When dancer Gavin Coward was a child, his parents Sue and Martin were landlords of the busy Woodman Inn pub in Morley, South Leeds. But he didn’t want to pull pints behind the Dewsbury Road bar. Instead, he set his sights on becoming a dancer. And through hard work and determination, that dream came true.
After a twenty year career that has included a world tour with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, an appearance in a Pet Shop Boys‘ video and a role in Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z, Gavin is now looking forward to performing on his home turf.
He returns to Leeds on 5-6 April to star as the prince in balletLORENT’s magical retelling of the classic fairy tale Rapunzel in our Courtyard theatre.
It’s a role that suits him perfectly, as his own journey to the stage has also been something of a fairy tale. Gavin’s childhood did not include private classes in ballet, tap and contemporary dance. Instead, he credits a youth club at Lewisham Park Centre with firing up his passion. As a 10-year-old, he was encouraged by youth leader Valerie Cust to take part in disco and freestyle sequences at a group called Kids 4 Kids. Although Valerie wasn’t a movement teacher, she loved to dance and created routines to chart music for the children.
Gavin, who is now a creative partner and lead male with the dance theatre company balletLORENT, also honed his talents by watching ‘hour upon hour’ of music videos on MTV.
At 18, the fledgling dancer, who had no formal training, bagged himself an audition at one of the country’s top dance academies, the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. But in scenes reminiscent of the movies Flashdance and Fame, Gavin turned up totally ill-prepared, wearing sweatpants and jazz boots and performed a routine of flips and cartwheels to a drum and bass version of the Bjork song Cover Me. Fortunately, however, the school was impressed and offered him a place.
He said: “I had no real training at all and when I did my big audition aged 18, I had absolutely no idea about technique. I didn’t know what contemporary dance was, I’d never done ballet before and I was dreadful in the auditions. My solo dance got me through, and my natural ability to move.”
Gavin said dance lessons were simply not an option when he was growing up.
“My parents worked really hard running the pub, my mum did other jobs as well and I have two older brothers, so there was no time or spare money for the kind of dance lessons everyone else had,” he said.
“Because of my inexperience, I had to start in all the bottom sets to learn the techniques that no one had ever shown me before and I had to work really hard.”
But the hard work wasn’t the biggest shock Gavin experienced when he started at the dance school. It was the dress code that nearly sent him running for the exit.
“I was so shocked that I couldn’t wear tracksuit bottoms and had to go out and buy leotards and tights. I went home and told my mum that I couldn’t go back. She told me to pull myself together and that I would be fine. That gave me the discipline I needed. It had to be hard work and way outside of my comfort zone for me to buckle down and concentrate.”
Now, as well as taking the male lead in balletLORENT performances, Gavin also works with the dance theatre company to deliver workshops in schools and a free youth dance academy in Newcastle to encourage young children from all backgrounds to get into dance.
He said: “Our workshops are very collaborative with the children. We create a framework and then encourage the children to develop their own movements. And, because we don’t teach steps or routines, which can be hard for neurodivergent children to follow, we tend to naturally end up working with a lot of children with autism, ADHD and Tourette’s.”
balletLORENT’s Rapunzel, which is suitable for audiences aged 5+, offers a gentle, darkly beautiful retelling of the infamous story by the Brothers Grimm. A flame-haired Rapunzel becomes entrapped in the tower with only a possessive witch and her pet creatures for company until the prince comes along, drawn by the sound of her singing. He attempts to rescue Rapunzel but they end up rescuing each other.
Written by former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the performance is narrated by actor Lesley Sharp (Scott & Bailey; The Full Monty), making it easily accessible for people who have never attended the ballet before.
Natalie MacGillivray as Rapunzel and Gavin Coward as the Prince
Dancer Gavin Coward