Insight evening: In conversation with Monica Mason, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 11th June
Dame Monica Mason, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, was interviewed last week in advance of her retirement at the end of this season. Mason has worked with the Royal Ballet for 54 years, joining the corps de ballet aged just 16 and progressing to principal in 1968. Following her career as a dancer, she became répétiteur, assistant director and finally director in 2002. She is the only person who has worked with every previous director of the company, from Ninette de Valois to Ross Stretton, and has had a huge impact on the Royal Ballet’s repertoire and reputation during her ten year period in charge.
Mason was interviewed by TV presenter and gardener, Alan Tichmarsh, who although seemingly an unlikely choice, has been coming to see ballet for 40 years and is married to a dancer. He began by asking Mason why she hadn’t become a choreographer. “Because I have absolutely no talent!” Mason attempted to choreograph once during her training in South Africa; her teacher wasn’t impressed with her work and said she shouldn’t bother trying to choreograph again.
|Monica Mason with Rudolf Nureyev in Hamlet|
Photo: Donald Southern, courtesy of ROH Collections
What does Mason think makes a good teacher? It is the ability to communicate successfully and empathise with dancers as well as having strong background training and performing experience. She tried to teach her younger sister ballet as a child, but the little girl was unconvinced, asking Mason: “Who do you think you are? Miss Pavlova?”
Mason described her experience auditioning for the Royal Ballet School. It was on a Saturday at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and she was terribly worried she would get ill as her sister had measles. On the morning, she felt awful but went to the audition anyway and “danced like a dog”. She remembers nothing else until the Tuesday after when lying in bed with measles, her mum came and told her she hadn’t been accepted for the school. She insisted she would try again when she was better and at her second audition she was offered a place.
At the time, the school shared a building with the company. Students had to “turn into wallpaper” when company dancers went past. The first time Mason saw Margot Fonteyn in the corridor, she thought she would faint.
Titchmarsh asked, how early can you spot a star? “You can spot talent, but there aren’t any rules.” Physical attributes are important, as is co-ordination and musicality. The best dancers are those who are able to do it naturally and easily. A dancer’s life it tough so you also need to be driven, ambitious, selfish and prepared to sacrifice.
On her first day in the company, Mason was put into Ondine rehearsals with Frederick Ashton. “It was mind-blowing.” But as she progressed in the company, she was rarely selected to dance Ashton works. “He always chose other people. He liked lyrical dancers and I was not.” In his later years, Mason remembers visiting Ashton and he said that she was one of only two people who always sent him a Christmas card. “And a fat lot of good it’s done me!” was her response.
Mason then discussed her relationship with choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, who created a number of roles on her. “I owe him so much. Not only as a dancer but also later in being given the chance to assist him. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after I retired from dancing, and being his assistant répétiteur was the next step.”
Mason also worked with Rudolf Nureyev and describes his partnership with Fonteyn as having “a palpable electricity”. He was a wonderful teacher who “never gave up on you” but a challenging partner for pas de deux. “You had to balance yourself. He would tell you if he was expending extra energy holding you.” Mason remembers once performing a pirouette where Nureyev had to catch her. As she started to spin, he was looking out at the audience so she worried she wouldn’t get caught in time. On another occasion, Nureyev wasn’t happy with his shoes and spent ages putting on a new pair, missing his and Mason’s entrance. Other company members were looking at her and she felt anxious, not knowing what to do, but he loved creating such drama. It was always exhilarating to perform with him.
Mason was fascinated by how to improve the recovery of dancers with injuries. In 1972, she broke her foot while dancing the role of Queen of the Willis in Giselle. At that time, there was no one to help in getting back to fitness. Injured dancers were more or less sent away to get better with no support from the company and sometimes a six week time limit for recovery or the threat of losing their job. The first dancer Mason helped was Michael Corder, who had a knee injury in the 1960s. She used common sense and anatomy books as reference material. Corder has a knee replacement now, but Mason insists she isn’t responsible!
Mason became acting director of the Royal Ballet in 2001 after Ross Stretton left the company. She had been assistant director before and was used to a small office, but a member of the board told her she needed to move into the big director’s office now. Once there she thought, “I rather like it here!” In 2002, she was officially given the position, which she describes as “an enormous privilege and honour... it was astonishing.”
|Monica Mason rehearsing Ed Watson in The Rite of Spring|
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
What does Mason enjoy most about her role? Her first experience of seeing ballet was watching triple bills in South Africa, and she loves programming one-act works for the Royal Opera House. She uses a diverse range of music, designs and dance styles and particularly likes choreography that is accompanied by vocals, such as Song of the Earth. Mason is incredibly passionate about dance: “I love ballet. I just love it. I especially love going to see other companies perform because I’m not responsible for anything!” The hardest part of her job is giving dancers bad news, like telling them when it’s time to leave the company. She has also sometimes struggled with the tightness of the Royal Ballet’s budget.
Next season, Mason will continue working with the company under new director Kevin O’Hare, coaching dancers in Las Hermanas, Manon, Mayerling and The Firebird. What does she think the Royal Ballet needs to do in the next few years? “What will ballet become? I don’t know. We need the finest teachers to make great classical dancers. Ballet has to keep reinventing itself and go bravely into the future.”