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Dame Monica Mason

Director, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 6 October 2011.

 Dame Monica began the meeting by paying a moving tribute to Alexander Grant who had died the previous week

DAVID BAIN WELCOMED Dame Monica who began the meeting by paying a moving tribute to Alexander Grant who had died the previous week. He was someone who was loved and admired and who had played a vital part in the history of The Royal Ballet. Always a very visible presence since the first day she had joined the Company, Alexander was still working into his 80s. Monica recalled her first ever rehearsal with the Company in 1958. It was for Ondine and Alexander was Tirrenio, charging around with all guns blazing, while being very friendly. He was also completely committed to Frederick Ashton, and later Kenneth Macmillan, and the Company. Monica remembered an occasion when, feeling very nervous while preparing to go on in Swan Lake Act III with Nureyev, Alexander was preparing to go on for the Neopolitan dance. His advice to her was not to be nervous, just tell the story, which was very reassuring and helped her through. His was a very warm and reassuring presence and he held a special place in Monica’s life. What Alexander had done to his body in performance didn’t help with pain he suffered in later years, but his passing was particularly sad as a hip operation earlier in the year had gone well. His career will be marked by dedicating all the performances of Fille during the coming season to him.

Turning to what’s on in the current season, Monica said she wished she’d brought a list as, unlike Kevin O’Hare, who will suceed her as Director in 2012, she does not have total recall, while he remembers all the ballets and when and where they were danced either here or on tour! She talked about how a season’s programme is put together and said it was always intriguing as to how it actually happens. The forthcoming season is strong on Ashton and MacMillan but the starting point is usually the big blocks – say, six full length and five triples. This Christmas Nutcracker was the obvious choice as it wasn’t on last year. Thinking about the opening of the season Jewels came to mind as it was some years since it was last done and it had the right celebratory feeling. When planning a triple bill there are many factors to consider: the combination has to feel right from a musical view-point as well as the dance and the design – you can’t have a complete programme with no scenery or costume – so it’s important to get the balance right. She definitely wanted to schedule Sleeping Beauty again as she and Christopher Newton were so pleased with the way their production had come together. She said we will see a very different Beauty from the last time. Previously Peter Farmer was commissioned to bring the Oliver Messel designs back to life and it had worked with the sets but not altogether with the costumes. At the time Elaine Garlick, the wonderful costume supervisor who had fantastic knowledge and experience, fell ill and was off for about three months and Peter himself was also unwell. So they were running late though made it, just, for opening night but she and Christopher weren’t happy with some aspects so changes have been made to the costumes – but no prizes from the Company for those spotting the differences! It was a real labour of love for them to research for the first production, spending hours at the Theatre Museum and at their amazing space in West London. Oliver Messel had designed so many theatre costumes post-war which were necessarily makeshift but which were unsuitable for a dancer. So, 17 October will be the stage call when the new costumes will be seen for the first time on stage. Monica had so wanted Akane Takada to debut in the role of Aurora but unfortunately her injury means she’ll miss this so someone else, as yet unclear, will be on stage instead!

There are nine performances of Manon. Its inclusion wasn’t really planned as it was done last season but the Royal Opera had to drop a production and so the ballet were delighted to step in. It needed to be something they’d done recently as there would be no time to prepare a new work or one not done for a while. Marianela had only danced it once, and as it was Monica’s final year with the company she also wanted Lauren and Sergei as well as others who’d done it little or not at all to have the chance to perform. Then there’s Fille which is one of her favourite ballets (as well as being one of the greatest ballets of the 20th century).

Alice will also run in two consecutive seasons but that was the way it was always planned. It was a big hit with audiences but Christopher Wheeldon will make some small amendments to it having had time to consider following its very successful run of performances by the National Ballet of Canada. Kenneth always used to say it would be wonderful to have time to go back and make adjustments after a first showing of a new ballet. Romeo and Juliet is also in the season and offers chances to younger dancers. It had had a big success at the O2 Arena.

Prince of the Pagodas is there because there have been several attempts to restage it. It was created right at the end of Kenneth’s life when he was very ill but determined to do the ballet with the young Darcey Bussell, a budding Rose, and Jonathan Cope at the height of his powers He’d wanted some cuts in the music but, at that time, the Britten Estate wouldn’t agree to any changes. It requires a cast of strong dancers because the choreography is very difficult and it has two wonderful female roles. Now they hope to achieve the necessary cuts and she, Barry Wordsworth, Grant Coyle (who is responsible for teaching the ballet) and Deborah MacMillan are working hard to achieve this in discussion with the Britten Estate.

Then there’s La Sylphide. Monica felt it was the right time to see it again. She had huge admiration for Johan Kobborg’s production and Johan had had a burning desire to do this work which was very close to his heart through his background and training. Both she and Johan were very keen to do it again. She said she would love Johan to do Madge which he is keen to do and has already performed elsewhere but he feels it would deprive another dancer of a performance. It’s on with Ballo della Regina in honour of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee.

One of her great joys had been dancing on stage with wonderful singers…

So far as one-act ballets are concerned, there’s a lot of Ashton and Macmillan including Requiem, Gloria and Song of the Earth. Monica said she’d wondered if she’d be allowed to include so many pieces with voices. One of her great joys had been dancing on stage with wonderful singers – to be alongside someone who takes an enormous breath and a huge sound emerges is an amazing experience. Song of the Earth was one of Kenneth’s greatest works and a highlight of Monica’s dancing career. She recalled appearing with the singer Bernadette Greevy, who would warm up quietly in their shared dressing room and then go to the loo to warm up full throttle. They got on well and felt very much in tune both on the stage and afterwards when, back in their dressing room, they would commiserate or share their elation. She would also have loved Firebird to be included which would have gone in if Requiem or Gloria hadn’t been possible. Les Noces will be at the end of the season. Working on it with Nijinska was such hard work but it had created an unforgettable memory for Monica. Michael Somes, who knew no Russian or Polish, was the only one who had somehow managed to communicate with Nijinska and interpret her wishes. She always preferred to rehearse the boys in this extraordinary piece. Now it’s really Christopher Newton’s responsibility to teach and mount it.

Monica wanted to bring back Asphodel Meadows as it had been a fine debut for Liam Scarlett. After attending the general rehearsal here, Edward Villella asked if she would mind if he invited Liam to create a new work for Miami City Ballet. Of course she agreed to this, an enormous opportunity for Liam who’d had a great time this summer working with a wonderful group of dancers who were highly energetic and willing to do anything, which he loved. He has already decided on the composer and cast for his new work for the Company which will be another excitement. Wayne’s new piece is full of complications and slightly up in the air at the moment but it will all happen.

Of Ashton’s work, Monica said she really felt she wanted Marguerite and Armand not only because she loves the ballet but she also wanted Sergei Polunin to have the opportunity to dance Armand. She has vivid memories of it as being the last piece Ashton created on Margot. She used to sit in the wings for every performance wherever they were performing. All the beautiful original designs, including the wigs, have been restored to the production. As Patricia Neary says about Balanchine’s work, ‘you try to bring back ballets with new life, not slavishly keeping to the past’. Even though the notation is very detailed it will clearly look a bit different. Monica also chose Birthday Offering which hasn’t been seen for many years. Now there is cast who can do those very beautiful variations although again none of today’s dancers are carbon copies of the original ballerinas.

Audio clip - the importance of collaboration:

 It’s a totally new venture and hugely ambitious but a little bit of her wanted to make a statement about how wonderful it is to collaborate when you have a great team around you.

The final programme of the season is the Titian, an enormous project. Originally the National Gallery came to say they had commissioned three artists to respond to the three great Titians paintings that were being shown at at the gallery during the Olympics – could somebody from the ballet choreograph something to be put on in one of the galleries, inspired by Titian? Monica said yes of course and then wondered if something could happen at the Opera House as well and could those three artists pay homage to Titian in a theatrical way. It then expanded so along with Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon there were Liam, Jonathan Watkins and, because she’d like to include those from whom she’d commissioned works during her directorship, there’s also Will Tuckett, Alastair Marriott and Kim Brandstrup so there are now seven in all. It’s a totally new venture and hugely ambitious but a little bit of her wanted to make a statement about how wonderful it is to collaborate when you have a great team around you. The Opera House is full of brilliant people who all contribute fantastically. Monica said she’d had a great time discovering so many very talented people and having the chance to work with them. She recalled driving Madam home many times in her little Mini but remembered one particular occasion hurtling down the Mall, talking about collaboration and commenting that she supposed Madam had done it all herself and had made her own decisions. Madam had quickly replied ‘absolutely not’. It’s never one individual, it’s always a group effort and you have to have people around whom you can trust and respect. Her words have so often come back to Monica who has found they were exactly right.

It’s extraordinary for Monica to look back over the past 10 years. She said you start out in life without really knowing where it’s going to take you. Maybe you have an idea, you get a job but you don’t know how long you’ll be staying. Perhaps you want to try somewhere else and then return. Originally she didn’t even know if she’d get into the Royal Ballet School (she was turned down on the first audition), but all she knew was that she wanted to dance and was prepared to work incredibly hard. Once at the School she suddenly found herself with 20 girls of high quality and with the opportunity to work with wonderful teachers, a great change of environment after her small studio in Johannesburg. Then she unexpectedly got a contract with the Company and on her first day was in class with Margot Fonteyn. Then Kenneth made Rite of Spring on her which seemed massive. The reality is you do the work and help create a piece and suddenly there’s an amazing first night, a lot of attention and you’re written about in the press for which you aren’t prepared, but life goes on and then suddenly you find yourself as Director! She’d been immensely grateful for all her opportunities and the wonderful times she’s had. Three years ago, 2012 seemed way in the future and she put it out of her mind. Then half way through last season she realised there were only the finishing touches to be made to this season’s programme and then there was nothing to do after next July. It seems strange now with Jeanetta Laurence and Kevin O’Hare talking together and going somewhere for a meeting to discuss the following season. Monica doesn’t mind and starts to make suggestions about works or casting but then has to pull herself up, so she’s told Kevin she will speak and he can just ignore her!

She’s thrilled about Kevin’s appointment but she wonders if he knows what he’s in for! It’s so rewarding to cast somebody who you believe is going to be fabulous although you’re not sure as it’s a big step up, and then they really deliver and it’s such thrill for that young person to know they’ve grabbed a role and done it well. Delivering good news like promotions and new roles is heaven, but bad news is awful. You can’t get used to upsetting people and making them sad. Sometimes you have to do things you would rather not but you have to think about the Company as a whole. Monica said she won’t miss that but she will miss being surrounded by young people. The Royal Ballet is such a special company and she’s had a great life in it. It’s incredible that her 53 years has gone so fast. She recalls vividly when some who were there this evening came backstage when she was in the corps de ballet and the astonishment that people were booking to see her perform and wanting to give her flowers. Loyalty and friendship from the audience mean a lot to an artist because sometimes you can feel very alone. Now we try to give more support and more care to the dancers although with a company of 92 and a relatively small staff it’s not always possible, but the management never stop thinking and caring about the dancers. In the past the staff was even smaller and the facilities weren’t so good, life was tougher and the dancers were even more on their own. Some young dancers still feel isolated and uncertain about how they are doing. A great joy is trying to look after them as much as possible. She, and Anthony Dowell before her, wanted as much as possible to have an open door policy so that dancers could bring issues to them. In her young days you couldn’t speak to a director but now it’s a very different world. Monica said that everyone in the Ballet Association cares so much about the Royal Ballet and its dancers and it was very important to the dancers who are made to feel special, and she thanked the Association for their support.

As for the future, Monica said she’s a ‘here and now’ person…

As for the future, Monica said she’s a ‘here and now’ person. Even as a child she wasn’t a dreamer as her extraordinarily wonderful but very practical mother had always discouraged dreaming. After the death of Monica’s father her mother, who was then in her mid 30s and felt very alone, wanted to change her life. With the assistance of the one person she knew in England who said he’d help them find housing and schooling, she came over and settled here with Monica and her sister. This man, who later married her mother, knew about theatre and ballet and literature and spoke about the dancers he had seen and described performances at the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells. During WWII when her step-father was in the army he’d met someone who invited him to concerts and who encouraged him in music. After the war they lost touch but many years later her step-father said couldn’t she ask about Emanuel Yourovski as someone at the Opera House must know him but Monica always forgot to enquire. Her stepfather kept on about it saying it meant a great deal to him. At this time Monica was often given lifts home by Monia Young and his wife Nathalie as they lived near her parents so she asked if they knew Emanuel Yurowski and Monia said ‘that’s me’! As a surprise for her step-father, she and her mother arranged for Monia and Nathalie to come to tea, the pretext being that it was to thank them for giving her lifts home. When they came in it gave Monica great pleasure to introduce Emanuel Yurovski to her father!

Monica will decide later what to do with the future but does want to discover the UK. She’s been to Scotland twice, but really longs to go to Wales and has friends in various parts of the country. When there’s time she loves programmes like Coast on TV. She recalled going with a friend to Sark for her 50th birthday and it was very beautiful and they spent a wonderful three days there. Her first ever holiday in the UK was on the Isle of Wight where they had 10 out of 12 days of rain but it was a most wonderful place. Her maternal grandmother had been born in England but always talked about her joy at leaving it and her love of South Africa and despaired of her family coming to live here. Monica remembers clearly their arrival at Southampton on Friday 13 July 1956. They travelled to London by train but her memory was of so many chimneys and knowing that she’d never want to leave. She still feels that way. It’s now 30 years since she’s visited South Africa and has no desire to return.

So, on her first morning of retirement Monica doesn’t know if she’ll cry or sit up and think ‘what’s next?’ but probably the latter. It’ll be a challenge as every day of her life so far has been organised by somebody else or by circumstances and it will be scarey to have no structure, so she expects that some days she’ll feel at a loss and others she’ll be delighted with the challenge.

David mentioned that one of our last guests was the young South African, Camille Bracher, and encouraged members to come to meetings when the younger dancers were talking as they were very interesting. Monica said that when Camille joined the company she asked where she came from in Johannesburg and discovered it was three streets away from where she was born!

In thanking Monica very much for being our guest David said it was always a pleasure to have her with us and her support for the Ballet Association and attendance at the dinners over so many years was amazing and much appreciated. The packed audience tonight was testimony to that.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Monica Mason and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2011


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