A leading dancer of his generation, Suffolk-born Gary Avis has won plaudits around the world for his strength and versatility in some of the world’s leading ballet companies.

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Famously hard to please, ballet critics have waxed lyrical about his excellent partnerships with many of the great ballerinas and his unequalled ability to breathe new life into many of the great character roles in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire.

Appointed ballet master in January 2010, the Ipswich-born Royal Ballet principal continues to take on new challenges and continues to display unreserved passion for his work.

In September, he is producing a charity gala at the Regent Theatre in Ipswich. Entitled Gary Avis and Friends it features... Gary Avis and friends.

Speaking after dancing at the launch of the Frederick Ashton exhibition at Ipswich Town Hall exhibition, Gary said that he relished the opportunity to bring together his friends from the world of professional ballet with the Suffolk friends who helped launch his career.

“It’s a wonderful way to mix both worlds, raise some much needed money for charity and to have some of the greatest names in the world of contemporary ballet perform in my home town.”

Not only is this the first time that the Royal Ballet has performed at the Ipswich Regent since the 1960s, it is also the first time that he has performed as a professional dancer on that stage – although he has maintained contact with local groups as a choreographer.

One of his more recent friends, Angela Rippon, who he met when he was dancing with the English National Ballet (ENB), is hosting the show and a who’s who of dance stars from both the Royal Ballet and ENB will be dancing on the night.

Royal Ballet principals Roberta Marquez, Steven McRae, Nehemia Kish and ENB’s Principal Ballerina Begona Cao will be joined by The Royal Ballet’s Melissa Hamilton, Paul Kay, Leanne Cope, David Pickering, Yuhio Choe and Bennet Gartside in what promises to be a most spectacular night of classical ballet.

Last year, Gary became a patron of The Hunger Project and his desire to help the charity coincided with his desire to bring some of the country’s finest dancers to Ipswich to dance for his home crowd.

“Although The Hunger Project is a small charity compared with the big players its approach to tackling poverty is tremendously effective. It’s about empowering people with a sustainable helping hand up rather than a hand-out. With training and support, communities are encouraged to shape their own futures from within. The results are incredible.

“I was brought up to believe that we are all better off if we look after one another.

“I’ve performed at many charity gigs over the years and it feels like the right thing to do. Why wouldn’t you want to use the talents you have to support a worthy cause?”

“In this case, charity begins at home because Suffolk is my home. I was born and bred here and I still live between here and London.

“So with this project I have tried to create an opportunity for the whole community to come together and I’d especially love young people to experience and interact with world class dance. I am also going to be doing dance workshops with local children around the concert event.

“Suffolk has a towering reputation when it comes to producing successful dancers. Liam Scarlett, Helen Crawford and I are in the Royal Ballet now – all of us from Ipswich. There are also other dancers working in musical theatre and shows all over the world. Let’s hope we can inspire some more.”

Dancing pretty much as soon as he could walk, Gary was taught by Linda Shipton, who has a dance school in Ipswich and remains a close friend.

His first big stage shows were with the Co-op Juniors. He danced in the Christmas pantomimes and summer shows and, in recent years, has done some choreography for them. But it wasn’t always ballet for Gary.

“I had my heart set on musicals. As a teenager, I was set on singing and dancing my way through the whole musicals repertoire!

“I also danced and choreographed for Gallery Players at the Spa Pavilion and for The Appeal Theatre Group and Ipswich Operatic and Dramatic Society, I have so many happy memories of the days before I went off to drama school and I take all of the things I learned then with me into my performances today. They are very much still a part of who I am.’’

With these beginnings it seemed obvious that Gary might be destined for a career in musical theatre but, after two years of the three year performing arts course, he took a huge leap of faith.

“If you had told me then I would become a ballet dancer, I wouldn’t have believed you. At 16 I went to the Doreen Bird College of Performing Arts for a three-year course in musical theatre. It was at the end of the second year that everything changed... forever.’’

“I was offered a place at the Royal Ballet Upper School. I accepted and, after just a year’s ballet training, was given the incredible opportunity to join the Royal Ballet Company – one of only two contracts available that year.”

An up and coming star, in 1999 Gary co-founded K-Ballet Company in Japan. He appeared in two series of Ballet Boyz on Channel 4 and went on to spend two very successful seasons with English National Ballet before rejoining the Royal Ballet in 2005.

Since then he has partnered renowned ballerinas such as Darcey Bussell, Zeneida Yanowsky and Tamara Rojo.

He was invited to dance with Darcey at her farewell performance at the Royal Opera House which was broadcast live around the world and has since toured with Darcey and soprano Katherine Jenkins in their song and dance show Viva la Diva. He also appeared as a guest with them on the cult show Strictly Come Dancing.

Today, Gary Avis is regarded by many as one of the greatest dance actors to have come up through the ranks of the Royal Ballet. His athleticism and stage presence have given many of the most famous character roles a new energy.

“I love the big character roles – they are the story tellers that take the audience with them. It’s great to be playing an evil monster like Von Rothbart in Swan Lake or Monsieur GM or The Gaoler in Manon one day and then creating some Christmas magic as Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker the next.

“I have the best of both worlds really. I love playing parts like Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet which has the most brilliant sword fights and a really spectacular death too.”

Gary leaves it to the reviewers to publicly applaud his talent. In fact when you mention his vocal fan base and his nickname “Mr Royal Ballet” he looks decidedly uncomfortable.

“I’ve no idea who started that. It’s a Twitter thing I think. I guess if you have been dancing as long as I have, doing the variety of work I do, you become a familiar face, particularly with the regulars. Now everyone is Facebooking, Tweeting and blogging like crazy after – and even during – every show.”

With his career now in its 22nd year, Gary is conscious of being an “experienced” dancer.

“It’s really weird to be dancing with people when you know you’re almost old enough to be the father of some of them. I prefer to say I am the most experienced rather than the oldest male dancer still getting his legs up at the Royal Ballet,” he laughs.

“But experience teaches you a huge amount. Over the years you learn how best to pace yourself and how to use your body effectively. I’m still learning all the time and I’m still having new work created for me too, which is brilliant. I’m as fit now as I have ever been, so I’m just going to keep going. I love performing; it’s totally addictive for me.”

He may retain his passion for dance but experience comes at a price – he admits to now having the occasional twinge.

“Day on day, with my dancing, character work and my role as ballet master, I might well be dancing, acting and in charge of a production all at the same time. Sometimes getting up in the morning after a big show is not as easy as it used to be. Maybe recovering takes slightly longer and can sometimes be more painful process, but you just have to work harder to feel good. I still love it and am still up for it; I have so much more that I still want to do. After all, age is only a number.”

Gary is currently dancing three roles in Manon, a hugely demanding 10-minute duet in the ballet DGV and, coming up, there are three roles in Romeo and Juliet at the O2 arena in June. After that there’s a Royal Ballet tour with principal dancing roles in both Giselle and a triple bill in Taiwan

In his spare time – though it’s hard to see when he gets any – he will be rehearsing “everyone including me” for Gary Avis and Friends.

Gaining the blessing of Dame Monica Mason, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, means that Gary can perform works from the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. “I really wanted people to be able to enjoy some of the most amazing moments from the classics and see some of the wonderful costumes from Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Manon and Cinderella. I’m thrilled that they are all in the show. In fact, we’ll have more Royal Ballet principals dancing the roles on stage on September 11 than you’d expect to see in a show at the Royal Opera House.”

He said that they have been given permission to perform works by some of the Royal Ballet’s greatest choreographers. Lady Deborah MacMillan (widow of Sir Kenneth MacMillan) has donated some of her husband’s work to the evening and there will be pieces from another Suffolk son, Sir Frederick Ashton.

“The concert will also feature the work of contemporary choreographers Alastair Marriott, Christopher Wheeldon – who created a duet in DGV for Darcey Bussell and me – and the exciting new choreographer, Liam Scarlett. This will be a very special element of the show as I’ve known Liam since we were both in Ipswich and he was about six-years-old.”

It is impossible not to be swept along by Gary’s enthusiasm and he has recruited the cream of local talent to share the stage with him.

“I also wanted to include some of the people who have been my friends in Ipswich since I was a boy and so I’ve started at the beginning with Linda Shipton. She helped me survive all the auditioning in the early days and even after all these years, sticks with me and is there for all my big nail-biting moments at Covent Garden. We’ll have the chance to see some of her young dancers on the stage.

“Also there will be the musical talents of Gallery Players, Appeal Theatre Group, Ipswich Operatic and Co-op Juniors who are coming together to perform as a mass choir for the evening – so it will be a very special event.”

He added that he is delighted that Angela Rippon has agreed to host the evening and has agreed to do something a little special – “I’m so pleased that I’ve managed to persuade Angela to dance with me on the night. Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t remember her iconic dance routine with Morecambe and Wise?

“It’s going to be such an amazing night, I can’t wait to get up on the stage with my friends and finally dance for my home county.”

n The Royal Ballet’s Gary Avis and Friends is at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich, on Sunday September 11, 1.30pm and 6.30pm. Tickets £10-£60 can be booked on 01473 433100 or at www.ipswichregent.com.

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