Britain’s oldest ballet master: ‘I know how hard being a boy who loves dance can be’

Victoria Lambert
The Royal Ballet's Greg Avis: 'After school, my mother would take my coat and put it straight into the washing machine because I’d been spat at' - Clara Molden

Royal Ballet star Gary Avis knows exactly how Prince George felt last week when an American TV host mocked the six-year-old for taking ballet lessons. It brought back memories of his own childhood, when he was a teenage boy with a passion for ballet.

One big difference was that Avis grew up in the 1980s on a tough estate in Ipswich, Suffolk, and couldn’t count on the support of a flash mob of 300 ballet dancers performing in solidarity, like the one that descended on the Good Morning America studios in Times Square on Monday.

When Avis was young, there was no such thing as social media, which today is full of boys and young men showing off their street-dance prowess, and whose #BoysDanceToo trend has a lively following.

“Some days,” Avis recalls, “my mother would greet me at the door after school and take off my coat and put it straight into the washing machine, because I’d been spat at on the journey home.”

But at night, he would watch his videotape of Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling in Romeo and Juliet over and over, until the tape went too taut to play.

Avis shrugs and smiles. It must have been painful for his mother to watch the son she encouraged to take a disco-dancing course one summer as an antidote to shyness being treated so brutally.

But it paid off. “Mum thought learning to dance would bring me out of my shell,” he says, “and she was right. That summer, it was like the touch paper was lit, and off I went.”

That Billy Elliot-style childhood – the comparisons with the musical about a boy being bullied for his love of dancing are unavoidable – seems a long way away in every sense from where he sits today, cheerfully sipping water, under the watchful gaze of Dame Margot Fonteyn, immortalised in black and white photographs on the wall behind at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Now, aged 49, Avis is one of the oldest performers in the company, and probably the oldest performing man in ballet.

Good-humoured and handsome, he has just been appointed Senior Ballet Master at the Royal Ballet, having joined the company 30 years ago, appearing in The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Rome and Juliet, and creating many new roles.

Avis is also known for a long dance partnership with Darcey Bussell, particularly performing with her in her farewell appearance in 2007 alongside Carlos Acosta, at the London Olympics closing ceremony in 2012 and on Strictly Come Dancing.

It has been a remarkable career so far for a man who didn’t start dance training until the age of 12 and who was hankering after a life in musicals and the chance to appear on the Royal Variety Performance.

Gary Avis performing at the Royal Ballet with Darcey Bussell Credit: Alastair Muir

“Most dancers go through the usual ballet channels, the schools like White Lodge or Elmhurst,” he explains. “But my training took me from the Linda Shipton School of Dancing in Ipswich to Bird College in Kent at 16 to study musical theatre.

“I laughed at the idea of auditioning for the Royal Ballet School, but luckily my teacher Marjorie Field was insistent and filled out the form for me, forging approval from my college.”

Avis believes that taking art forms like ballet and drama into the community via schools is important as a way of mitigating the more toxic end of masculinity, which sometimes leads to bullying. “Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to dispel stereotypical ideas that might deter boys from taking up ballet,” he says.

To that end, he has just worked on a Royal Ballet Learning and Participation project called Create & Dance which shows the hard work and concentration that goes into the sword-fighting scenes in Romeo and Juliet. “Get to teens early on,” he points out, “and you can show them how powerful and exciting it is.”

After 30 years at the Royal Ballet, Gary Avis was recently named its Ballet Master Credit:  Clara Molden for The Telegraph

But there are downsides a life in dance. Avis has torn a hamstring, and admits there have been constant “niggles” with his shoulders and back, due to three decades spent lifting other dancers: “I feel the wear and tear, but we are better looked-after these days.”

There’s an impact on your personal life, too – but not for the dancer himself. “Whoever partners with a dancer has to be a saint,” he says. “Ballet takes a lot out of you and the hours are crazy. Dancers are committed to this life 110 per cent and so your partner has to be too. There is no other way.”

Avis is in a civil partnership with 51-year-old Tim Holder, who is Head of Public Affairs at Suffolk Community Foundation and former UK director of the charity Hunger Project. They met 26 years ago at a barbecue in Ipswich put on by a theatre group where Avis was helping with choreography. “We are very like-minded and quickly clicked,” says Avis. “I was so lucky.”

The pair had a civil ceremony 10 years ago – “on my birthday, so he wouldn’t forget anniversaries” – but has a practical concern about now getting married: “I could barely get through the vows without crying in front of two witnesses. What would I be like in front of a big crowd? It’s not out of the question.”

The couple now live just outside Ipswich with three miniature Schnauzers called Ella, Louis and Hoagy. “I think I’m a good dad to my dogs,” says Avis, “and many dancers have told me that I make a good father when I’m in character during a ballet. But I can’t imagine having children as I can barely look after myself. I am a rubbish cook – though I’m fabulous at ‘assembling’ meals.

“I do admire the dancers who are parents, however, because the childcare is so complicated and then there are added issues with expenditure.”

The hours are undoubtedly long: Avis’s day begins with a two-hour commute into Covent Garden, an hour’s warm-up routine and then six and a half hours of rehearsing with the company. On show days, that’s reduced to five and a half hours, followed by the performance itself. And there’s the two-hour commute home.

“You really have to be resilient,” he says. “I like to be Gary Avis, everyone’s friend. But that’s not always possible. Sometimes you have to knuckle down.”

His relationship with Bussell has been one of hard work, friendship and respect. “I have felt extremely blessed to be dancing with her. Darcey is iconic. Sharing a dance with her and Carlos Acosta, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I never take this lightly.”

And he is a collector of pre-show rituals, too. “If I’m partnering someone, I will kiss their hand before I go on. And I have my make-up set in a certain way so that I could do it with my eyes closed. When dressing, left shoes have to go on before the right.”

Perhaps one of his greatest thrills came two years ago when Avis was invited to be part of the cast of Wayne McGregor’s critically acclaimed Woolf Works.

“I went into the rehearsal room and there was my partner-to-be, Alessandra Ferri, the ballerina who had helped inspire me 30-odd years before when I was a teenager just desperate to dance. It reminded me how far I’d come.”

Gary Avis performs in Manon (9 and 12 October) and Coppélia (Nov 28 to Jan 7) at the Royal Opera House. Tickets: 020 7304 4000, roh.org.uk