Morecambe dancer Bennet Gartside takes to the Royal Opera House stage in Romeo and Juliet
- Credit: ROH/Bill Cooper
Conjure up the image of a dancer, and Bennet Gartside would not immediately spring to mind. He may not look like a typical ballet dancer – if there is such a thing – but his bearing and grace make him stand out from the crowd. Bennet is a Principal Character Artist with the Royal Ballet, one of a few select dancers responsible for bringing to life some of the most interesting roles in the repertoire.
Bennet fell into the world of dance through a familiar route: he was following in his big sister’s footsteps. Born in Lancaster to a civil engineer father and a librarian mother, he was raised in Morecambe and then the family moved to Heysham. The Sharon Harrison School of Dance provided a welcome way to pass a few hours every week.
‘I was just sent along at an early age because I was a bit hyper,’ says Bennet. ‘I remember a few of those early days: “Be a tree, be an angel, be this, be that”. I thought, what is this? But I enjoyed being with people and I enjoyed being with the girls – I was the only boy in the class.’
This inevitably led to some bullying. ‘I got a lot of stick – tons – from school, from friends of the family; the names, ‘poofter’, ‘pansy’ – all that kind of stuff. I don’t know how I dealt with it. I did have a fight once in the school playground with a boy who started with me. I just had to stick up for myself.
‘Even when I was at school in London at White Lodge [where younger students of the Royal Ballet School study] and I would go back home for the holidays, I would hang out with the guys down the road who were at the local high school, but I would never tell anybody which high school I was at because I was still embarrassed to say ‘the Royal Ballet School’, because it was such a small community.’
Prior to studying in London, ballet did not feature greatly in Bennet’s life, apart from the brief weekly lesson in which it was combined with other forms of dance. ‘I was more into tap; I loved Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson. I never watched ballet at all, it was not on my radar.’
A week’s summer school in London proved a turning point. ‘I loved it at White Lodge. Meeting people from all over the world was just amazing.’ Inspired by a guest Russian teacher, Bennet discovered new insights into the world of ballet, and he was hooked. ‘I came away from it thinking, this is what I’d like to do.’
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He auditioned successfully for a full-time place at the Royal Ballet School in Richmond Park and left home to board with other young ballet students. ‘I was homesick just once and that was just because everybody else was. It was sad – one weekend there was a boy who was very homesick. He cried, then others started crying and I cried… and then that was it. I got it out of my system because I was missing home, but I enjoyed it. There were actually a lot of northerners in my year.’
From White Lodge he was accepted into the Upper School, and upon graduating he was offered a contract with the Company – the only boy in his year to do so. He swiftly gained a reputation as not only a fine dancer, but an excellent actor and reliable partner.
Being a character dancer means Bennet has tackled some of leading “baddies” in the company’s repertoire: he is a compellingly evil Von Rothbart in Swan Lake; a Tybalt oozing with masculine menace in Romeo and Juliet, and a frantic Hilarion, who meets his doom at the hands of vengeful spirits in Giselle.
There have also been lighter roles, such as the comical Husband with murder on his mind in The Concert, a magical Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker, and an amusing Bottom in The Dream, in which he is transformed into an ass, through some stage trickery and a large, uncomfortable mask. The latter role also requires him dancing in pointe shoes – something usually the preserve of female dancers.
Alongside his dancing, Bennet runs a ballet school teaching adult beginners, which gained an international following during lockdown, when he continued to provide classes over Zoom. He is also the company’s video archive manager, which has allowed him to develop his passion for making films.
As a character dancer he has the advantage of a longer career than someone relying purely on technical prowess. He is still captivated by the magic of being on stage. ‘I still feel the nerves – if you don’t then you’ve fallen out of love with the job.
‘There’s something stunning about it, there’s that whole build-up with your colleagues. There’s a buzz going on, you get that sense of, okay, there’s a show tonight. When you get that first half hour call, that’s the bit when you get that first flutter. I like that, because if you don’t have that, it’s a bit too easy. And I get goosebumps if the music comes on in the car and I think, wow, that’s my bit!
‘When we returned to the studio after being off so long because of Covid and you hear something, you think, ”wow, I haven’t heard this for two and a half years”. It brings you almost to tears because it has been so long.’
*Bennet will be performing in Romeo and Juliet from January 10-February 24 with a performance being broadcast in cinemas on February 14. To book, go to roh.org.uk