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|About the Change|
Director, The Royal Ballet
interview by Kevin Ng
Ahead of the 2008 Asian tour Kevin Ng caught up with The Royal Ballet Director, Monica Mason, in an interview originally for the HK Economic Journal.
The Royal Ballet, one of the three greatest ballet companies in the world, will tour Hong Kong again in mid-July. It has been exactly 25 years since their last tour here in 1983. The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, where they will perform this time, has also hosted the most recent visit to Hong Kong by another of the top three companies when the Kirov Ballet performed there in 2002.
The Royal Ballet is now led by Monica Mason, a principal of the Company from 1968 to the 1980s. Mason has been created a Dame Commander for her services to dance in the latest Queen’s Birthday Honours List published in mid-June 2008, just before The Royal Ballet departed for Beijing, the first stop on its five-week Asian tour of China and Japan.
Several weeks before the announcement of this happy news I met Dame Monica in her office in the Royal Opera House. Her office, decorated in white, is spacious and airy. Mason particularly pointed out to me a Chinese painting on one side of the room which was given to her on the Royal Ballet’s last tour to Beijing.
Mason was greatly looking forward to the Company’s China tour. She is already very familiar with the National Ballet of China. “China is an emerging nation, a huge success story. In the year of the Olympic Games we do not really want to involve ourselves in any way politically. We like to take a Western art form and some very beautiful work to the Chinese audiences.”
Mason continued, “I am a huge admirer of Madam Zhao Ruheng and her success with the National Ballet of China. The last time I saw the company at Sadler’s Wells, I thought they were a magnificent troupe of dancers. And we look forward to their visit here to the Royal Opera House this summer. I shall be in the audience, because I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I think it’s wonderful what has been achieved. I knew Madam Dai Ailian (often fondly referred to as the mother of Chinese ballet) very well. She was a great woman and a great theatre person. And of course she had a huge respect for Dame Ninette de Valois and Dame Marie Rambert. I think Madam Dai paved the way for the National Ballet, and Madam Zhao is doing an absolutely brilliant job. She’s very talented and gifted. And so it’s a challenge for The Royal Ballet to be seen in China, because it’s a country which already has a very fine ballet company. So it’ll have to be vitally important that every performance we give in China is of the highest standard that we can produce.”
The Hong Kong tour will open on 17 July with Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1952 three-act ballet “Sylvia”, designed to display Dame Margot Fonteyn in her full glory, and revived by the Royal Ballet in 2004 to celebrate Ashton’s centenary. Mason also danced in this ballet. “We danced it as a one-act ballet in the 1960s, when I danced the leading role. It was a marathon because of course Ashton managed to cram everything from three acts into one act and made Sylvia a role with non-stop dancing. It’s a very demanding role. It has a lot of jumping, a very athletic first entrance, followed by a very lyrical solo. And so it challenges the ballerina enormously, because she has to call on all aspects of her technique.”
“Sylvia” has been reconstructed in its original three-act form by Christopher Newton, a former dancer and ballet master of the Company. Mason continued, “Newton danced in the ballet as a young man and watched performances. He has a wonderful memory. With the aid of snatches of film and costume and scenery designs, he has been able to reconstruct it. And it’s proved to be a very valuable addition to the repertoire because new full-length ballets are very hard to find. And so because it’s part of our repertoire, it’s wonderful to have it back again.”
Sir Kenneth MacMillan, the other great choreographer in the The Royal Ballet’s history, is represented by his 1974 ballet “Manon”, the second programme to be shown to Hong Kong audiences. Mason was also in the original cast, dancing Lescaut’s mistress. “It was a lovely role to do.” reminisced Mason. “I think ’Manon’ is a 20th century classic, along with MacMillan’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (which Hong Kong saw last time).” ‘Manon’ is now danced by over a dozen companies worldwide and is probably the most travelled work in the repertory of The Royal Ballet.
However Hong Kong audiences won’t see “The Sleeping Beauty” which was shown earlier in Beijing. This 2006 production is a reconstruction of Dame Ninette de Valois’ landmark production of 1946. So was it right after all to drop the previous production by Natalia Makarova? Mason explained, “I felt that this production was appropriate for the celebration of the 75th birthday of The Royal Ballet in 2006.”
The Company, looking stronger now than at any time since the late 1970s, has a glittering roster of world-famous stars, including Alina Cojocaru, Johan Kobborg, and Tamara Rojo. Darcey Bussell’s retirement last year has, according to Mason, “given Marianela Nunez more opportunites, Sarah Lamb, and increasingly Lauren Cuthbertson, who is an upcoming star of the company.”
© Sasha Gusov
I have been watching The Royal Ballet regularly since 1977. This past season’s repertory has been most stimulating. Last autumn, the Company’s premiere of Balanchine’s masterpiece “Jewels” was a hit, with long queues for returns almost every night. Earlier this year Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet, “Electric Counterpoint”, was fascinating. And in May the company revived Jerome Robbins’ masterpiece “Dances at a Gathering”, which had been absent from its repertory since the late 1970s. As Mason herself said, “It’s very important to give dancers the chance to dance as varied a repertoire as you can possibly give them.”
Needless to say diversity is good for the audiences too. Mason added, “There’s been in the last year probably more dance in London than there had been in the past – at the Sadler’s Wells, the Coliseum, Peacock Theatre. The audiences have more dance to see than they have ever had. It’s extraordinary.”
Next season a major highlight will be the revival of MacMillan’s 1981 ballet “Isadora”. Mason said, “It was sort of ground-breaking at the time, it was different. And I wanted to see if we can make it work by making it an hour-long piece.”
Mason is optimistic about the future of classical ballet despite what is widely perceived as a shortage of good classical choreographers. “I don’t think there is a shortage. I think there is some very interesting talent in The Royal Ballet. The future for classical ballet is very healthy. I just think that the demarcation line – which at one time was so firmly drawn between classical ballet and modern dance – has been increasingly blurred. I was absolutely thrilled with Kim Brandstrup’s new work “Rushes”. I thought it’s a beautiful piece, and I shall bring it back to the repertoire as soon as I can. I think that a blend of classical ballet and modern dance is where the future lies. The future for dance is extraordinary.”
The appointment last year of Wayne McGregor as The Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer reflects this view of Mason’s since McGregor has a modern dance background instead of ballet background. “He has no classical background but what he has is a tremendous artistic talent.” His ballet, “Chroma”, created for The Royal Ballet in 2006 was just shown in Beijing.
Mason’s contract as artistic director has been extended earlier this year for two more years, until 2012 - “the year of the London Olympics” as she reminded me. Mason has been widely praised as a safe pair of hands guiding the Company steadily back on course after a disastrous year under the previous director Ross Stretton. Mason was modest and didn’t want to answer my question as to what she sees as her greatest achievements since she took office in 2002. “Well, everybody plays their part, and you do the best job that you possibly can during your tenure.”
But what are her plans for the next four years until 2012? “I just hope to achieve, all the time, interesting repertoires, excellent dancers, and stimulated audiences as much as I possibly can. The Company already has 77 years’ worth of history. I want to go on and on; and for it to be a very important company in the canon of classical companies around the world. And I am just playing a part in the Company’s history while I am the director.”
Undoubtedly, Mason is proving the finest custodian to guard The Royal Ballet’s immense heritage, and from our talk it is clear the Company will continue to flourish under her leadership.