Paul De Masson (1953‒2012)

Some recent correspondence with a colleague in the United States highlighted in my mind the breadth of Paul De Masson’s international career and the fact that we often fail to recognise and acknowledge the role overseas experiences play in the careers of our artists.  As a tribute to Paul’s varied activities in Australia and elsewhere, I have extracted just a few brief snippets from the oral history interview I recorded with him in Melbourne in July last year. The extracts are randomly selected from an interview that contains many other thoughts and ideas on a range of matters.

I have taken some liberties in putting together these short extracts as the spoken word, when transcribed verbatim, does not always lend itself to clear, readable text. Oral history is always better when it is listened to rather than read from a transcript. This is especially so in the case of Paul’s interview as his speech was colourful and peppered with many untranslatable noises to indicate various dance movements, the whipping of the head as one does a pirouette, for example. It also contains a range of different voices depending on which of his colleagues Paul is speaking about.

Paul’s interview (TRC 6328) is held in the Oral History and Folklore Collection of the National Library of Australia.

On Kiril Vassilkovsky, an early teacher in Perth
Kiril’s classes were very fast, lots of batterie ’cause he was very small. He used to do lots of pirouettes in class and lots of beats. And he used to dress for class. He used to wear a vest and trousers and shoes. He had special shoes made, very soft leather shoes. And they were plaited leather and special on the instep so he could point his foot. They had a heel ’cause he was small and he wanted to be taller. And so he demonstrated all these steps in a suit and tie. And he had immaculate nails. I noticed he was always manicured. His classes were very fast. And I’m not joking, Kiril taught me to do ten pirouettes.

On taking class with Roland Petit’s Ballet national de Marseille while on tour in that city with Disney on Parade
So I did class and I remember Roland stood right in front of me. He always did class every morning, at least the barre. And he always wore white. He had a bald, shaved head; I think he shaved it for a production he was doing. And there he was, right in front of me, and looking. I didn’t know it was Roland Petit, I didn’t know it was the director. And I remember everything was white, the shoes, the socks, the leg warmers. And he had a white dressing gown and a white towel. The afterwards they said to me ‘The director would like to see you.’ And so I went into this room and I was in shock. It was the same guy. And he said: ‘Well we are interested in you as a dancer. Do you want to come and join us?’

The follow-up story of Paul’s first few months with this company is particularly interesting.

On making up for the role of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the Australian Ballet
They’d had all these people from the film industry come in but they made all these plastic, silicon things. It didn’t work for the ballet because every time you did a pirouette it all flew off. So I designed my own make-up, which was basically Elastoplast and cotton wool. I put cotton wool and then stuck it down with Elastoplast, then more cotton wool then more Elastoplast. And it took me a long time, putting the cotton wool in the right place and then putting a make-up base on top of all that, filling in the cracks, and then using a brush to draw a face on that. But it was fantastic because it never moved and it was light.

It was this make-up that De Masson tore off in front of Peter Bahen, administrator, when the infamous Australian Ballet strike began.

On dancing in Romeo and Juliet with the Australian Ballet
[Maina Gielgud] put me to do Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt all in the same season in Sydney. Every second night I was changing, doing one or the other, which I found fantastic. I loved doing Mercutio, which was my premium role. Then when I got to do Romeo I thought that was fabulous, to actually have a chance to do Romeo. Then I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Tybalt. To do all three, and be different in all three, that was the challenge. But the other challenge was reversing all the sword fights. It was like sometimes I didn’t know who I was. I’d turn around and … but I managed.  I got it done.

On his role as ballet master with the Australian Ballet
I used to love coaching, mostly the dramatic side of things. I think I was much better with individual rehearsals—principals and soloists—than I was with big corps de ballet work. Although now, now over all these years having worked in other companies as ballet master, I can handle that quite well now and I actually enjoy it a great deal. But I wasn’t enjoying it at first. I was much more comfortable with just a couple. But the highlight is sitting there and seeing the outcome. Just seeing the progression of the dancers, going from no idea of a role and then, after you’ve given them everything you could possibly give, them, seeing it suddenly click, seeing something happen. Sometimes it doesn’t happen and it’s disappointing. Then you have to find another way of explaining it. But the high points were watching achievements, getting people to act in a certain way.

On working with John Neumeier
It was fantastic working with John. It was exhausting because he is very demanding. And I had to learn a whole new repertoire, most of it John’s but not all. He did bring in other ballets and he did his own version of Giselle. He asked me basically to teach the principals the whole ballet. And then he tweaked it and put things in—like the entrance of Albrecht in Act Two. He made that into a contemporary solo, which really worked well.

Then he asked me to put the mad scene together very quickly for a Sunday chat with the audience. He was always giving you something to do, and involving you in the choreography. He had the Wilis screaming in Act Two because he had the Adam score and it said ‘Wilis enter, screaming hysterically’. He’d taped them first in the studio. And they came in screaming as they were doing the steps. And he did beautiful things like in the pas de deux in Act Two he had the Wilis standing along the side but instead of just being there rigid all the time, every now and again one would just drop her arms and look. And another would just go to her knee and cry. Towards the end of the pas de deux you noticed that everyone was in a different position. And one was quietly sobbing. It was very subtle. It was very nice.

On Singapore Dance Theatre
Soo Khim Goh [artistic director of Singapore Dance Theatre] liked the Western classical style of dancing and also the contemporary Western style but she was also very clever in keeping the Asian blend in there. It’s an Asian company. She got a wonderful choreographer from Indonesia, Boi Sakti, who did a full evening length piece called Reminiscing the moon. The stage filled with water, lights were floating, it was a whole journey watching this work. And she brought two or three different choreographers from Japan and China.

With my friendship with Roslyn Anderson we managed to get Jiri [Kylian] to let us have Stamping Ground for a month, or two months at a time rather than on a two or three year contract. Just because he knew we were a small company. And Ros loved coming to Singapore. But the one that I was really pleased to get was Forgotten Land. And we had Ohad Naharin, a lot of international choreographers.

And Jean-Paul Comelin came and we did his Giselle. We used students from the Central Ballet of China so we could do it because the company was only 21 dancers and we could bring it up to 30. The company always looked really professional. Sakura [his wife and dancer with the company] and I look back on it as being a really pleasant experience. We had a great place to live and just living in Singapore was really nice although it was sometimes a little bit warm and muggy. We were so close to everything. Half an hour to Phuket, well Krabi was our favourite. Or Sakura could go home to Japan, only five hours. Even Europe was only 12 hours away. So very good position.

Paul’s thoughts about Singapore Dance Theatre following Soo Khim Goh’s departure are a little different.

Final words
I don’t bear any grudges against anyone for anything that’s happened in my career. It’s always been a pleasure everywhere.

Michelle Potter, 14 February 2012

Follow this link to an alphabetical list of the oral histories I have recorded over the past two decades. Unless otherwise indicated all have been conducted for the National Library of Australia and are held in the Library’s Oral History and Folklore Collection. Further cataloguing and access details (some are available online) can be found on the National Library’s catalogue.

Dance diary. January 2012

  • Paul De Masson

It was with deep sadness that I noted the death of Paul De Masson in Melbourne on 12 January 2012. In July last year I recorded an extended oral history interview with Paul for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. It was a real privilege to have him share so many of his thoughts on his dancing life, which crossed continents and crossed paths with so many other renowned artists. Being well aware that his time was limited and thus without fear of any repercussions, Paul was beautifully honest and frank throughout the interview. And his ability to mimic the voices of his colleagues, which he did frequently as we recorded, and his ability to look back and both laugh at himself and be proud of his achievements, make wonderful oral history.
paul-de-masson-as-colas-la-fille-mal-gardee

Paul de Masson as Colas, with artists of the Australian Ballet in La fille mal gardée, ca. 1976. Photo: Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Paul was for a while on the faculty of Hamburg Ballet and held the work of John Neumeier and the dancing of the company in high regard. He thought it was a shame that Australian audiences had not had the opportunity to see much of Neumeier’s choreography and joked that if he were wealthy he would bring the company on tour to Australia. Well, in something of a twist of fate, Hamburg Ballet will visit Brisbane in 2012 bringing two of Neumeier’s best known productions, Nijinsky and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Paul joined Hamburg Ballet around the time Nijinsky was being created.

I will always admire too the honesty with which Paul commented on posts on this website, especially on the Australian Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet season. He was one of a kind.

  • Heath Ledger Project

In January I recorded an oral history interview with Joseph Chapman for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Program. Chapman graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2011 and, following graduation, was offered a contract with the Australian Ballet. He began work with the company in January. Chapman was nominated for the project by one of the foundation partner institutions in the Heath Ledger Project, the Australian Ballet School.

The Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project is administered by the National Film and Sound Archive and is designed to capture the thoughts, hopes and dreams of the next generation of Australian creative artists across a wide spectrum of the arts. It is named for the late Heath Ledger whose death at a relatively young age left us with little record, in an oral history context, of his life as an actor.

I had the pleasure of working with a cameraman on this occasion with interviews for the Heath Ledger Project being filmed rather than being audio only occasions. Chapman’s interview was recorded in one of the studios of the Australian Ballet School and it was a satisfying collaborative experience to make the bare space look inviting and the interview more than simply a ‘talking head’. Much credit goes to the cameraman, Michael Barnett, for a great visual eye and to Chapman for articulate responses to my questions and being what Barnett referred to as ‘a one take wonder’. No need to double back at all!

The Australian Ballet School was asked to nominate two of its 2011 graduating students to participate in the project and, in addition to Chapman, the School nominated Hannah O’Neill currently performing in Paris with the Paris Opera Ballet. Plans are underway for an interview with O’Neill.

Both O’Neill and Chapman performed leading roles with the Dancers Company on its 2011 regional tour of Ai-Gul Gaisina’s Don Quixote. In Hobart during that tour they were photographed together for The Mercury.hannah-oneill-and-joseph-chapman-the-mercury-hobart1

© Hannah O’Neill and Joseph Chapman on tour in Hobart, 2011. Photo: Nikki Davis-Jones. Courtesy The Mercury, Hobart. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Michelle Potter, 30 January 2012

Dance diary. August 2011

  • The Dancers Company

During August The Canberra Times published my Canberra preview for Bangarra’s current production, Belong, and also my review of the Canberra season of the Dancers Company production of Don Quixote. The Dancers Company was a breath of fresh air for dance goers in the national capital, especially for those interested in ballet as a genre of dance.

I was especially impressed by Hannah O’Neill and Benedicte Bemet. It is well known now that Hannah O’Neill has a seasonal contract, beginning this month, for the Paris Opera Ballet, so it was good to see her in this early stage of her professional career. She was dancing beautifully as one of Kitri’s friends. She also took the role of the Queen of the Dryads in the dream sequence and it is not too much to say that her serenity in the Queen’s solo, in part deriving from her technical assurance, was thrilling to watch.

But it was Benedicte Bemet, also dancing as one of Kitri’s friends, and as Cupid in the dream scene, who really captured my attention. She too handled skillfully the quite different but equally demanding technical requirements of Cupid’s solo. But what really stood out was her engagement with the art form rather than with just the technique. Her dancing appears to come from deep within the soul. I hope she doesn’t lose such a rare and wholly engrossing quality as she moves into a professional company.

Benedicte Bemet in 'Paquita', 2011
Benedicte Bemet in ‘Paquita’, 2011

    Photo: Sergey Konstantinov.  Courtesy: The Australian Ballet School

  • Ted Shawn and Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild

Ted Shawn was the subject of an August post that drew some comments, including one regarding the sponsorship of the Shawn visit by Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild. While on the hunt for information about a production of The Little Mermaid, a work choreographed by Rex Reid and designed by Kristian Fredrikson for Martyn in 1967, I discovered that Shawn was a patron of Martyn’s company, which was variously called Ballet Guild, Victorian Ballet Company and Ballet Victoria depending on the date. Shawn’s name appears on programs as a patron of the company from at least 1958 through to at least 1968 (and perhaps before and after those dates? I have yet to examine earlier and later programs).

  • Paul De Masson

In last month’s dance diary I mentioned Paul De Masson and indicated that he was to perform in the Melbourne season of Checkmate in the Australian Ballet’s British Liaisons program. I have since discovered from Paul that this is no longer happening. It is unclear why, although it seems not to be his health!!

  • Jennifer Irwin

In August I also had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection with costume designer Jennifer Irwin. Long standing followers of Sydney Dance Company will remember her many costume designs for Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, while those who have followed Bangarra will recall that she and Peter England produced costumes and sets for some of Bangarra’s most celebrated productions across the two decades of its history to date.

Irwin’s other design credits include the ‘Awakening’ section of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony, much of the Closing Ceremony and the musical Dirty Dancing. In October audiences will see her designs for Stephen Page’s production of Bloodland for Sydney Theatre Company, and in 2012 her commissions include two new works for the Australian Ballet.

  • Land, sea and sky: contemporary art of the Torres Strait Islands

While in Brisbane for the Queensland Ballet Gala, I took the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art called Land, sea and sky: contemporary art of the Torres Strait Islands. The exhibition included a variety of dance materials. Particularly interesting were several ‘dance machines’, hand held objects manipulated by dancers to give extra strength to the narrative line of the dance. I loved the one made by Patrick Thaiday and commissioned especially for the exhibition. It comprised 20 ‘machines’ each constucted as a stylised, blue cumulus cloud, made of wood and painted with white stars. From each cloud radiated a series of small, movable, dark red poles each with a white star at its top point. It was easy to imagine a dance representing the movement of the stars across the sky using these devices as a major inclusion.

Footage of Dennis Newie teaching dances on the beach to Islanders of various ages was another important feature of the show.

  • The Australian Ballet’s 2012 season

Late in August the Australian Ballet announced its season for 2012, its 50th anniversary year. What a great program it looks like too. In May I posted on the English National Ballet’s Swan Lake and remarked how satisfying it was to see a traditional version of this ballet, as much as I love Graeme Murphy’s new take on it. So I am especially looking forward to seeing Stephen Baynes’ new but old version, which will be seen first in Melbourne in September before moving on to Sydney in November.

The year will open with a triple bill of  new works by Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Stephen Page and Gideon Obarzanek. Something to anticipate!

  • Statistics

In August the Australian Ballet’s Concord season of 2009 finally lost its top place as most accessed post of the month. My dance diary for July and my post on the Queensland Ballet gala shared top spot with Concord coming in in third place.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2011

Dance diary. July 2011

During July I posted only two items to this site, other than this update on my activities. The month has in fact been very busy as I have been deep in research on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson. While I thought I was aware of the extent of his theatrical activity, I have been totally amazed at just how prolific and diverse he was since he designed his first work, the operetta A Night in Venice, in Wellington in 1962. My list of his works, which eventually will form the backbone to my book, now numbers 128, although I am not yet through searching as well as checking and confirming dates and venues.

In addition, in July I had the privilege of recording an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia with Paul de Masson. Paul’s career as a dancer and ballet master, and now as a teacher in Melbourne, has also been extraordinarily diverse. He is a great raconteur and a great impersonator—wonderful oral history material emerged. I heard reports that he gave exceptional performances as Njegus in the Australian Ballet’s recent Melbourne season of The Merry Widow. Melbourne audiences will, I believe, also be able to see him as the Red King in the forthcoming British Liaisons program.

I also finally got to see Lucy Guerin Inc’s production of Untrained, which visited Canberra on the last stop of a long nation-wide tour. What an engaging insight into how the body reveals a personality.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2011