Dame Monica Mason 2020
Dame Monica Mason
Former Director of the Royal Ballet, President of the Ballet Association
Interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, January 29 2020
After welcoming Monica, David began by reminding her that when she last came to speak to us, she said in her retirement she was looking forward to discovering different parts of Britain. In reply, Monica said she’d failed utterly in this, but the one place she was particularly keen to visit (and still hopes to do so) was Wales. What she really meant was she wasn’t at all keen on packing another suitcase and going to an airport, so taking a train appealed. In the end she’s discovered the pleasure of leaving the suitcase in a cupboard. She’s packed and unpacked for about 50 years and after going on tour almost every year, much as she’d enjoyed it, she’s not missed any of the packing and unpacking. She loves walking around discovering London, the joys of going to the Tate Galleries, and having time to look at exhibitions. There’s nothing like walking, getting lost and finding your way again. She uses an A-Z rather than technology where her talent isn’t up to much. She owns a mobile and does emails so does manage to communicate and if there’s a problem she can always pop into the Opera House for help!
Otherwise the thing Monica’s had to learn most about is being Chairman of the Dance Professionals Fund (DPF), a new title for the former Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund when it merged in 2016 with the Dance Teachers’ Benevolent Fund. She’s been discovering what the charity consists of, learning about the welfare aspect of it, finding out how many ways there are of helping dancers who have fallen on hard times for whatever reason, and also appreciating other charities involved with helping dancers. It’s very interesting trying to get the message out, recreating everything for the new organisation, and even now when she meets someone who might benefit and asks if they’ve thought of contacting the DPF they say no, what’s that? So, it’s about trying to reach people who need you. Also, recently Monica became a Trustee of “Acting for Others” (A4O), an umbrella organisation covering 14 different theatrical charities, involved in fund-raising on behalf of those charities. You have to have a particular need to access their help. For instance, an in-depth enquiry into injuries was conducted with the help of One Dance UK, and A4O were able to give £10,000 towards it. At one time A4O held the West End Bake Off in a little Soho church. Then problems arose with selling cakes when you couldn’t guarantee their origins (!) so it was replaced by a flea market. The market had its debut on 18 May 2019 in the grounds of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, and 6,000 people turned up, proving the power of social media. They had no idea how it would go but Monica fancied wearing an apron and selling things so asked Alex Beard if she could have an ROH stall. He agreed, and she went around the various departments in the Opera House asking for donations. Knowing Anthony, head of Props Department, very well for many years (they’d had endless discussions on how to stop the flowers falling off the garlands in Sleeping Beauty!), she asked him for something to make the stall look fabulous so he devised a huge blow up of a photo of the Opera House from the audience perspective for the front of the stall which Monica actually sold at the end. Anthony also provided a big horse’s head skull, one of two used in the Valkyrie. Quite early on, on sale day, a woman who was a neighbouring stall holder came along and said she really wanted it. Monica asked for £25 but when the woman said she’d make a decision and come back later Monica said she couldn’t hold on to it as others might want it. At the end of the sale the woman returned only to find it gone, and then said she’d have given £45 for it! A4O are holding another sale on 16 May this year for two hours from 11 to 1pm making use of lessons learned from last year.
Monica is also Patron of Dansox (Dance Scholarship Oxford), a society founded by a friend of Jeanetta Laurence, Dr Sue Jones, now a Professor at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, to provide dialogue between academic disciplines and the worlds of dance. A former dancer with Northern Ballet, Sue decided to go back to study, went to Oxford and took an English degree. While she was still Director, Monica had met Sue through Jeanetta and in the course of a conversation mentioned that it was unfortunate that neither Oxford nor Cambridge had big screens and in those seats of academic learning this was a big lack. Sue agreed, went away and thought about it and then formed a society at St Hilda’s, which has a studio theatre in the name of Jacqueline du Pré, and has devised programmes at weekends and evenings of music, demonstrations, interviews and workshops and it’s made a real impact in Oxford. Monica finds it very worthwhile so goes up to help in any way she can. They once held a splendid MacMillan weekend with lectures and films which Deborah MacMillan was very generous in supporting. They also held an evening with four hands on the piano playing Rite of Spring and Monica giving a talk about it (no balletic demonstrations) and now she’s been made an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s. Another Honorary Fellowship has come from King’s College, London, which she came to through Deborah Bull. Monica has only been involved in one thing so far and that was when Shobana Jeyasingh was doing research into movements linked to improvisation and robots. It was an amazing one-off evening.
Monica’s still involved with the Cecchetti Society, the Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet School and has been to Elmhurst for rehearsals for a performance next week of excerpts from Checkmate. Monica enjoyed digging deep into her memories of it. Checkmate was one of her first big opportunities as a 19 year old corps dancer. Company management were alarmed as a performance was due to happen and Beryl Grey was in China but Ninette de Valois decided Monica should learn the Black Queen which she did in three days. Of course, she was so excited, but completely terrified. She danced with David Blair as the Red Knight and Robert Helpman who was the Red King. Her only experience of the work was as a black pawn but she knew nothing about chess and did a full call after being taught by Ninette’s wonderful assistant. David said not to worry, he would cue her through the pas de deux which is just what happened. Ninette said Monica should be ready on stage at 7pm on the day of performance and she would come down and place the whole ballet since placing was crucial. Monica was ready early but no sign of Madam until 7.25 when she arrived having been delayed at a Board meeting by which time Monica had sort of placed it herself and gone through the pas de deux with David. Madam simply said ‘you are going to be fine, pretend you are a cat’! Monica had seen Beryl in the role and felt she had to be an incredibly powerful woman, devious, malicious, intent on killing but to be a cat seemed totally opposite. Unfortunately, it happened to be Press night and one critic, whom Monica came to know later on, said it was quite an interesting debut by someone who clearly had no idea what she was meant to be doing! When her mother questioned her about this, Monica said he was absolutely right! Years later when Monica was in her 30s, it came back into the rep under Kenneth’s directorship and Madam came to rehearse it which provided a wonderful 90 minutes in Baron’s Court. Afterwards Madam said ‘I have really enjoyed today, you’ve worked well and I’m looking forward to the performance’ to which Monica replied that she’d waited 14 years for that rehearsal!
David Bain referred to the photo of Monica with Rudolf Nureyev in Robert Helpman’s Hamlet on her ROH CV. Monica said she’d wanted to bring the ballet back during her directorship but the quote for sets and costumes was an extraordinary £100,000. If it came back for only five or six shows and no-one else wanted it and it wasn’t seen again, she felt unable to justify the outlay which would have paid for a couple of new works. Monica genuinely feels that one of the very powerful influences on her career was Robert Helpman who was very much around when she first joined the Company. He came and went, but was always there for the Ugly Sisters, and the Red King, and he put on Hamlet and Elektra. There was something about his theatricality, encouragement, and educating and informing you. He knew so much, but was very warm, caring and clever. He chose her to play Gertrude even though she was slightly younger than Rudolf as Hamlet but age wasn’t important to him, it was about what he could get from you and making you understand what he was after, and he spoke to you as an equal even though you didn’t feel his equal, and Monica just adored him. She remembered the shock when she first came onto the stage with the sets up for Elektra. The Australian designer Arthur Boyd had done some really rude drawings on the wings and Monica was shocked when she saw them. While rehearsing the pas de deux with Derek Rencher, Bobby asked if her mother was coming to the performance because for its time it was extremely sexy and erotic but Monica decided to tell her nothing of what was going on! At one point she had to come on from the wings with a wonderful cloak which should have swirled beautifully around her when she cast it off, but it simply wouldn’t work. Bobby said don’t force it, let the air get underneath it, but it always landed in a lump. He just said “keep trying, you’ll get it”. He never belittled you and yet he had a wicked tongue and said outrageous things but for Monica he was so helpful with directions about inclining the face to the audience, the use of the eyes, the importance of stillness. They seemed basic but were essential, wonderful things. Bobby would be acting in the theatre one night and in the ballet the next, something which probably wouldn’t happen now. Monica said she thought he’d have adored Adam Cooper whom she’d recently seen in The Red Shoes, conducted by Ben Pope whom she recalled as being one of the young conductors she’d helped and advised through Manon, and it was wonderful to see where his career has taken him so successfully with New Adventures. Monica surprised Adam by meeting him at the Stage Door and they had a lovely chat. She was very taken with his performance and reflected that Bobby would have loved Adam. It was such an intelligent performance, so carefully judged and it’s good to see him having learned so much from his involvement in the big dramatic roles at the Royal.
Monica’s relationship with the RAD. When she was four in Johannesburg, she began taking ballet classes once a week with a wonderful teacher, Miss Sutton, who gave lessons in a girls’ school where she had to clear away desks and chairs from a class room with a slippery parqué floor. She took Grade 1 RAD when she was six and passed. Then Miss Sutton retired and Monica was devastated. She didn’t want to do class with anybody else, preferring to do extra tennis, swimming and gym. But after a couple of years she missed dancing so her Mum set about finding the right teacher who didn’t shout, by sitting in on ballet classes to ‘audition’ the teachers. Finally, she found Ruth Inglestone who was in her early 20s, was sweet with a gentle voice but so strict and Monica stayed with her until she was 14 when she came to the UK. She taught the Cecchetti method so that’s when she switched but Monica didn’t notice much difference. Once in England at the Royal Ballet School she was approached by Winifred Evans who’d taught at White Lodge and was a member of the RAD. She said she sometimes put together demonstrations for RBS students for the RAD and would Monica join her little group. Monica replied that she was Cecchetti, not RAD to which Winifred replied ‘well, that won’t work’. Once in the Company Monica studied with her from age 20-30 having a weekly private lesson. She’s now come full circle and is Patron of the Cecchetti Society and a Vice-President of RAD. Along with Darcey Bussell they’re heading up the appeals committee for 100 years of the existence of the RAD involving fund-raising for their new building. They’ve a big job on hand but it’s rather fun too. Darcey was a Cecchetti girl and some of the other RAD people were also Cecchetti trained. There shouldn’t be a dividing line – there is only good ballet or bad ballet.
Working with the Royal Ballet School. Monica said she began working there while still dancing. The then director, Merle Park, invited principal dancers to coach. Recently Monica was talking to the critic Deborah Weiss who had been a student at RBS with Fiona Chadwick and Bryony Brind and who had wonderful elevation and could jump like a man! Monica recalled an occasion when they were doing fairies from the Sleeping Beauty prologue. It was towards the end of her career and she was dancing the Lilac Fairy, a role for which she didn’t think she was particularly suited though it was a wonderful challenge. It was quite terrifying to walk on to do the variation and look at the ladies of the court sitting on the side, knowing they were the girls she’d been teaching that morning and felt they were saying ‘OK, now show us!’. Her teaching role went on and off for years. The most recent thing was mounting Les Sylphides for the school performance, a very special ballet for Monica who’d been involved in it when she very first joined the Company in the 1950s. Then they had two Russians from the Diaghilev company to rehearse them, Serge Grigoriev and his wife Lubov Tchernicheva, who were very special. For Monica it was an introduction to a whole other world. She had just left the school and knew so little but they were completely wonderful and would say things like ‘ no, no, Mr Fokine liked it like this’ and it was amazing to think they actually knew him. Tchernicheva always talked about the atmosphere, the moonlight, ‘you know how beautiful it is to dance when the moonlight is on your skin’ though Monica didn’t think she did know! She also talked about the princesses in Firebird and ‘the angle of the head, and the moonlight on cheek’. With the students she was starting from scratch for Sylphides. They’d never seen the ballet and knew nothing about it or the music. She had to explain about the Romantic period brought into the 20th century. Fokine’s influence from Isadora Duncan, the freedom of dance, a classical ballet though not like Sleeping Beauty. You could see them puzzling, but without talking too much you had to try to make them understand about the quality and little by little it came to them. Anita Young was there to help and Monica reflected that this was exactly how she was when Tchernicheva was talking about the moonlight. The first performances were in Holland Park just with piano. The reluctant rehearsal pianist was persuaded to play for the performances (Monica really didn’t want to do it to a recording) though in the Opera House they had the orchestra. It was a real journey. You get to know so many of the students who are now in the Company. It is a very rewarding aspect being connected with the Company and the School. For Monica it’s been a wonderful life and remains so special to try to help people and inject them with the poison of passion for the art form. She relishes going back to watch and to say something helpful when the moment’s appropriate.
Monica is involved with the Genée, the international competition for the RAD, and was invited to Antwerp four years ago. She also did a major international Cecchetti competition in Florence where she thought she would die in temperatures of 40 degrees but recalled a lot of little people still so eager to dance. When competitions are well structured and supported, and well run, the children are not just exposed to nerves and terror but are well coached, they come away with a good experience to help in their future studies. The Youth America Grand Prix is run by an amazing woman who was on the same panel as Monica in Florence. Monica used not to like competitions but has changed her mind. It’s a very competitive world and when run properly they can provide positive outcomes.
When she was Director, students joined from the Prix de Lausanne. Monica said it’s interesting integrating someone from a completely different background. There’s value in having outsiders and the company has become more international as it’s grown. The Aud Jebsen apprentice scheme is brilliant, and with it, Kevin has landed gold. There used to be such a battle in the School because Company dancers’ contracts simply ran on, they’re not contracted from year to year, and dancers could give notice if they wanted to leave but not vice versa. You love them all but every dancer has to come to the end at some point. People have to leave but you must do it in a caring and supportive way. When you didn’t know when or if people were leaving you didn’t know how many dancers you had as you were restricted to certain numbers and there’s only so much money for salaries. You might want to take four students but can only afford one so you lose three. It drove Monica crazy but there was no way out of it. She acknowledged that the School was trying to find jobs for the students and people have to audition wherever they can in order to become professionals but the Royal Ballet was losing out. Anthony Russell Roberts was Administrative Director and would bend over backwards to try to help – sometimes she thought he must keep an extra £1000 in a drawer! Then Kevin took over and it was Aud Jebsen who offered her services for the apprenticeship scheme. Kevin can now go into the School in November to watch the graduate year and say he has his eye on six people. They don’t need to audition elsewhere, Chris Powney is aware and he can then help the rest of the graduate year. It enables Kevin to have six for a year with no financial pressure. Monica said she wanted to burst into tears when she’d had an eye on one boy she really wanted but a director came and took him off abroad. He’s had a wonderful career which is great but he would have been a big asset to the company, especially at that time.
Monica wanted to talk about someone from the past who’s no longer with us. Sometimes people die and get forgotten but David Drew was someone who was with her all through her career. They formed a very close friendship and were very best friends. On a flight to New York Gerd Larsen was sitting behind her and David and went to sleep but when she woke up, she said she couldn’t believe the two of them had been talking for seven hours which was true - they were always putting the world to rights. David was an inspiration. He first talked about the need for professionals to go into ordinary schools to encourage dance education. He was on a mission and it worked. Daryl Jaffrey was instrumental in getting dance education off the ground but David sowed the seed as he did with so many things. He and Norman Morris ran the choreographic workshops and David kept an eye on young people and worked hard to find scenarios, composers, designers for them. Jonathan Watkins and Cathy Marston and probably Liam Scarlett were some who took his lessons to heart and everyone was influenced by them. David had been with Joan, Shane and Sylvia at the start of the Ballet Association. Monica recalled Ninette saying you should always value your audience and you could never dismiss anything she said. If she could see the Company and School now and how dance in this country has developed, she would be absolutely astonished. Both she and Marie Rambert began with so little money and so few dancers.
David Bain recalled meeting Monica just before Wayne McGregor made Chroma and she was so excited that he was bringing something very different to the Company. Her reason for being confident about taking him in (some people thought she was nuts!) was because of her earliest experience in Johannesburg of a wonderful choreographer, Frank Staff, who had worked with Rambert and Sadler’s Wells. He came back to Jo’burg and made a small company which Monica, aged 12, joined. He put on L’apres-midi d’un Faun in which he danced the faun and Monica was a nymph. He was remarkable as he knew everything about the theatre and Monica wanted to learn. He chose wonderful music and took dramatic themes. It was the start of thinking of dance being more than just classical ballet. Nijinska’s Les Noces is a masterpiece and has nothing to do with turnout or tutus. After Fred and Kenneth died, Monica wanted a creative spirit in their midst and felt Wayne was the person. When she saw how he talked to young dancers and how he worked she realised it would be quite a stretch for Royal Ballet audiences to understand why the Royal Ballet was doing this but it was because of his creative force. He’s a fascinating person, and Kevin also values him enormously. What he did with Virginia Woolf was absolutely intriguing and fascinating though not everybody’s cup of tea. Alessandra Ferri’s performance was sublime, extraordinary. For younger members to have her working with them in the studio with her dedication and commitment and passionate love for what she does rubs off and it’s so important for young dancers to have role models. It’s like magic dust being scattered about.
Questions: is it right that Kenneth discovered her dancing at a party in New York and picked her for Rite of Spring? Monica said it was true, she was a mad dancer at parties. On that occasion she saw Kenneth sitting on the side watching and she went a bit over the top. He had an astonishing way of sitting still and observing people. He was perhaps thinking of what he was creating at the time or was just fascinated by what made people tick and he must have seen something in her. It was wonderful when they started to create the last five-minute solo of Rite, Monica had half an hour of class and then worked with him in the practise room with the pianist Donald Twiner who had worked out the counts. It was made in a week or 10 days. Monica wasn’t afraid of Kenneth and he only got angry if people didn’t apply themselves. He loved his dancers if they worked hard for him. At the time Monica was 20 and Kenneth 32 and it was an extraordinary experience which meant a lot to Monica. Ritewas in and out of the rep for 20 years and, although she did it differently, Monica still managed to dance it at the age of 40 so it will always mean a great deal to her.
Question: regarding leg height in the Rose Adage. Over the last 24 performances of Sleeping BeautyMonica has tried to get the ballerinas to keep their legs lower. Christopher Newton and Monica made this production in 2006 to celebrate the Royal Ballet’s 60th anniversary and wanted to go back to the Oliver Messel designs and to the 1946 production but didn’t want to make them dance as they did then. Dance has developed and technique has changed hugely, so you strike a balance and legs go higher but sometimes too high. Some dancers now find it more tiring to hold the leg at a lower level. It’s particularly hard for them in the Rose Adage when being partnered by the Princes and the back leg is in attitude. In the 40s and 50s the attitude was quite low, not even hip level. It’s the same with the fairies in the Prologue and it’s not attractive in a tutu.
What challenges does the next decade offer her successor? Kevin is probably as concerned as every director is to balance the rep, to give chances to dancers, to drive forward and nurture talent, develop choreography and have as many successful new works in the rep as possible. As the company has grown, so has the rep, and there are so many ballets, wonderful pieces they’d love to resurrect, but the larger the rep the more ballets will get left behind. There are some members of the audience who remember wonderful works going back to the 40s and 50s which those who came to love dance more recently know nothing about. Balancing the rep, developing the dancers and having a healthy company with wonderful creativity and great music is what anyone would aspire to.
David thanked Monica very much for being our guest and also for being a very good friend to the Ballet Association. It’s a shock that she’s not been back to talk to us since she retired. In reply Monica said that she was thrilled to know that the BA continues in a healthy state, its support was much valued by the dancers and offered thanks on behalf of them all.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Dame Monica Mason and David Bain
© The Ballet Association 2020