A Creative Artist Talk with Dame Monica Mason
Certainly within the walls of the School, our latest Creative Artist Speaker needed no introduction. Dame Monica Mason was a student, then The Royal Ballet’s youngest dancer, then Principal Dancer, then Director of the Company until her retirement in 2012. Still very connected to the School and the Company, she generously agreed to share her time with us for a Creative Artist Talk — a series in which we welcome acclaimed creative, cultural, and commercial figures to share their experience and expertise with students.
Even among non-ballet obsessives, Dame Monica would reach iconic-dinner-party-guest status because of her gregarious nature, bountiful storytelling abilities and unpretentious wisdom. Students and teachers loved hearing her talk warmly about her time at the School, and you could hear a pin drop when she regaled us of her times on tour.
Students had a lot of questions for Dame Monica, about her life as a dancer and what was it like being in such a large company at such a young age — ‘Well, it was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying!‘ — and also about what she looked for in dancers when she was Director of The Royal Ballet — ‘A constant for me was musicality. And you also want innovative people.‘
When asked about her best life advice, she talked on the topic of friendship and staying curious:
Remember, there’s a huge world out there, and we’re only a tiny part of that huge world, and we all need to contribute to that big world to make it better and better…Value your friends…Somebody said to me when I was very young, try to make friends outside of the profession. I have friends from the world of business, a musician, a painter, people who do very different things but are passionate about what they do, and which helps make your friendship strong. They’re people you can call on. So value friendships, value your friends and remain forever curious and try to embrace the world, not just the world that you think you know best.
As well as making us laugh with her candid stories about working with various choreographers over the years, Dame Monica also talked to us about her difficult time overcoming an injury:
I was 30 years old, I thought I probably had another 10 years if I was fortunate. So that was an enormous blow. This was in the days before we actually had a full-time physiotherapy department, so there was nobody to help you. There was no Pilates or body conditioning…So I had to teach myself. The first day I probably could only do 10 minutes, and it took me about six weeks of going in every day. Everything was so basic and it was the hard question of finding a way to get myself back. The moment I started to be able to take class again, I just began to feel normal. And the Company was going on a tour to Brazil and I’d never been to Brazil.
I asked Peter Wright if I could be the lead court lady. Peter was very worried; he said, ‘Monica, you know your name would be in the programme?’ so I said, ‘then don’t put my name in the programme. I’m not listed because I’m not dancing any Principal roles. Just let me be in the court. That’s the only way I’m going to get my head back in the right place’ . I was in such a mess. I was so nervous. I had so much stage fright I couldn’t curtsey for nerves and thank that tour for being able to be in the back row of swans.
By the time we came back to London, we did a three-week season at the Coliseum, and I was back on as a Principal.
That experience led me to be very interested in what happens inside people’s heads when they’re injured, and from then on, we started to explore the possibility of full-time physiotherapy at The Royal Ballet. There was a physiotherapist who began to work with us , but who also was very interested to learn why two people with the same injury recovered at different speeds. She was intrigued by what goes on in people’s heads to make one dancer take a long time to recover, and another bounce back. And so she went back to university and she studied psychology and then she began to help the Company as the psychologist. And that was a turning point.
Upon Dame Monica’s departure from The Royal Ballet, the Company named a physiotherapy room after her because of her commitment to supporting dancers through injury.
We’re so grateful that Dame Monica spent time answering the students’ questions (which were thoughtful and so forthcoming the session could’ve gone on all night). She’s a true delight and we feel so lucky to have her affiliation and presence at the School.