later... I remember I used to go to The Gaumont when I was younger, to the civic concerts it used to put on and I think to myself ‘why didn’t I go to see more of them?’”

Rebecca Darcy, directing the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express, with Gary Avis. Photo: James FletcherRebecca Darcy, directing the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express, with Gary Avis. Photo: James Fletcher

Avis, who also trained at Ipswich’s The Linda Shipton School of Dancing and has gone on to create roles for many of the world’s leading choreographers and partner many of the world’s greatest ballerinas during his career, says without the Juniors he does not think he would have pursued dancing as a profession.

“I would say 80-90% of who I am is because I was part of this group. Had I not had the opportunity here I don’t think I would’ve gone through the challenges it brought. There’s a real trait with social media and [shows like] the X Factor because people think you’re going to become a star overnight. There’s a lot of hard work and graft that goes into it.

“One of the biggest things about the Juniors was that they instilled so much discipline in me, that’s what really built the foundations for me from early on. If you have that discipline right from the beginning, it helps you right up to the present day. What you learn from somewhere like this is so valuable – it’s been a pleasure to be part of it then and I continue to be a part of it now.

“I am massively grateful to them for what they gave me and still use some of what they taught me in my performance today. I think everyone should have the opportunity to discover their talents and feel the healing power of the arts.”

The cast of the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express. Photo: James FletcherThe cast of the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express. Photo: James Fletcher

No stranger to the Paul’s Road rehearsal space, he was bowled over by the 30-strong cast of Starlight Express – and thinks audiences will be too.

Taking time out to watch a couple of numbers and speak with members, he told them: “I’ve been so excited, I really wanted to come to see the next generation of Co-op Juniors. I’m really proud and very passionate to say I was a Junior and hopefully still like to be considered a Junior. When I was, Starlight Express didn’t even exist which shows how old I am,” he laughed.

“It’s really interesting to see how the Juniors have moved on and pushed the boundaries. I used to do choreography in this room over and over again, to do it and rehearse on skates is amazing, I take my hat off to you. Enjoy it, have a great time and relish every moment.”

Express is the story of a child’s train set magically brought to life as the engines, including underdog Rusty, compete to become the fastest in the world.

Cast members of the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express. Photo: James FletcherCast members of the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express. Photo: James Fletcher

Joking he was amazed to see nobody seemed to be carrying injuries, Avis added: “You’ve got a couple of weeks before they get into the venue and production week and I’m sure nerves are high, but by the time they get to it they’re going to be amazing and audiences are going to be absolutely bowled over.”

His career comes full circle this September when he stages The Royal Ballet’s Gary Avis and Friends at the Ipswich Regent. Designed and curated by him, it’s the fulfilment of a life-long ambition and is packed with a galaxy of world-class dancers who will perform a specially created programme of ballet classics – including some rarities. Local groups, including DanceEast students and members of the Gallery Players are also involved.

“I’m back in Suffolk doing my gala and with the Co-op Juniors today because I want to make sure many more people, including all these really talented youngsters, have the opportunity to discover their talents and use them to overcome any challenges they may face in life. I hope several of them will enjoy the kind of career I’m so fortunate to have. I can already see the cast is brimming with talent, so you never know.”

The group, supported by East of England Co-op for more than 70 years, is turning the Hush House at Bentwaters Parks into a 380-seat theatre for their most ambitious show yet from June 15-19.

Cast members of the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express. Photo: James FletcherCast members of the Co-op Juniors' production of Starlight Express. Photo: James Fletcher

Karl Lankester, Co-op Junior and Greaseball in Starlight Express, wants a career in dance.

He said: “My years with the Co-op Juniors and in particular playing the title role in Billy Elliot the Musical gave me a taste of how demanding dancing is. I’m about to go to Evolution in Colchester to train and my ambition is to perform professionally. Gary has always been an inspiration for all our cast and it was a real thrill to meet him in person.”

Minnie Moll, joint chief executive for the East of England Co-op, said they were thrilled to have been supporting the Co-op Juniors since the group was first founded during the Second World War.

“To welcome Gary back to his home town with his experience and an incredible international career is very exciting for us and we’re enormously proud to think it all started during his days as a Co-op Junior himself.

“The unique opportunity to see him perform in a Royal Ballet production in Ipswich is something we feel passionately about supporting. I hope Gary’s visit to the Co-op Juniors encourages them to dream big, follow in his footsteps and go on to achieve wonderful things.”

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