With Rudolf Nureyev in Hamlet, 1964
Monday, 30 November -0001

Pointe to Pointe

She joined the Royal Ballet as an ingénue and ended up as its artistic director. Now, 54 years later, Dame Monica Mason’s career is the subject of a magical exhibition. Gillian Spickernell reports

The Royal Opera House; The Royal Ballet; Dame Monica Mason: three illustrious names in the arts world that are inseparable. This is the final year of Dame Monica’s amazing 54-year career with The Royal Ballet, which began when she entered the corps de ballet as a 16-year-old fledgling dancer and ends at the end of this season after 10 years as director of the entire ballet.

To celebrate this extraordinary achievement, The Royal Opera House has mounted an exhibition of costumes, photographs and memorabilia recording the full span of her career. A real treat is the chance to see some material belonging to Mason herself, who made sure to take her camera on tour, resulting in some wonderful images of the company overseas during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

The exhibition also features scrapbooks lovingly compiled by her proud mother, which perfectly capture the beauty of ballet and the Royal Opera House during the heady 1950s and 1960s.

The earliest costume is for one of the six princesses in Act III of Le Lac Des Cygnes (Swan Lake) designed by the legendary Leslie Hurry (shown above), which Mason wore for five months when she first joined in 1958. How have things changed since, I ask when we meet. ‘Little by little,’ she explains, pointing to the evolution of the female dancers’ costumes from the time they were corseted with whalebone and could barely lift their legs, through to ground-breaking fabric Lycra, in the 1970s, which displayed the contours of the body. Today you’ll even see dancers in tiny vest tops and pants.

Dame Monica working on Song Of The Earth, 2007Dame Monica working on Song Of The Earth, 2007

When she joined The Royal Ballet, its founder, Dame Ninette de Valois, was in charge, followed by Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Anthony Dowell among others. Mason has also danced with many of the greats, including Fonteyn and Nureyev.

She learnt the role of the Russian fairytale The Firebird from Fonteyn, who herself had learnt it from the ballerina Karsavina, upon whom the work was created. That’s just three people leading straight back to 1910.

It’s powerful stuff. But Dame Monica is not a person to be overawed by the past. ‘I was 60 when I became director and it would have been very easy to look backwards because of the wealth of repertoire,’ she says. But she realised the art form needed to keep reinventing itself and appointed the man who today gives us pop music and tiny vest tops – Wayne McGregor – as resident choreographer.

Mason herself loved dancing dramatic roles, such as sultry siren Clytemnestra in Electra or Gertrude in Hamlet (there’s a terrific photo of her in 1964 as Gertrude, and Nureyev as Hamlet. Eyes lowered, lashes long, there’s a touch of the Hollywood starlet Joan Crawford about her). Two years earlier, she had danced the role of the sacrificial Chosen Maiden in MacMillan’s The Rite Of Spring, set to Stravinksy’s savage, frightening score.

Left: Monica with Alexander Grant and Georgina Parkinson in La Traviata, 1964 Right: Costume designed by Leslie Hurry for one of the dancers in Le Lac Des CygnesLeft: Monica with Alexander Grant and Georgina Parkinson in La Traviata, 1964 Right: Costume designed by Leslie Hurry for one of the dancers in Le Lac Des Cygnes

At 70 years old, she still cuts an impressive figure. Composed and elegant, she obviously thrives on the pressure of being responsible for the hopes and aspirations of some 90-plus dancers, not to mention choreographers, designers, musical staff and wardrobe. With up to 135 shows per year, touring abroad and planning dance programmes up to three years ahead on a stage shared with The Royal Opera, which plans six years ahead, how does she do it?

‘Being a director is a bit like being a slave, but a slave to a thing you love so much – a very adoring slave,’ she answers modestly.

After more than a half a century attached to her work, it seems impossible that she will sit back and relax when she retires, so it’s not surprising to discover that she has agreed to go back four times next season to stage various ballets and visit Monte Carlo to mount MacMillan’s showpiece, Manon.

She will also dedicate much of her time to helping dancers who have fallen on hard times, in her role as committee member of the Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund. It’s her way of saying thank you.

All those years ago, in 1958, when she left her home town of Johannesburg to join the Royal Ballet, 16-year-old Monica Mason could have had no idea of the glittering future that lay ahead of her. There can be no doubt that she has left on a high note.

‘The more fabulous ingredients you can incorporate, the more wonderful will be the end product,’ she says. And as the line-up for the forthcoming season suggests, this will be her legacy.


Monica Mason: A Life With The Royal Ballet

This exhibition at the Royal Opera House runs until 17 July 2012. To book a ticket on a guided tour of the exhibition (most days at 11am): 020-7304 4000, www.roh.org.uk

For enquiries, donations or application forms to the Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund, please contact Clementine Cowl on 01273-626547, www.rbbf.org.uk or info@rbbf.org.uk

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