When did you start dancing?
My first steps were taken in the summer of 1981, at the tender age of 11. My starting point was Disco Dancing lessons at Tom & Pat Lait’s Ballroom classes, and then in 1982 I started ballet/modern lessons with my local ballet teacher at the Linda Shipton School of Dancing.
Why did you start dancing?
I was sent to Disco Dancing lessons by my mum as I was very nervous and shy at family gatherings, parties etc. I understand that my mum thought it would be a very good idea to bring me out of myself and gain some confidence! I found I really enjoyed dancing and movement and got involved in a few school plays and musicals. I was spotted by a parent who had a daughter in a local theatre group called Co-op Juniors and she thought I had natural talent and that getting up on stage would be the best thing for me! Having auditioned and got into the group I then was sent to the Linda Shipton School of Dancing… the rest is history!
Which dancer inspired you most as a child?
As a child and teenager I was only interested in dance that was on the television and so I was inspired by all the amazing performances I saw on the various Royal Variety Performances and excerpts of West End shows which sometimes featured in light entertainment programmes. It wasn’t until I started ballet lessons that I started to watch videos of ‘real’ ballet performances.
My first ballet video was the Royal Ballet’s MacMillan production of Romeo & Juliet with Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri. I must have worn that video out as I watched it so many times!
Which dancer do you most admire?
I don’t have just one dancer that I admire, I have way too many to mention, but I do learn from and admire all those that I have worked with over my years in, not only the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, but also K-Ballet in Japan!
I have had the good fortune to work with some incredible people, each with such amazing qualities. But I did learn early on from my time in the Royal Ballet that no role is ever too small and that characters roles were as important as the big dancing roles! I thank Leslie Edwards and Stephen Jefferies for this.
What’s your favourite role?
These questions are so difficult… I have had some fabulous roles: Drosselmeyer, Von Rothbart, Duchess, Ugly Sister, Orion, Gremin… the list is endless and to pick one would be so hard! Each role has a special attachment to it, either a special partner, an unforgettable moment, or just sheer fun.
My main roles now are full of character, which I love and I feel most comfortable doing. My dancing experiences in all companies have been incredible and so varied but to dance with and partner Darcey Bussell on her Farewell performance in Song of the Earth as Man at the Royal Opera House, live on BBC2, I guess has to be the ultimate dance experience ballet-wise.
What role have you never played but would like to?
Widow Simone (La fille mal gardée), Rudolph (Mayerling), Onegin, Lead Man in Voluntaries… I’m sure I could think of many more.
What’s your favourite ballet to watch?
Onegin. Every time I watch I see and feel something different from all the various casts I’ve had the pleasure to watch. Everyone has a different interpretation and its amazing to see it living and breathing! I also absolutely love watching Voluntaries. And I get enormous pleasure from all the wonderful ballets that the Royal Ballet have in rep: Ashton, MacMillan, Wheeldon, Marriott, McGregor.
Who is your favourite choreographer?
… it has to be personal, and I guess if you’ve danced in a ballet choreographed especially for you, or had the good fortune to have been in the room with the choreographer of a piece you’re dancing, then it becomes very personal. So for me, Ashton, MacMillan, Marriott, Wheeldon and Bruce come immediately to mind!
Who is your favourite writer?
Not necessarily my favourite, as time to immerse myself heavily into a book is rare, but crime writer Henning Mankell is a regular read of mine, and anything to do with architecture and buildings is of huge interest.
Who is your favourite actor?
Johnny Depp, purely because I love the way he can morph into any and every role he undertakes. I sadly don’t get enough time to watch too many non-ballet performances and so I have to admit my knowledge of actors is very limited!
What is your favourite book?
I love my architectural and design books but don’t have a favourite, as I learn so much from each book I own. I don’t have a favourite novel or biography, but take great pleasure in everything I read!
What is your favourite film?
Half a Sixpence (the first musical I was ever in, so I watched it many times!); Belleville Rendezvous-Vous (animation); The Illusionist (animation); Up (animation) … there’s a trend happening here!!!
Which is your favourite city?
London (my hometown), New York and Hong Kong (because of the buildings!), and Venice (because that is where I proposed to my partner).
What do you dislike about yourself?
I am way too sensitive about EVERYTHING and I allow too many things and people to get me down. I have a terrible inability to say how I feel about things sometimes! I get extremely emotional, very easily. I also dislike the fact that I still bite my nails at my age!!!
What was your proudest moment?
Partnering Darcey Bussell during her Farewell performance which was Song of the Earth at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Dancing with and partnering Darcey Bussell at the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Walking 50km and raising £8,000 and devising and dancing in Gary Avis & Friends Ballet Gala and raising £50,000 for a charity that I’m Patron to: The Hunger Project.
When and where were you happiest?
I’m most happy in two very special places:
1: On stage, in whatever theatre, in whatever city, in whatever country.
2: In my little cottage, in my home county of Suffolk with my partner Tim and our 2 adorable mini-schnauzers Ella & Louis.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My partner Tim Holder and of course, Ella & Louis! I should also add that the buzz that I get from performing is a love so powerful and one that I crave! It has no rhyme or reason, but I love it!”
What is your greatest fear?
Falling! I am not good with heights but for some strange reason I love going to the top of tall buildings and taking in the view… can’t look down though.
Failing! I worry so much about so many things, I constantly concern myself with things that are sometimes out of my control and now as Ballet Master at the Royal Ballet I worry about many more things than I should. I endeavour to do my best at everything I tackle on a daily basis and failure is not an option!
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
To stop being so sensitive and not allow so many things to upset me. To stop worrying and believe in myself a bit more.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being able to do a job that I love and respect and continually find challenging and enlightening.
What is your most treasured possession?
Interesting question. I don’t necessarily have one thing that I treasure more than any other. I am rather a hoarder so have many, many things that remind me of events, adventures and people. For example, I have every single programme of every production I’ve ever taken part in. And I have things that belonged to my brother and my mum, special things that are treasured because they passed away a few years ago, but to pinpoint one thing that is my ‘most’ treasured thing is extremely difficult.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Free time! Whenever I have free time – or as I call it, ‘Gary time’ – I indulge in doing things I want. To me that is an extravagance because its very rare to have down time to be able to socialize or relax. The job of Principal Character Artist and Ballet Master with the Royal Ballet is all consuming and once you’re in the Opera House in the morning it’s very rare you leave before 10.45pm at night! If my time isn’t spent in the rehearsal studio, it’s spent in the office arranging and rearranging casting, catching up with notes and studying for the forthcoming rep.
On what occasion do you lie?
I don’t think I lie: there are times when I’ve been caught at the front of the studio not knowing every count or every step and people find that very hard to understand or comprehend – because if you’re Ballet Master you should know everything – but I am honest and admit it. I’m not a machine, I don’t know everything!! So no, I don’t lie, I just own up and am honest.
If you hadn’t been a dancer what would you have liked to do?
I would have liked to have been an architect! Sadly too late now.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Sensitivity, Patience, Eagerness, Perfectionist, Mood-swings, Fiery, Sensitivity, Sensitivity!!! (reading those back, I don’t sound very nice do I?)
What quality do you most value in a friend?
Understandingness. They have to understand that if your a dancer and performer then dancing takes over your life and your timetable changes sometimes at a moment’s notice, and it’s very hard to arrange spending time together. I also like friends to be honest and truthful. Can’t bare back-stabbers and gossips!
What quality do you most value in a colleague?
Discipline, commitment and belief in what they’re doing. The ability to take corrections, apply them and retain information. Patience!
What do you most dislike?
Rudeness, Conceitedness, Selfishness, Arguing and people who don’t give a damn!
What gift would you most like to have?
The right Lotto ticket! Pleeeeeease!
What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness… spending time in Suffolk at the cottage with Tim, Ella & Louis; and being up on any stage performing, you can’t beat it!
How would you like to die?
What is your motto?
“Keep Calm and Gary On!”
Gary Avis – a biography
Gary was born in Ipswich. He joined The Royal Ballet in 1989, was promoted to Soloist in 1995, became Principal Character Artist in 2005, was made Assistant Ballet Master in 2007, and became Ballet Master in 2010.
His repertory includes Drosselmeyer, Von Rothbart, Tybalt, Lord Capulet, Monsieur G.M., Gaoler, Tsar Nicholas, Step-Sister, Duchess, Madge, Dr Coppélius, Paris Singer, Kostcheï, High Brahmin, Prince Gremin, The Man (Song of the Earth), DGV and Tsarina’s Slippers (Royal Opera).
He has created roles for and worked with MacMillan, Tharp, Tetley, Morris, Hynd, Bruce, Wheeldon, Tuckett, Bintley, Page and Marriott.
He co-founded K-Ballet, Japan, and has performed with the ENB. In 2011 he received an Honorary Doctorate from University Campus Suffolk and was awarded the Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for Outstanding Male Performance – Classical. He partnered Darcey Bussell in the Viva la Diva Arena Tour, on Strictly Come Dancing and at the London 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony.
Gary is currently the Ballet Master and Principal Character Artist at the Royal Ballet in London.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.