Mona INGLESBY (1918-2006) Part II
(b.London 3 May 1918;d.Bexhill-on-Sea, 6 October 2006)
In 1930 at the age of twelve, Mona and her parents decided that ballet would be her future career, and it was agreed that she would begin serious training as a dancer with Marie Rambert (1888-1982). In June 1927, Rambert’s husband Ashley Dukes had purchased Horbury Hall, Nottinghill Gate for their new school and it had opened in March the following year. They created a tiny theatre there as well, later known as the Mercury Theatre, and from 1930 both plays and Ballet Club performances took place there.
Madame Rambert taught both professionals and children, so Mona was able to attend her normal school then go to daily ballet classes afterwards. At first she really struggled with the new exercises and remembering the order in which they came, but Rambert encouraged her and Mona, who was alway a hard worker, began to progress. Rambert had a special gift for spotting talent and just reading a list of the dancers, designers, musicians and particularly choreographers who worked with her at this period says it all – Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, William Chappell, Walter Gore, Agnes de Mille, Pearl Argyle, Diana Gould (who later married Yehudi Menuhin), Maude Lloyd, Mary Skeaping, Celia Franca, Andrée Howard, Prudence Hymen, Sophie Fedorovich and Constant Lambert – the list goes on. So, Mona during her teenage years benefited enormously from being surrounded by extraordinarily creative people.
Marie Rambert felt that Mona would benefit from learning mime and sent her to her friend Tamara Karsavina’s classes (probably at that time at Crawford Mews, Baker Street.) Karsavina had had a brilliant career, firstly at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg then with Diaghileff often being partnered by Nijinsky and having roles created for her by Fokine. Mona was by far the youngest of her mime pupils and arrived for the first class wearing her pale blue tunic and ankle socks, whereas all the older dancers wore tights and brief tunics. This was an immediate embarrassment for her but Madame Karsavina accepted her without question as one of her students. She announced that they would work on the mime from Giselle Act I. Mona writes “She took my hand, led me to Robert Helpmann [who was 21 at this time] and said to him “Please will you take little Mona for your Giselle ?”. I was overcome with embarrassment to have been singled out. It was a real ordeal, but I tried to immerse myself in the part, struggling to forget about my white ankle socks, and endeavouring to concentrate solely on Karsavina’s invaluable teaching. I have never forgotten the courtesy of Robert Helpmann, who treated me as an adult when he partnered me.”
At this time Mona also took some classes with Margaret Craske who had studied with Enrico Cecchetti and Bronislave Nijinska and had danced with Diaghileff’s Russian Ballet.
In 1932 Rambert’s Ballet Club was performing regularly on Thursdays (evening or matinée) and Sunday evenings. The Club status was because, at this stage, they did not have a full Theatre Licence but interesting short ballets were being created and Alicia Markova appeared in several of them.
May 3 was Mona’s 14th birthday and Rambert then gave her the chance to appear in some of the Ballet Club performances. In June, Leslie Edwards arrived at the school as a pupil. He was 15 at the time. Mona writes “ I remember my first attempts at Pas de Deux work at The Ballet Club with particular affection because my partner, who always helped me in the first essays of lifts and tours was a most agreeable young man called Leslie Edwards. He was tall, rather sparely built, shy and very helpful, never in any way making me feel inept. We practised frequently after class, and sometimes Rambert came to encourage and direct. I made rapid progress at that time and laid a firm basis for the future.” Leslie Edwards went on to become a mainstay of the Royal Ballet working with the company for 60 years. He describes 11am classes given by Madame Rambert in his book In Good Company. She taught wearing a tunic, tights and a headband unlike other teachers who wore their normal clothes.
“If no pianist was available Madame would supply music by whistling shrilly, whether to economise or not I never discovered. Later, she found out that two of her pupils were up to playing suitable melodies for class ; so when they had finished exercises at the barre and the time came to dance in the centre of the room she divided us into two groups, always seeing to it that one dancer-cum-pianist was in each group. Although all this may sound bizarre, it was really very exhilarating and the classes gave us a wonderful feeling for the fluency of movement.”
Many of Rambert’s older dancers, such as Ashton and Walter Gore appeared in West End revues and other commercial shows to augment their tiny salaries from the ballet. They could opt to go for Rambert’s classes in the afternoons.
Mona says that her first performance with The Ballet Club was when she was 14 in Ashton’s newly created Foyer de Danse to music by Lord Berners. While dancing there she chose to call herself Mona Kimberley, rather than Vredenburg. She never appeared as Mona Inglesby in any Rambert season.
Just before her fifteenth birthday Mona was given the chance to dance in Susan Salaman’s ballet Our Lady’s Juggler partnered by William Chappell, then a principal in the company and definitely not impressed by having to dance with a relatively inexperienced young partner from the school. Rambert however was adamant and the performance went well and proved to be the start of a lifelong friendship between Mona and Chappell.
In June, the theatre used by The Ballet Club opened as The Nameless Theatre until October, when it reopened as the Mercury Theatre, having gained a public performing licence for music, dancing and plays. It remained a club in order to present ballet on Sundays.
Mona, who was now 15, was given the chance to dance as Papillon in Fokine’s ballet Carnaval. The Mercury had the smallest stage in London and against the back wall was a narrow staircase running up to a small door. These steps could sometimes be incorporated into the decor for ballets. The door lead to a very narrow dressing room with eight places. Markova had the place nearest the door and Mona was at the far end which she describes as ‘cosy’.
In 1934 Mona was still a pupil at the school but was now invited to take part more regularly in performances at The Ballet Club, and was gradually given more important roles. Performances began at 9pm with matinées at 3pm and this season was the first open to the general public.
May 15 must have been particularly memorable as it was the first performance of Bar Aux Folies- Bergère, and the first time that Mona had created a role. This was Ninette de Valois’s only ballet for Rambert, with music by Chabrier and based on the painting by Manet. The cast of eleven dancers included Markova, as La Goulue, the star of the Can Can, Pearl Argyle and Ashton, with Mona as La Môme Fromage, one of the four Can-Can girls. On the same evening she danced in Les Masques, by Ashton, when she was one of the Two Young Girls the other being Mary Skeaping. Scenes and Costumes were by Sophie Fedorovich. Charles Lynch at the Piano. The ‘Accessories’ for Les Masques were by Beatrice Dawson who later became a famous costume designer for films. Costumes for many of the Ballet Club productions were ‘executed’ by the mysterious Scarlet Scissors. As Ashton’s very first ballet in June 1926 was called A Tragedy of Fashion ; or, the Scarlet Scissors it seems that this must have been an ‘in-joke’ of some kind. Scarlet Scissors was actually Dolly Watkins, a great friend of Karsavina for many years who made her tutus.
Mona understudied Markova in Bar Aux Folies- Bergère so attended her rehearsals while the ballet was being set and followed the movements quietly at the back of the studio. “After a week Markova felt my presence was distracting and I was no longer allowed to attend, with the result that I was not able to learn the entire role. This nearly proved to be disastrous because on one occasion just before curtain up Madame Rambert came rushing into the dressing room and said “Mona, Mona, you must go on. Come quickly, just as you are, in your own costume. What you don’t know, you must invent. Go on, go on! You will be alright. Don’t be afraid.” And on I went with no time to think what was happening. True to Madame’s instructions what I did not know I invented. The rest of the cast rose to the occasion and the audience was more than kind.”
With the ballet Club Mona was also in Mermaid, as the Bride, L’Apres Midi d’un Faune as a Nymph, when they were rehearsed by Bronislava Nijinska, Lysistrata as Lampito, Le Rugby as one of The Player’s Fans and Les Sylphides dancing the Mazurka.
In January 1935, Mona was in a four week season at the Duke of Yorks Theatre, when the company showed eighteen short ballets. This was the first occasion that the title Ballet Rambert was used for the company. On the first night Mona (who was still 16) was in two of the four ballets, Carnaval as Papillon, (Antony Tudor was Pierrot and doubled as stage manager for the season) and Les Masques.
Mona writes “As time went on, Rambert entrusted me with increasingly more solo roles. It was therefore depressing when I started to feel instinctively that something was lacking in the daily class training. I began thoroughly to dislike the Cecchetti method which we studied, and felt most disconsolate. It was Diana Gould who first noticed my discomfort. She took me aside one day and told me about Kschessinskaya, the former Prima Ballerina Assoluta from St. Petersburg who was now in Paris, and about the Mariinsky tradition, still alive in that city through the ballerinas teaching there. Diana advised me to go over to Paris during the holiday period, to see their studios for myself.”
She travelled to Paris with her father to meet Kschessinskaya “There it was like a door opening, and the sunlight coming in. My eyes opened wide at the glorious system I saw there, which was quite new to me, and I was overjoyed when Kschessinskaya agreed to take me on. . . . I went back to Rambert with a new horizon to look forward to.”
There was another eminent Russian teaching in London at his time, Nicholas Legat (1869-1937) who had a studio in Barons Court. Mona also began to go to his classes. “I went to study with him as often as my work with Madame Rambert permitted. At last I had found a release from the Cecchetti method, and life began to develop quickly from then on. Legat was a remarkable man, short and balding. He played the piano himself for classes, and would rise frequently to make corrections, his bright eyes in a tough but kind face spotting every little fault . His swift glance reached everywhere, right to the back of the very full studio. Nothing escaped him.”
After her first visit to Paris she would travel there two or three times a year to attend Kschessinskaya’s classes and also studied with two of the other eminent Russian ballerinas who had studios there, Egorova and Preobajenskaya. This experience of working in the Russian tradition was to change her life completely.
(To be continued)
Programmes from the 1939 Season of Russian Ballet at Covent Garden
The photographs taken for International Ballet are from Mona Inglesby’s Collection and reproduced with the kind collaboration of her son, Peter Baxter-Derrington.
All the quotes by Mona Inglesby have been taken from her memoir published in the book International Ballet – Ballet in the Blitz – The history of a Ballet Company by Mona Inglesby with Kay Hunter, London, 2008.