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Interview with Monica
Mason - Director of the Royal Ballet

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.

A highly praised interpreter of the leading roles in MacMillan's “Song of the Earth”, Nijinska's “Les Noces” and Nureyev's “Kingdom of the Shades” scene from “La Bayadère”, she was in the first performances by The Royal Ballet of Hans van Manen's “Adagio Hammerklavier”, Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” and “In the Night”, Balanchine's “Liebeslieder Walzer” and Tudor's “Dark Elegies”. She also performed many other lead roles from the repertoire.

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 Ballet.

In July 1996, under the auspices of Roehampton Institute London, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Surrey. She was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2002 New Year Honours List.

Jurate Terleckaite: In what way does your personality influence your choice of repertoire?

Monica Mason:  I don’t know that it is my personality so much. Rather, it is my experience of being with the company for 45 years that influences my choices. I suppose the selection of dancers is influenced by me, because it is my decision who comes to the company. But these decisions are also very much based on the rest of the staff as we share a lot of opinions here. I don’t try to run the company in an autocratic way and I like having a very close team of people around me whom I can trust and whose views I value. So, I suppose in the repertoire choices and dancers, at the end it isn’t just me, but there is a combination of so many aspects of one’s experience and understanding of the company.

You have great responsibility - where does your strength come from?

There is again a combination of both those things: the experience of knowing the past history of the company and having ideas of how you want the company to look into the future, bearing in mind that it is an international company and that very high standards are expected of it by the public, the people who work here and the organization. It is a major ballet company, so, it is always trying to be among the best in the world, which is a huge responsibility. Again, it is coming back to a balance between experience and also using the strength of all the staff and their experience with the dancers.

You trained at the Royal Ballet School…

I trained initially in Johannesburg, South Africa until I was 14 and then I came to England and spent a year in a private school to finish my education and also to dance a little. I took one major examination and after that I joined the Royal Ballet School, but just for one year.

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.

The world has changed a little now and what I also try to do now is to give a sense that the dancers are here not just for the company, but also that they are here for themselves. I appreciate how short a career can be and also if dancers come from many different countries and they had their training in other organizations, their view of the Royal Ballet is different. I think that for the English dancers who trained in the Royal Ballet School and their only experience is the Royal Ballet, they have a different understanding of company, but I feel that all the dancers who choose to audition for this company who want to be a part of this organization want to be an integral part of this company - they want the experience of being a member of a Royal Ballet Company and to discover what it is that makes this company special.

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.

Natalia 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?

Well, 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.

Now, of course, to some extend there is big problem around the world because there have never been more ballet companies than there are now. In addition, there have never been so many dancers and the training has got better, as a general rule around the world and you have people desperately hungry for new work. And there are very few people who could even imagine making a full-length ballet and that is a problem. One act ballet is not such a problem, but I think that young choreographers of today are all working very hard in a completely different environment and we have just to wait and see. There is no way that you can instantly produce another Balanchine, Ashton or MacMillan; you can’t clone them, it doesn’t happen like that.

I think that it is important that we respect the traditions and we value and make good use of the work that has been done in the past. It is wonderful that so much of the work has been notated and we have use video to record some of it. But some of the most exciting work for a dancer is when you are creating a new ballet; when something has been made on you. Dancers need to experience that act of creation, because it teaches them so much about their art form and makes them appreciate the works from the past too.

There are ballet companies that would not accept modern dance choreographers. What is your vision, as there so many modern dance choreographers making new works?

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.


Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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