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    Gary Avis 2021

    Gary Avis

    Principal Character Artist and Senior Répétiteur, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Tue 09th November, 2021


    After David’s introduction, encouraging members to attend meetings in person if at all possible and particularly those with the younger dancers, Gary followed up by thanking the Association for the support and encouragement given to the whole Company which is highly valued. He also apologised that he’d lost his voice – perhaps we were good at sign language or mime?

    Gary began by telling us about The Dante Projectand his role as Virgil. He did a lot of research, found lots of quotes and images including the book with illustrations of poses Dante has with Virgil which helped him visualise their relationship. They had done Inferno in 2019 in Los Angeles and coming back to it with this extra knowledge was very important. Working with Ed Watson is an absolute dream as it’s a real collaboration, and they worked out their own story together. Gary’s was trying to look after Dante and watching how he was reacting to whatever situation. Gary would also love to do it with Federico Bonelli whose interpretation is so different and it would be interesting to see if he could make the same journey as with Ed. Standing still is one of the hardest things you can do on stage and Gary learnt this at a very early age from Derek Rencher and David Drew. You have to maintain a presence and be imposing in your situation. The creative process was bizarre, as they’d started it here in 2019, went to LA where they put it all together with unfamiliar studios and not in their normal dressing rooms, so they had to adapt to the new surroundings with a new ballet in a new country and without their usual security blanket. Gary thought not much of Inferno had been changed since then as Wayne McGregor was so pleased with it apart from their costumes altered to make them look more pagan. Now Gary’s swag is over the shoulder but originally it was at the back and the costume closed with ties which could be revealing, but it was adapted through rehearsals, in discussions with Tacita Dean who was very adamant about the colours which illustrated the negative and the positive from the paintings. People felt more comfortable with Inferno this time and it was revived by a notator while Wayne was in another studio creating Purgatory and Paradise. He trusted them to work on their piece in the studio which was very personal and quite special to them all. Purgatory was only put together four weeks before the opening. It evolved as everybody became aware of what the others were doing - the boys had done their things, then it was interspersed with the girls and then the White Lodgers came in. Although he loved Inferno, Purgatory is Gary’s favourite and not just because he’s dancing in it. It was so heart-warming to think Wayne would entrust a 51 year old with his choreography but it was an exhausting experience. Of course, it’s amazing to be back on stage, but they’ve had nearly two years of not dancing and while everyone is doing brilliantly, these long days with full-on performances are tiring. Purgatory is wonderful, and the only downside is that Virgil isn’t allowed to go to Paradise. But it’s still an amazing opportunity for the older Gary who’s so grateful for it. His costume wasn’t chalked but as the other dancers move the chalk comes off and he and Ed are on stage the whole time breathing it in which could be part of the reason he has lost his voice. It also made his contact lenses really gritty. There was a significance to the chalk being sprayed on different parts of the body so every sin was represented in a different way but Fumi Kaneko as Satan was completely covered. When you saw the chalk coming off it looked either like ash and as if they were slowly disintegrating or it appeared like a misty morning which was good as this hell was icy cold. David said you couldn’t see Inferno from some parts of the theatre. Gary said choreographers now are obsessed with using the massive stage but while it’s good to be expansive, we have to adhere to the interests of the patrons.

    Gary’s title has changed to Senior Repetiteur. though he’s still on the website as Senior Ballet Master. Due to diversity and inclusion and getting rid of the male/female title, coming back from Covid there was a lot of change to adhere to political correctness. Many productions will be catered to accommodate this too. Pre-Covid they’d already cut out Clara’s kiss when Drosselmeyer mends the doll, and they are having to adhere to all the rules and regulations. All the ballets are being looked at. Perhaps we won’t do Bayadere? Can they do Mayerling because of the whores, and it’s doubtful that Judas Tree will happen again, or probably The Invitation.  It has to be managed but it will be a great loss of all this incredible work. Things were different when they were choreographed and society was like that. Should the harlots in Romeo be pretty and cutesy? They are regularly on Zoom with diversity and inclusion meetings. You have to be careful, and it’s a big subject. Recently Gary thought he’d said something for a laugh and was hauled into the office over it. Pat Neary is different. She’s of that era and age and Christopher Carr is also from a different era.. Chris moulded Gary as a dancer and repetiteur and because of the way he approaches things and his vitality he makes it exciting. Pat has her dictaphone and notes so maybe someone will just delete it.

    When Coppelia came back, the Labour Party was already having problems with accusations of anti-Semitism but at the General, Dr Coppelius wore a Jewish skull cap. It had gone by the evening. Gary said they had to be very aware and if people are uncomfortable it’ll be changed. He wanted to get away from a dark Yiddish look and he landed up with greasy hair but Coppelius loves making dolls and being in that environment, so Gary tried to lighten it and got rid of the black tie, replacing it with a red tie made into a bow matching Swanilda’s costume, his yellow waistcoat had matching fingerless gloves to liven it up rather than being so dark. It’s a very sad moment in ballet and hard to get it right and Gary, who feels he’s only as good as his last performance, isn’t sure he’s quite got it and would re-evaluate it next time. David mentioned that when he spoke to us a long time ago Coppelia had just been staged, and Gary was upset that he’d not been cast in the role. Gary said that he’d just come back from his time with English National Ballet so he had to start at the bottom and it took three or four years to work his way up again.  Monica Mason promoted him to Principal Character Artist after two years with the understanding that other people had been doing those roles and he would slot in when his time came. He felt he’d done a good job with Ronnie Hynd’s version at ENB and wanted to have a go at Madam’s. A lot of what he put into this he’d developed before with the Hynd version. The basic story and choreography are very similar but, for example, when there’s the explosion the windows blew in and smoke came out, Gary said it’s more logical for the windows to blow out so he’s responsible for that bit of stage craft. The development of the character is very exciting and you trust in the knowledge of such people as Chris Carr who knows it so well, so he feels so lucky. His Swanildas were Frankie Hayward and Marianela Nunez so dancers of different heights and he had to adapt and spontaneity between the two is different, story-telling wise. On this occasion they had the luxury of time to prepare and were also fortunate to have as coaches Stephen Wicks who had done the role before and Merle Park who was so generous with her knowledge and joined in with them. It’s all about passing on knowledge and experiences which makes it more expressive.

    The season before was the new Swan Lake. Gary seemed to have changed Rothbart from a caricature into a character. The nature of the role in this production is about the person rather than the creature. Someone who transforms who is obsessed with power and because he has to have the power the rage comes through him. It is tricky as Gary likes the caricature and mythical side. There are elements where he didn’t toe the line and did what he thought was right for the role so that was frowned upon quite heavily. It wasn’t a happy experience which is sad as he absolutely loves the ballet, the Royal’s signature piece, and it saddens him as he doesn’t know how they will go forward with it since a lot of changes needed to be made and were under discussion but probably won’t happen now.

    His role as repetiteur. Gary said it’s exhausting but he loves his job. He made the decision to live in Suffolk seven years ago so is up at 6.30am for the 8.30 train, into the office, goes through the ‘loo roll’ (list of performances/dancers), at 11.00 a medical meeting to discuss injuries etc, and then rehearsals without a break till 6.30pm. He put on Romeo and Juliet, and during that process mounted and staged Giselle before Chris Carr came in to make it complete. During that time they were also doing a lot on Nutcracker, reverting to the original version, though a couple of things have survived from Covid which Sam Raine and Gary did together so that no-one touched each other except for those in a ballet bubble. Chris Carr is now here for Nutcracker. At the end of the week, it’s Acts I and II studio calls and on Monday there’s the stage call. Gary is currently feeling rotten but is so passionate about it and just gets on with it. Today from 12.00 they worked on a new battle scene, Covid-style without children, Clara is further involved and beats up the mouse king, then the flowers, with the whole of the ending when everyone comes running on, then opening, then waltz of flowers piecing it together before Chris arrived, and they put the Rose in, then parents with three different casts, and there’s a new Arabian dance pas de deux which is looking good. Peter Wright has OK’d Gary’s rearrangement, trying to keep Peter’s choreography but linking in a slightly different way..

    Who decides who does what rep-wise? Gary says there’s a meeting with ballet staff and they decide between them. Chris Saunders oversaw Romeo and Juliet, Gary was repetiteur and Deirdre Chapman, Sam and Sian Murphy were doing their bits and pieces as they don’t work such long hours. They divide it up between them but Gary has more as there’s only one repetiteur for the male side. How does Gary fit it in with his Principal Character Artist position? Gary said, while he loves to pass on knowledge as a repetiteur, his priority has always been to be performing on stage as that’s what makes him tick.

    In Romeo and Juliet he’s doing Lord Capulet, and hopes to do Tybalt which he loves in the next run but missed this time because of clashes with Dante rehearsals. He particularly loves the Lord Capulet interaction with Juliet in Act III when she’s being disobedient. The choreography, music and designs are amazing and he loves being immersed in it.

    Gary’s also done Enigma. It was a role Monica said he’d never do as she didn’t feel he suited it so he was really chuffed to be cast as he very much wanted to do it and it made him cry. He doesn’t know why Monica felt that way and she’s always very complimentary about his using Derek’s little nuances. Nimrod is extremely emotional and when you feel the emotion between the three of you it really works. Chris Saunders and Kevin rehearsed it along with Isabel McMeekan, who is a gem. She was particularly helpful to Gary with Winter Dreams as he always wanted to do Kulygin without realising it’s such difficult choreography which Anthony Dowell created in his late 40s. It’s an amazing character role with a lot of dancing. The great thing for Gary about Winter Dreams was that he was taken out of the corps by Kenneth in 1992 to do the brother, Andrei Prozorov, a role created on him, so he was in the room watching Irek Mukhamedov, Darcey Bussell, Adam Cooper, Anthony, Viviana Durante, Nicky Tranah, all amazing people, so he knew what was expected of the role. When he had doubts, Isabel made him carry on and helped him through saying it’s about the character – the steps happen because they are part of the expression of the character so there’s a reason why you’re turning or reaching in arabesque in a certain way.

    He recently hosted Ashton Rediscovered, and David wondered if that was something he’d like to continue. Gary said he likes presenting despite being unbelievably nervous. But this was different as he was talking which he doesn’t like because of having a script which he hated reading. He didn’t do well at reading at school and still doesn’t read as much as he should which is sad. He asked for the script to look at over the weekend and found it was nine pages of A4, full of factual bits of history. For the Insight it was reduced. He would like to do more of that. He hasn’t done World Ballet Day where Kristen McNally is brilliant and also Alexander Campbell. There’s an audio suite in the basement of the Opera House where they practise and you get good training but Gary only had one session. Jeanetta Lawrence and Christopher Nourse asked him to do it and hopefully he was not too bad. (The Ballet Association got a very good advertisement at the end and also in the Friends’ e-newsletter. This was Alex Beard’s gift to us since we can no longer have membership leaflets in the Opera House which is becoming paperless.) It was generally agreed that we miss cast lists. Gary said he kept all of the programmes of all his shows since graduation. It’s useful when you revisit a ballet and can find different information.

    Onegin. Gary loves the role of Prince Gremin which he did last time, aged 49, dancing with Natasha Osipova. He’s now staged it three times with Jane Bourne which is like working with Pat Neary. She’s a force of nature and it’s like an explosion coming in! She had to learn peoples’ names and different casts and a take on who does what and how the combinations work but he loves her as she’s a stickler for detail and story telling so it’s satisfying working with her. Reid Anderson also came and Gary has always had an amazing relationship with him. It was through him that Gary was still able to do Gremin. Gary commented that he was slightly older but Reid said let’s see and he got cast.

    Lockdown.  The first time it was difficult and so completely new to everyone. They’d had an amazing season when Gary had done Enigma, Coppelia, Oneginand his first Rothbart in Swan Lake.  The calendar on his wall is still there for that month and for posterity. They were all enjoying a wonderful season and suddenly it was gone. There was concern for everybody, particularly the youngsters and those from abroad being locked away with no outdoor space. Everyone rallied round, Kevin was amazing, he phoned people, arranged Zoom calls and classes, weekly chat sessions, and Kevin kept the company together. For Gary personally he loved his garden before and found he really loves it now having transformed it, though it’s not been touched since summer. He redecorated the house, which is a barn, using lots of ladders. It is like a performance and working on the intricate detail between the beams kept him motivated. Living in the countryside he did a lot of walking and found amazing nature trails. Coming back was difficult – he helped Fumi and Reece Clarke with Concerto which was the first on-line performance they did and felt blessed to do that though coming into the Opera House made him cry. It was weird. After three months his boots were still in the same place, his make-up and water bottle as he’d left them though sadly his plant had died. The air-conditioning had been switched off so the dust had settled and it was really eerie like Miss Haversham’s room. Getting back to rehearsing the Company when they were only able to dance in bubbles, there was testing, deciding who could touch whom, who lived with each other etc. The first performance was diverts and Elite Syncopations, and then they went off again to return later with the condensed Covid-Nutcrackerwhich he loved but required a lot of work as, with everyone on stage, the logistics were immense. Costumes were on rails in bags in the opera rehearsal rooms because there was space. You could touch the bag, go to a cubicle to try it, if no alterations were needed, it went back in the bag.  For the shows, wigs were done in the opera rehearsal room as they couldn’t go into the dressing rooms. You were escorted to the stage and sat on your allocated chair on the side of the stage until your entrance which was so weird. The logistics were so complex - the angel is normally passed from one person to several others in and out of its box but that couldn’t happen so they had to move it from one bubble to another. They did four shows before it went off again. That third lock-down was the hardest of all. It was winter and they were very miserable months.  He then realised the Royal Ballet makes him who he is, the thrill of performing and taking the audience on a journey. It was really difficult when you’re sitting in the snow in a garden in Suffolk so it was lovely to come back. Now they’re back to wearing masks all over the building and implementing them in the studio, you do your make-up and then cover it with a mask. The audience will have to wear masks in certain seats.. Gary said we need to look after each other as this thing is not going away and we could be locked down again. Gary tests daily, the dancers do Lateral Flow on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and PCR on a Wednesday. Now they do it themselves.

    At the age of 49, Gary won the National Dance Award for Outstanding Male Performance (Classical) in 2019 for Kulygin in Winter Dreams, having previously won in 2011 for DGV. He was truly taken aback and it was lovely that Mara Galeazzi was there too.

    Of his relationship with Darcey Bussell, Gary said it’s special. They spent a lot of time working together and built up a relationship and then she moved on and he joined her in the show with Kathryn Jenkins, and the Olympics opening ceremony, and she came back for Margot’s 100th anniversary. They are not close but yet are still close with a lot of trust and huge mutual respect. It was so lovely after Ed’s final performance when she came to Gary and spoke warmly about his performance. They don’t see each other a lot but he loves her to bits. She’s now in coaching Nutcracker. After working so closely and intensely - her farewell was unbelievably intense - you never lose it as it’s engrained and something you created together which no-one can take away.

    Frederick Ashton had just passed away when he joined the School but one of Gary’s first big things in the establishment was going to Fred’s funeral at Westminster Abbey.. He did work with Kenneth and wonders what could they have done if there’d been more time with him? Kenneth and Monica saw something in Gary early on. He was Tybalt’s aide and they were taken with his performance and he was given a contract. He was also involved in the creation of Judas Tree.

    Talking of The Dante Project, Gary said the chalk is sticky when it comes off which makes the floor quite tacky but the mirrored lino becomes very slippery with dry ice. They had a proper spray booth like a container with air filtration and all the dancers were called individually to be sprayed. Each costume had a different design, and it was like a forensic study - they had to wear masks and goggles and a cone of shame like a vet’s dog collar so they didn’t inhale as they were sprayed. In LA the spraying was down outdoors so logistics of doing it here are different.

    Programmes are scheduled far in advance.2022, 2023 and 2024 are planned, so it’s amazing how forward thinking they have to be. Gary thinks he’s heard about Woolf Works but not Dante.

    With his hectic schedule, Gary says he goes home every night on the 1030 or 1130pm train and with his drive from the station it’s after 1am by the time he gets to his home. That was his decision and he’s been doing this for seven years. He’d talked to Kevin about it saying he was moving more into management and wasn’t dancing so much but then Woolf Works happened and everything went wild, but he’s not complaining. He’s very grateful for it and happy with the way he lives with home and dogs.

    David thanked Gary so much for being our guest, despite losing his voice. It was always a pleasure to have him and the BA were very grateful to him for coming regularly to our dinners and for supporting us.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Gary Avis and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2022