by Jurate Terleckaite
Born in Johannesburg,
South Africa, Monica Mason came to England at the age of 14, training
at the Nesta Brooking School of Ballet and the Royal Ballet School. She
joined The Royal Ballet in 1958 when she was only 16, the youngest member
of the Company at that time. After a brief period in the corps de ballet,
she was selected by Kenneth MacMillan to create the demanding role of
the Chosen Maiden in “The Rite of Spring”, which was premiered in 1962.
One year later she was appointed Soloist and became a Principal in 1968.
In 1980 Monica Mason
was appointed Répétiteur to Kenneth MacMillan followed in 1984 by her
appointment as Principal Répétiteur to The Royal Ballet. In January 1991,
after a four year period of assisting Anthony Dowell, she became Assistant
Director. In December 2002, she was appointed the Director of The Royal
In what way does
your personality influence your choice of repertoire?
You have great
responsibility - where does your strength come from?
You trained at
the Royal Ballet School…
You danced at the Royal Ballet and then worked as an assistant to the choreographer MacMillan. So you spent your whole life in the Royal Ballet. Would you have liked to work in other company or companies?
I never really wanted
to be anywhere else except the Royal Ballet because I felt that I was
with the best people in the world. And I have had an opportunity from
my earlier days to work with Ninette De Valois and Robert Helpmann, John
Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan, Frederic Ashton and all the great people who
also visited: George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Bronislava Nijinska.
What would be the reason to go anywhere else? Nowhere else in the world
did companies have that range of great choreographers. So, I considered
myself extremely privileged, honored and very lucky to be here. I always
feel that the traditions of the company and its repertoire is the backbone
of the organization. And the sense that the dancers were here to serve
that ideal and that it was how I was brought up to feel.
How do you choose the dancers? Are you looking for personalities or rather technical dancers?
You look for what you need. You see where the weaknesses are and, of course, companies are always in a state of flux; nothing is ever permanent and people leave, people retire, have babies. Then something can happen, perhaps within the girl soloists or the men and suddenly you think that it is not as strong as it was two years ago. When I am looking for dancers, I try to promote from within the company to see if you can strengthen an area and if you can’t, then from the people that come to audition you try to select people who you feel will fill that particular void. Also they have to be people who you feel are going to adjust well to a very big company. I am very interested in understanding a little about them. I want people who can perhaps leave some of their history of other companies behind them and be able to immerse themselves in the traditions of the Royal Ballet. So, it’s many things, personality, technique, all sorts of things.
Your dancers are from all over the world and from different dance schools. In Lithuania, for example, all the professional dancers receive Vaganova training. So, it is easy to have one sort of one line. How do you manage?
Some people say that there is only good ballet and bad ballet. Of course, the styles are different, but if the dancers are talented, they can adapt their styles. You can’t necessarily make changes with the principal dancers, because they are already established: who they are and how they work. But if people join at eighteen, you can influence how they are. I don’t choose someone whose style is radically different. I only choose people who, I feel, can really work for the benefit of the Royal Ballet. Little differences in style are not a problem; if it is major, I wouldn’t take them.
Well, can one say that your company is of an English ballet style?
I don’t know, because there is no such a style as English. English has always been a tremendous mixture and when Ninette de Valois started the Company, she and her teachers were hugely influenced by the Russian, Italian, French and Danish schools and made a kind of soup from all of those influences. Out of that Frederick Ashton required a particular style of dancer, but that didn’t mean that there were only those kinds of dancers in the company. I myself was not a typical Ashton dancer and he didn’t choose me very often to be in his ballets because of this; I was tall and he preferred to use smaller dancers. I did dance in some of his ballets, but wasn’t really his first choice. So, I understand the division between that smaller dancer who is able to be very typically Ashton and somebody like myself that was much more Kenneth MacMillan’s dancer. And there is a very distinctive difference there. There were very few dancers in the Company who actually could dance right across the MacMillan and Ashton repertoire. Some could and some did it brilliantly, but I think that the English style is a mix of so many things and it is very distinct from what is required for Ashton or MacMillan. And for the classics, there is a kind of look that we have for the Royal Ballet, but that’s something that you can rehearse, teach and it is taught in our classes and it is there in our rehearsals. And people can adapt - dancers are very adaptable people.
Makarova rehearsing the Royal Ballet's Alina Cojocaru
We, Lithuanian dance critics, are anxious about the situation of choreographers in the U.K., as MacMillan, Tudor, Ashton, Cranko are not around any more. Can we say that there is a choreographers’ crisis? Modern dance makers Russell Maliphant and Wayne McGregor have made pieces for the Royal Ballet. Could you comment on this?
when great people pass on, there is a huge gap. In the history of the
Royal Ballet, which is not even 75 years yet, we were incredibly blessed
until MacMillan’s death in 1992. Ashton, MacMillan, Tudor and Cranko too,
these people were working with the Company on a permanent basis. So, we
built up this extraordinary repertoire from these people. But at the same
time we didn’t rely only on these people because we wanted ballets from
the past to come in, including the Diaghilev
period. De Valois and Ashton were so brilliant and in those early
days they built up this extraordinary foundation for the Company. And
then later on with MacMillan bringing Jerome Robbins, more George Balanchine
and Glen Tetley: an extraordinarily, rich repertoire.
Again the influences that Diaghilev made on De Valois, in the brief time that she was in his Company in the 1920’s, influenced how she worked and continue to influence us today because of what she saw in the Company. When Vaslav Nijinsky made “L ’ apr ès midi d’un faune“, the dancers walked across the stage with their feet in parallel, it was a contemporary dance of the time. Nijinska too was making the ballet “Les Noces“ extraordinary differently from the rest of the repertoire of the time. “Les Noces“ is unique and a great great work. But equally she made other ballets, she ran her own company later on, she was great teacher. Her ballet “Les Biches“ was neoclassical at that time, it is again a great piece in our repertoire, incredibly demanding, but again at the time it was more like a contemporary dance. In Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring“ and a ballet like “Jeux“ they were experimenting with a completely different way of moving, totally ignoring the 19 th century classics. And this is what we have grown up with and the current situation is also a blend of these things.
A lot of modern choreographers aren’t remotely interested in working with classical ballet companies. For those who are, I think it is a great advantage for the dancers of today, who have the skill and technique, wonderful physiques and the imagination and the desire to be involved with young choreographers eager to experiment with their vision of movement, but using the classical technique as the base. I think all the modern choreographers who want to do that feel priviliged to have such beautiful dancers to work with and they consider it a great honour to be invited to work with a company like this and to have the opportunity to present their work in a big space here in the Opera House.
How would you see the Royal Ballet Company in 3 or 4 years ?
Not radically different. I think one must make progress, one is always striving to reinvent certain productions, in some cases to redesign ballets, in some cases you go back to the original designs of a ballet. It is an absolute blend in every aspect that is involved with directing a Company. And there are hundreds of things that one is looking at. You always want to improve your dancers, to make them feel valued and to offer to all these young people the opportunities to develop their talents to the utmost.
How would you see classical dance generally in five years or so?
I believe absolutely in classical ballet. The 19 th century classics, with the tremendous demands of discipline that they make, are still valued by dancers and I’m sure that these classical ballets will survive - they will continue to be great works and just as great as pieces of classical music. But on the other hand I think that it is inevitable that people want to experiment with everything. So, overall, I believe in classical ballet and its future and I still think that choreographers are excited to work on point and thus I am very optimistic about the future.
And the traditional question: what would you wish for your dancers ?
For my dancers I wish them satisfying and rewarding careers, I always wish for dancers healthy bodies and as few injuries as possible and I wish for them the joy of dancing.
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.
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