Everyone who knows me clearly understands how deeply I love ballet. When I lived in London, I considered it a dream come true to interview Natalia Makarova and Margot Fonteyn. No wonder my (battered) toe shoes are still hanging in my bathroom!
Today I'd like to pay tribute to a remarkable woman who just retired as the artistic director of Britain's Royal Ballet--after being with the company for 54 years. Dame Monica Margaret Mason was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1941, and attended her first ballet class at the age of four. Dance was always a constant in her life, from watching her parent do ballroom dancing together to squeezing her own dance classes in between swimming and tennis lessons. But by the time she was twelve, Mason knew that she wanted to make ballet her career (2: An Early Sense of Direction).
Her idyllic South African childhood ended, however, when her father died suddenly, and she moved to London with her mother and sister at age fourteen (1: No Paternal Safety Net). The next year, after her second attempt, she was accepted to The Royal Ballet School. Then, at only 16 (in her words "I was a baby really, but it was the most unbelievable opportunity"), she was invited to join the company (13: More Than Meets The Eye).
The famous choreographer Kenneth MacMillan gave Mason her first big break by choosing her as the lead dancer for his version of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Under his guidance, she made principal dancer only seven years later, in 1968. Years later, when he heard that Mason might leave the company, he offered her a job as his assistant (4: Supportive Someone).
During her career, Dame Margot did not fit in (physically) with that era's "fragile" ballerina. She was bigger, stronger, considered to look "a little bit like the young Joan Crawford," and was even told by the legendary Fredrick Ashton that she might get more leading roles if she'd get a nose job (6: Life Is Not A Beauty Contest).
During her tenure as the principal dancer, she broke her foot--an injury that kept her off stage for nine months. This experience inspired her to look at the world of dance from a more health-oriented perspective. When she was performing there was no physiotherapy department or psychologist affiliated with the company. But for the past 25 years, Mason has worked tirelessly to protect the dancers' physical as well as mental well being (8: Magnificent Obsession).
Mason has earned a reputation for dogged perfectionism, whether it involves choosing staff, emphasising dancers' health or maintaining the company's high standards. In her own life, she stopped dancing en pointe when she was only 39 because she discovered that she could no longer execute the (truly challenging) 32 required fouettes of Swan Lake (10: The Critic Within).
During her tenure as artistic director Dame Monica has been criticized for not using more British principal dancers (only three of the 18 are from the UK). But she believes that talent is more important than nationality (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).
In addition to dealing with critics, Mason has become comfortable taking chances. She commissioned works by "risky" choreographers, but succeeded in energizing the company, and taking the artistic level up a notch (11: Risk Addiction).
At the same time that Mason stopped dancing en pointe, her marriage was falling apart (15: Forget About Prince Charming). But her talent has been recognized not only by the dance world at large, but by the Crown as well. In 2002 she received the OBE, and in 2008 she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Although she is now in her 70's, music continues to be an essential part of her life. She recently told an interviewer that when she hears music from a role she once performed, her response is visceral. "If the music comes on the radio when I'm at home I still get up and sort of do it [dance] in the kitchen (9: Music).
Dame Monica's first order of business after her retirement is to sign up for computer lessons. In her words, "I don't even know how to turn a computer on. I've always had someone else to do my emails for me."
Looking forward to your comments...