Gary Avis dances around the world but ‘Suffolk is my home’

Gary Avis pictured on the shores of the River Orwell near his Suffolk home

Gary Avis pictured on the shores of the River Orwell near his Suffolk home - Credit: Archant

Royal Ballet star Gary Avis has a deep and abiding love for Suffolk. He tells arts editor Andrew Clarke that after nearly 30 years on stage his dancing career is far from over and he is looking for new challenges

Gary Avis and his partner from the Royal Ballet, Mara Galeazzi, performing Lieder Pas de deux

Gary Avis and his partner from the Royal Ballet, Mara Galeazzi, performing Lieder Pas de deux - Credit: Archant

They say that dancing is a young persons’ occupation but looking at 46-year-old Suffolk-born Royal Ballet star Gary Avis you could be forgiven for thinking this was a load of nonsense.

Meeting at DanceEast, it is clear that he is busier than ever. He has interrupted his journey from his north Suffolk home into London for this evening’s performance for a catch-up. The big news, he tells me, is that he is preparing to travel to Russia for a performance in St Petersburg.

He is principal character artist with The Royal Ballet and says that despite his advancing years he is still keen to keep stretching his creative ambitions. He was recently performing breath-taking sword-fights as Tybalt in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. Prior to that he was “stretching muscles I never knew I had” in his first piece of contemporary dance with the Royal Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, which picked up an Olivier last weekend for best new dance production.

“Last year was immense. I moved back to Suffolk wanting to sort out the whole life-work balance and it never really happened. No sooner had we moved and my professional career went into overdrive. It was crazy. I was busier last year than I had been for years.”

Gary Avis & Helen Crawford (backstage in Moscow)

Gary Avis & Helen Crawford (backstage in Moscow) - Credit: Archant

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Gary laughingly admits that getting out of bed in the morning is increasingly difficult and the daily commute from north Suffolk to Covent Garden can be hard, particularly during the dark winter months, but he loves his life and his secret to long life as a dancer is simple: “Keep fit and keep interested in what you are doing. Set yourself new targets, keep testing yourself with new work, new experiences. There’s no way I could function if I felt I was just grinding to a halt.

“Working with Wayne McGregor on Woolf Works was a very big deal for me. I was 45 at the time and I found myself in a studio with a choreographer who was quite exceptional in his field. I had never worked with him before and it was a fascinating, challenging experience. It was an entirely different way of working and it opened up a new world of dance for me – even after all these years.”

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Suffolk remains an important part of Gary’s life. He moved back to the county on a full-time basis in 2014. Work dictated that he lived in London for most of his 27-year career but he always retained a weekend retreat in Nacton. Then two years ago that refuge from the world was traded in for a permanent residence near Eye.

“London is an amazing city, it’s probably the greatest city in the world, but Suffolk has always been my home and it’s where I feel at peace. I’m still back and forth to London pretty much every day, but the big skies I wake up to and my drive through the small villages to the station are really worth doing the journey for. I’m very fortunate to enjoy the best of both worlds. I can get much more involved in Suffolk life but still be up there doing what I love.”

Getting involved in Suffolk life and giving something back to the Suffolk community is something that has been increasingly on Gary’s mind. When he moved back to Suffolk on a full-time basis one of the first things he did was accept a long-standing invitation to join the board of DanceEast and now he is looking after their campaign to champion the work of young choreographers.

“I was approached by Brendan Keaney, DanceEast’s brilliant director, after he had heard that I was wanting to get involved in some way but I was finding it difficult to determine what was my niche. I wanted to contribute something specific rather than just be a name on a letterhead. I wanted some way to pass on a bit of knowledge.

“We had a chat and I really warmed to him. When he said he felt that my ‘local boy roots’ could assist and strengthen abilities to reach out to the local community, I knew that he had hit upon the right thing for me. It’s very much my area and I felt I could do something to help. I’ve also very much enjoyed beginning to watch some of the incredible talent that is being nurtured in the education programmes Dance East has created.

“Because I am still performing my time is limited but as I get older and perhaps perform less often I will have more time to put into other projects at DanceEast. I think Ipswich and Suffolk are so lucky to have a facility as good as this right on their doorstep.”

The Royal Ballet have got a four- week tour of Japan coming up that Gary will be a part of but before that he has been invited to dance at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg reprising his role of Tybalt alongside Sarah Lamb and Matthew Golding, the other Royal Ballet principal dancers, from Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, as part of an international celebration of the life and works of composer Sergei Prokofiev.

“It’s a fleeting visit. We are dancing on April 18-19 and then flying home on the 20th but I am so excited to be going and really honoured to be asked. What makes it special is that it’s one of my favourite roles and to be dancing it in Russia, the home of a lot of classical ballet is amazing.

“It’s a completely different company. I know Sarah and Matthew, of course, but everyone else will be different and it will be interesting trying to integrate a role that I am comfortable in, and used to dancing, with an entirely new company.”

He said that challenges like these keep him young at heart and keeps his brain active. “I had no idea that when I started out at The Royal Ballet nearly 30 years ago now that I would still be dancing with the company or would have had the success that I have.

“I enjoy hard work and I have a happy home life. Happiness keeps you young and I still love being up there on stage and doing what I do. Then there’s my life back here in Suffolk, it’s such a beautiful place and it relaxes me and provides me with the balance I need to recover from my crazy work schedule.”

So does he still have any ambitions? Are there any mountains left to climb? “There are always mountains left to climb. As each ballet season approaches I do think to myself: ‘Are people still going to want me, will choreographers still find things for me to do?’ I wouldn’t say I worry exactly, but you just never know.

“I have a few projects and ambitions rattling around in my head that my ballet friends could help to shine a light on. I’d also get a huge kick out of seeing Royal Ballet dancers back on stage in Ipswich, people really enjoyed it last time in 2011, and that was after a 50-year gap. Can you believe that the last time they performed here as a company was in 1961?”

So is he working behind the scenes to persuade them to make that journey up the A12? “Oh, it’s a nice thought,” he laughs. “I would love to dance with the company in Suffolk before I am forced to hang up my dancing shoes.”

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