Taking a leap of faith – turning the Ipswich Regent into Covent Garden
This weekend the Ipswich Regent is playing host to one of the biggest national arts events of the year – Gary Avis and Friends. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Ipswich boy Avis and partner Tim Holder about the herculean task of bringing Covent Garden to Suffolk
Suffolk-born Royal Ballet star Gary Avis has never been one to shy away from his roots. He’s a Suffolk man born and bred and delights in any opportunity to share his love of dance with his friends and family back home.
Next weekend he will be bringing some of the world’s greatest ballet stars to the Ipswich Regent to take part in a dance spectacular, performing choice pieces from the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, selected and curated by Gary. The packed show features some of the most iconic works ever created for The Royal Ballet, both classical and modern, and a little trip to the ballroom too! All funds raised go to Suffolk Community Foundation and its’ Arts and Culture Fund, established by the former High Sheriff Judith Shallow. Money from the fund will be used to help community arts projects across the county.
Gary said established and rising stars from The Royal Ballet will be joining him on stage. This will be the largest gathering of Royal Ballet dancers outside London in over two decades, including no fewer than five Royal Ballet Principal dancers. Together they will revisit some of their favourite roles on stage and take the opportunity to fulfil a few ambitions and give a few debut performances too!
Gary said: “In my role as Ballet Master I get to see all the performances during the year and I have chosen a selection of my favourites. You will get your classics – your Nutcrackers, Swan Lakes and Romeo and Juliets – but you will also get some modern greats. The beauty of this show is that unless you go to the opera house you will never have a chance to see these. So this is a real coup for Ipswich.”
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The evening will also feature the famous White Swan pas-de-deux from Swan Lake which was performed in Ipswich in 1962 when the Royal Ballet last performed in Suffolk. The lead couple on this occasion were legendary Principal Dancers Ronald Hynd and Annette Page, who now live in Suffolk, and will be in the audience.
‘’Since retiring as a dancer in the 1960’s Ronald Hynd has gone on to create many ballets that have been performed everywhere from New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, La Scala Milan to London Royal Festival Hall,” Gary added. “He is a really dear friend who I have had the privilege to work with him many times. I’m delighted to say that Suffolk audiences will have the opportunity to see Mara Galeazzi (who has flown all the way from The Oman especially for these performances) and I dance a beautiful pas-de-deu from his much celebrated production of The Merry Widow.’’
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The event is being hosted by Strictly Come Dancing star Anton du Beke, who will be joined by his Strictly co-star Joanne Clifton. “I met Anton through working with Darcey (Bussell),” says Gary, “He really is the nicest man and jumped at the chance to take part. He will make a terrific host and Jo will make a fabulous partner for him.”
The cast list reads like a Who’s Who of world class ballet, including: Principal Dancers Zenaida Yanowsky, Mara Galeazzi, Alexander Campbell and Ryoichi Hirano, Reece Clarke, fellow Ipswich native Helen Crawford, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Emma Maguire, Matthew Ball, Lukas Bjorneboe Braendsrod, Beatriz StixBrunell, Luca Acri, Mayara Magri, Yasmine Naghdi.
Gary said the only reason that they can create a show like this is because he and his partner Tim, who is also development director at Suffolk Community Foundation, work together as a team and complement each other’s talents. He said: “It’s pooling our resources and combining my connections with the artistic side with Tim’s ability to organise the financial backing and marketing to put on these hugely complicated gala events. We then have our Suffolk producer Bryony Wells who pulls all the technical and logistical elements together, she’s amazing. She has spreadsheets coming out of her ears. We couldn’t have this without her.”
Tim added that over the years they have had help and advice from some very famous names who have pointed them in the right direction and have opened up some doors to gain access to key production staff.
“I am thinking here of people like Angela Rippon,” said Tim. “She was on the board of English National Ballet and we got to know her. When I was putting my first gala together for World Hunger Day, I said to her ‘We must find someone who knows this world better than we do’ and she introduced us to our first producer and started linking us up with some key people.”
Gary believes it’s all about making connections, inspiring people and offering them an opportunity to do something different. Tim nods before adding: “Whenever we do an event like this is, we aim to create something that no-one can see anywhere else. For example, for this production of Gary Avis and Friends you would never get to see this many Royal Ballet Stars on stage in a normal performance at Covent Garden. You may get two or three at most, we have five!
“Just seeing The Royal Ballet outside London is a treat because they are not funded to tour the UK. If you remove official duty and substitute a charity like Suffolk Community Foundation, resources fall into place and things become possible.”
Even so, staging a show like this is a big ask. Gary says the quality of performance still has to be maintained because the name and reputation of The Royal Ballet is on the line.
Gary insists it’s important to build trust. Monica Mason, the previous artistic director of the Royal Ballet, had to give permission for the first Gary Avis and Friends. She was represented at the event by Kevin O’Hare, who is now artistic director of the company. Based on what he saw in 2011, Kevin was happy for Gary to borrow The Royal Ballet again.
“I think the only stipulation that Monica Mason made was we had to have a sprung dance floor but we assured her that everything would be as true to what people see at Covent Garden as possible. Apart from the sets, which you can’t bring into the Regent, everything else is as true as it can possibly be. The original costumes, the lighting, the sound, we have to make sure we aim for excellence in every respect.”
But, putting a show like this together requires planning that stretches back a year. But, Tim points out it’s not only the dancers who are coming. He said: “We have the heads of lighting and sound, stage managers and the specialists from Covent Garden working on this show, we have the wigs and wardrobe departments coming along too. All volunteering their valuable time.
“All these elements have to be co-ordinated. They love the cause, but it’s clear that they love Gary too and are doing it for him.”
Gary looks vaguely embarrassed by this, but accepts the compliment. He said: “That’s why we have to get the programme fixed very early on because the costumes have to be sourced from all over the place. If they are not currently featured in our rep for the season they could be hired out to other companies anywhere in the world. The same goes for the wigs, shoes, make-up, it all takes a lot planning. We don’t just turn up with a costume and switch the lights on.’’
“Nothing is being left to chance. We have the best performers and we will be using the best kit, the best costumes, to bring a genuine slice of Covent Garden to Suffolk.”
For Gary, he sees this show as a very special homecoming. He said: “I have never forgotten my roots. I am a proud Ipswich boy. I love the Regent because this is where I started performing with the Co-op Juniors. And, I suspect, that because I am getting older now, well you never know if this might be my last opportunity to dance for everyone on this stage, so it will be an extraordinary couple of shows and will be very special for all of us.
“The atmosphere in The Regent when it’s full is electric. It’s big enough to give a sense of occasion and yet intimate enough to get a really close look at these world-class dancers performing on stage. A lot of the items in the show are going to be solos or pas de deux and so the fact you have got that intimate feeling is going to make the show really special.”
He adds for those who attended the show five years ago, all the pieces will be new. “There’s nothing that has been repeated and it will be a wonderful opportunity to see world-class dancers performing up close.”
Tim adds with no orchestra pit providing an added barrier between performer and audience, Ipswich will get an unrivalled opportunity to appreciate the strength and the skill that goes into making some the most graceful moves in dance look so effortless. “You will be able to see how amazing their bodies are and how they work together to create magic.
“People say: ‘I’m no expert I wouldn’t know if it’s good or not’, but I think that when you see excellence before you. You do know - absolutely you do because it takes your breath away.”
Tim and Gary are also proud of the fact that this event isn’t just about the performance. They have teamed up with DanceEast to stage workshops and become involved in community outreach work that will help inspire the next generation of dancers – talented young dancers from a wide range of backgrounds. They have also worked with members of the public, patrons and sponsors who have paid £120 each to make 200 tickets available to allow young people from across Suffolk to see world-class dance for the first time. Community groups will also have a role to play in the show, making the event unique to Suffolk.
Tim adds: “We will be remembering the incredible Pat Taplin at the performance because not only did she introduce us to each other, but she introduced us both to the arts really. Her group, The Gallery Players, will be performing a number from Hairspray to celebrate all that she meant to us all. We are also aiming to raise £100,000 for the Arts and Culture Fund which will be able to help people who have had a far more difficult start than we had. It will help them work through their challenges by engaging with the widest possible variety of art form, they may discover and special talent along the way too, but it’s all about improving their lives and their futures. The arts are such a great healer. We are so thrilled to be staging a world-class show in Ipswich to raise money for the people of Suffolk.”
A limited number of tickets are still available from the Ipswich Regent box office. There are just 200 left spread over two performances. Gary Avis and Friends will be performed at the Ipswich Regent on September 10 and 11. Tickets are available at all prices, £24, £33, £48 and £70, from the Ipswich Regent Box Office Tel: 01473 433100 or www.ipswichregent.com