I was thrilled by Dame Monica Mason’s talk at St Hilda’s College on Wednesday and the brief extracts of archive footage of her in performance. I saw her as the Chosen Maiden in the 1982 revival at the Royal Opera House, and I remember the excitement of the occasion, and Kenneth MacMillan coming on stage at the end. Unthinking and ignorant, I had no idea at the time that she had created the role for MacMillan, or of the vital connections between her generation of dancers and the Ballets Russes. Her anecdotes about Lydia Sokolova (who shut her eyes at the first night and “danced her own version”) and Marie Rambert’s sometimes embarrassing enthusiasm were both touching and hilarious, and there was a wonderful moment when she stepped forward to demonstrate what it was like to respond to MacMillan’s suggestions as he choreographed in the studio. She remarked that working in this way can sometimes lead dancers to feel almost as if they have choreographed the work themselves … “but they have not”.

An introductory talk by Jane Pritchard set the work in its historical context, and shed some new light on the famous but still puzzling first-night riot, when she suggested that the design of the auditorium of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées may have contributed to the explosive public reaction. Dr Jonathan Williams talked about the work from a musical perspective, explaining its harmonic structure. The celebration culminated in a magnificent performance by Daniel and Joseph Tong of the piano score, which brought out the percussive and rhythmic elements even more than does the familiar orchestral version.

This centenary event was a huge success: a big “thank you” is owed to Dr Susan Jones and to St Hilda’s College for this evening, which was an amazing gift to the packed audience.

Maggie Watson

24 February 2013

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