Meet Yorkshire’s answer to Billy Elliot

Gary Clarke's love of dance has seen him excel in his career

Gary Clarke's love of dance has seen him excel in his career - Credit: Archant

Award-winning dancer and choreographer Gary Clarke talks about dancing his way from poverty in a mining town to Hollywood glitz

Dancer Gary Clarke

Dancer Gary Clarke - Credit: Archant

When he was growing up in a poor area of Yorkshire, the young Gary Clarke would regularly thrash his body around to loud music. He didn’t realise it at the time, but he was dancing.

This wouldn’t normally be remarkable but, where Clarke came from, people — and especially boys — didn’t dance. “I’m from a mining village called Grimethorpe,” he says. “This was the (post-miners’ strike) 1990s and things were bleak for my generation. It was really tough with unemployment, drugs and crime in the village, and everyone got their frustrations and emotions out in different ways. Throwing myself around to music was the way I did it. I knew there was something else inside of me. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing. It was just a form of expression for me. But it was how I found dance.”

Thankfully, one of his teachers recognised that he had a talent for movement and, in 1996, asked Clarke if he’d like to dance for the pupils at assembly. So he gelled his hair up, put on a tracksuit and sunglasses, took a cassette player on stage, pressed ‘play’ — and went for it. “I improvised,” he laughs. “I threw my body around and the school just went wild. They’d never seen a male dancer, or anything like it before.”

If Gary Clarke sounds like the real Billy Elliot, that’s because he is. From these unlikely beginnings he’s become an award-winning dancer, choreographer and artistic director, whose work has been seen in some of the UK’s most prestigious dance and theatre houses including The Barbican Centre, The Royal Opera House and The Southbank Centre. His CV is long and varied, but highlights as a dancer include spending a decade with dance company The Cholmondeleys & The Featherstonehaughs (led by maverick choreographer Lea Anderson), and touring the world with Matthew Bourne’s iconic all-male version of Swan Lake. As a choreographer Clarke has been massively in demand, working on productions to commemorate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games — including The Opening Ceremony for the arrival of The Olympic Torch in Leeds — plus shows for Opera North, Sky Arts and Hull City of Culture 2017. He also created COAL, an award-winning large-scale touring show to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the 1984/85 miners’ strike.

Jamie Bell as Billy Elliot in the smash hit movie about the coal miner's son whose life is changed by ballet

Jamie Bell as Billy Elliot in the smash hit movie about the coal miner's son whose life is changed by ballet - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

His most recent project is with the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, choreographing one third of a digital dance triple bill called Locked down. Locked in. But living, which will be streamed online from September 28th. The Lawrence Batley has a special place in Clarke’s heart because it was here, aged 16, that he saw contemporary dance for the first time, performed by all-male dance troupe, The Featherstonehaughs. ‘That moment really stuck with me and inspired me,’ says Clarke. ‘After graduating from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, I was lucky enough to join the Featherstonehaughs and perform with them at the Lawrence Batley Theatre. What’s more, it was that same piece that had inspired me as a teenager. It was like coming full circle.’

Not that Clarke simply breezed into his career. In his first year of formal training, the enormous discipline required to become a professional dancer nearly derailed him. ‘For me, dance was about escapism, and emotion. It was a coping mechanism. It was about thrashing around, energy and a lack of control, not standing at a ballet barre and having a teacher tell you what to do. So I was taken aside and it was explained to me that underneath it all there’s a technique and a skill that I’d have to learn if I wanted a career.” He took notice and, by the second year, he was flying. “I feel very lucky that I had such amazing tutors, friends and colleagues to keep me on track,’ he says. ‘Because lot of my friends from Grimethorpe didn’t stay on track. A lot of them are in prison, and some of them are dead because of crime and drug-taking.’

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Dance and movement has offered Clarke some incredible career opportunities. More recently, he’s been working as a movement coach on big budget Hollywood blockbusters with the likes of Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Eddie Redmayne. ‘A friend of mine was a movement director on World War Z, a zombie film starring Brad Pitt, and asked me to come on board. The director wanted the zombies to have a high level of physicality and didn’t want to use CGI or special effects. I worked on the movie for two years, and I was also cast in the film. I’m on screen for about one-and-a-half seconds sinking my teeth into someone. It’s mad for a lad from a Yorkshire mining village. Fast forward 20 years and I’m in a room with Brad Pitt! We were on set with him for about two weeks, saying good morning to him and having coffee and watching things back on screen. What’s bizarre is that on the first day you go: ‘Wow! It’s Brad Pitt.’ After that, everything becomes normalised. You have a job to do and you have to be there on time and in make-up at 5am so you can do it.’

It was the same when Clarke was working with Tom Cruise on The Mummy (more zombies) and with Eddie Redmayne on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. ‘I think we tend to see celebrities as ‘other’,’ he says. ‘Of course, I have to shake myself — I’m standing next to Tom Cruise. But he’s really professional and really calm.” He laughs. “I had to almost bite his neck every day.’

Clarke has lived in London and Belgium, but is now back in Yorkshire again. ‘In my twenties I ran away to the lights and big city,’ he says. ‘My friends were there and it was cool. But once I’d done all that, it was time to get back up North. All my family are up here and I feel settled. I’m a true Northerner.’

There is one way that Gary Clarke ISN’T like Billy Elliot, mind you. His family and friends have always supported and encouraged him to do what he does best: dance. ‘I’ve got a huge family and they’ve always been there for me,’ he says. ‘Not just my parents, but my entire family. They’ve been glad that I’d found something I was passionate about and that I wasn’t just going to be unemployed and end up on the scrap heap. In fact the whole village has supported me throughout my career. I’m very lucky.’