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Monica Mason - I like the idea of riskBy Norman Lebrecht / January 22, 2003
Monica Mason, custodian of the Royal Ballet's traditions, was initially seen as a stop-gap chief. But she may be more adventurous than first appeared.
When Monica Mason was confirmed as head of the Royal Ballet just before Christmas her room filled so thick with flowers that, weeks later, the fragrance still lingers. Hers was a hugely popular internal appointment, a healing unguent after the rough and ready rule of the Australian Ross Stretton who lasted less than a year, leaving abruptly last September.
Mason is a loyalist who has given her life to the Royal. South African born, she joined at 17 from the Royal Ballet School and lurked for years as an exquisite soloist in the shadow of Margot Fonteyn, who did not retire until she reached 60. By this time, Mason was ready to hang up her pumps. She became assistant to the company's director, Norman Morrice, and continued to serve his successors, Kenneth MacMillan, Anthony Dowell and the ill-fated Stretton. She was not cut out, she says, for anything higher.
When Dowell called it a day, she declined to apply. 'My talent lay in being an assistant,' says Mason softly. 'I had been assistant for a long time and I felt I had found a way of taking a load off the Director's shoulders. When people said to me, had you thought of applying? I said, y'know, I'm even older than Anthony. It would be silly.'
She formally introduced Stretton to the company 'as a distant cousin from Australia coming to rejoin the family.' If the new boss felt patronised, he never let on. 'Ross was a very friendly person, easy to communicate with,' she reports. 'I liked him very much. When we auditioned dancers, we very much shared the same view. The people he hired are people whom I now rehearse.'
Where they differed was over repertoire. Mason was the crucible of the company's triumphs and traditions. She had kept notes for MacMillan as he choreographed late works and learned big Russian roles from Rudolf Nureyev. Stretton's aim was to renew the repertoire, not to look back. When Mason pressed for more work by MacMillan and Nureyev in a season coinciding with the tenth anniversary of their deaths, she was rebuffed.
'We had several meetings when we discussed the one-act ballets by Kenneth,' she recalls, 'and I realised (Stretton) didn't know them. He could not programme something he had never seen. One didn't argue with Ross because it was always a very easy conversation. But he wasn't someone who wanted to pass the buck. He took on the role of director in a very energetic way, very direct in his dealings with staff. One began to sense a fading of the relationship between him and the company. I had no idea what was causing this. His door was always open. But we all could sense that something was not going right.'
This is as much as Mason knows, she says, of the circumstances of Stretton's sudden departure. As the link between director and staff, the person to whom dancers turned in moral or physical distress, she witnessed nothing untoward, knew nothing of the swirling rumours of sexual harrassments. 'There wasn't a single member of the company who spoke to me about anything at all, ever,' she insists. 'I knew nothing. When certain allegations were made, I had to say: I cannot contribute in any way.'
After the summer break, Mason was called in on a Monday morning by the chairman, Sir Colin Southgate and chief executive, Tony Hall. She was asked by Southgate: 'Do you know of anything that might have taken place?', Mason replied: 'I know absolutely nothing. No-one has spoken to me, I have never seen anything, I never heard anything. I know nothing.'
Then they told her: 'it looks as if Ross is going to resign.' Mason maintained, then as now, immaculate poise. 'It was incredibly fast, Ross's departure, 'she reflects. 'I came in next morning and was told he had gone. I didn't see him again. I left a message on his machine but he never replied. You only get to know a tiny part of somebody in a year - compared with a lot of us round here who have known each other for 20, 30 or 40 years.'
Whisked into office as acting director while the board dithered over her position, she spent the next three months 'in a state of permanent audition'. Never having worn authority, she found it suited her.'I'd be very dishonest, 'she chuckles disarmingly, 'if I said I hadn't been extremely thrilled at getting the job. And I found I'd be really disappointed if I didn't keep it.'
Her first executive act was to hang a stern portrait of Ninette de Valois, the company founder, on the wall opposite her desk. It serves as perpetual admonition and statement of intent, though by no means a reactionary statement. Mason, like all dancers, had lived in terror of the boss they called 'Madam'. But in the late 1970s, living in Kew, she took to giving the old lady a lift home to nearby Barnes, absorbing her wisdom and experience. One night as they pulled up outside her flat, Madam said: 'You are naughty, you know. You haven't told me you no longer live in Kew and you're not married any more.' Mason implored her for the right to continue driving her home. 'You're not to do it nay more,' said Madam.
'She was such a brilliant mind,' marvels Mason, 'with such ... foresight. The thing I am now conscious of was her ability always to be seeing ahead of the present, always knowing what the future needed. She thought strategically the whole time. That's why, when she was rehearsing us, there was this tremendous impatience with the present.'
Mason, now in the same seat, has inherited that haste. Gentler than Madam in rehearsal, she knows the company is at a cross-roads. Its male star, Irek Mukhamedov, was retired by Stretton. Each season could be the last for Sylvie Guillem. A new light gleams in Alina Cojocaru - 'a very rare talent, hungry for as much as she can possibly get her little feet on' - and the Rumanian will make her New York debut in Bayadere in a couple of months. The Royal needs to keep her under contract and develop more like her if it is to sustain an international profile. It needs a burst of stellar dancers and a bouquet of new choreography.
Mason is excited by Jiri Kylian and Mats Ek, whom Stretton introduced. She is also nurturing William Stretton, who has just done Wind in the Willows, and encouraging other company members, one as young as 18, to make their own choreography for a First Draft series that her own protegee Deborah Bull is putting on the small Linbury stage. 'Every person that joins us,' she says, 'has to feel they are joining an organisation with a real buzz. In a big, flat ocean, they are the choppy waters beside the edge of the beach. Dancers have to be gypsies. We can't be furniture or part of the establishment. I remember Margot saying "it's not the building, darling, it's what you're doing".'
Mason has restocked the current season with tributes to MacMillan and Nureyev and is keeping lines open to old favourites like Adam Cooper and Teddy Kumakawa who fled the company in the dark years of closure. But she is neither looking, nor bending over, backwards in an effort to remake the past. The emphasis, though she will not give details, will be experimental. 'I like the idea of risk,' she smiles, 'because I was brought up like that as a dancer - it was the lesson we all learned from Rudolf.'
Her contract runs four and a half years, to the statutory retirement age, but she is in no hurry to find an assistant who might relieve her burden and be groomed as her successor. 'I'm far too busy at the moment to think about that,' she shrugs. 'I will wait for my whiskers to tell me what's needed.'
In the meantime, a great peace has settled on the Royal Ballet. Sir Anthony Dowell, 60 next month, has returned to dance in Willows and now in MacMillan's Winter Dreams. Guillem asked for him to dance a role in the forthcoming Manon. Mason finds herself, as director, giving instruction and rehearsal to her last boss but one, a healing of recent turbulence.
The catharsis may be illusory. The Royal Opera House, which embraces the Royal Ballet, is never more than a breath away from crisis. Critics and audiences have been promised renewal so often in recent years that many have lost faith. The magic that Mason has to perform is largely sleight of hand.
She looks up at the portrait and thinks she sees a twinkle in Madam's indomitable eye. 'I know what she wanted for the company,' says Mason fondly, 'because I have only ever been here. What I want is for the company to be a national treasure, recognised worldwide. I want a roster of wonderful dancers. I want to see the older works, done in the right style, because soon there won't be anybody left who remembers how those pieces should be done. I want a really good balance between those works and the new work that I'm trying to get.'
When her appointment was announced, a huge cheer resonated around the opera house. 'I couldn't have more support,' smiles Monica Mason. 'I jolly well ought to do a good job.'
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]