Monica Parker In Conversation with Liz Cunliffe, Director of The Benesh Institute.
Monica Parker's association with Kenneth MacMillan; notating, rehearsing, reconstructing and staging a huge amount of his work, spanned nearly 25 years and she continues to teach and stage his works all over the world today.
They met in Berlin in 1968. Kenneth had written to Joan Benesh asking for a notator and Monica went out to audition. "That was my first job" she says, "I also taught ballet at the school attached to the company, in fact, that was my audition - to give a ballet class!"
The first piece Monica worked on in Berlin was Olympiad and she also taught Les Sylphides, Las Hermanas and Ashton's Scènes de Ballet. "Kenneth brought the book [the notation] of Scènes with him from London," she recalls, "and all the dancers were asking what happened next and I didn't know because I didn't have book two! Then when Kenneth arrived with the second book I was expected to open it and rehearse it then and there, I can't remember what I did but I must have taught them something."
Whilst in Berlin, Monica stayed in Kenneth's apartment. "I was so in awe of the whole situation; Lynn Seymour, Vergie Derman, Ashley Lawrence, Ray Barra and Barry Kay were all around. I worked hard. We had rehearsals in the morning and then in the evenings. In the afternoons I taught ballet at the school."
Whilst in Berlin, Kenneth created Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Olympiad, Cain and Abel and Anastasia. The latter, which has since become act three of the full length work, was created prior to Monica's engagement so she "notated it mostly from going round the dancers' dressing rooms or going over to Lynn's house because she was pregnant with the twins". "I learnt a lot of Anastasia in her kitchen in Berlin", she recalls.
Before working with Monica, Kenneth had experienced Benesh Movement Notation at The Royal Ballet. Faith Worth and Elphine Alien were working there as notators from the early 60s and Kenneth made extraordinary use of both notation and notators throughout his career. For Kenneth, one of the advantages of working with a notator was the freedom it gave him in the studio, because he did not have to worry about remembering material for the following day. For him, Benesh was "essential" says Monica, "that's why he worked with Joan Benesh."
Monica's first experience of notation was also at The Royal Ballet School where she was taught by Joan Benesh. "Linda (Pilkington) learnt it that time too - we would go to Margravine Gardens although at that point no formal course existed." After two years, Monica left The Royal Ballet School to join the Foreign Office. "I didn't find dancing very interesting", she explains, "and it was too tiring physically, so I applied to the Foreign Office, where I spent the next two years." Then circumstance changed and she was drawn back into notation. "My father died and I was about to be posted overseas. I felt I couldn't leave the country because of my mother and at the same time Joan's letter arrived inviting me to join the staff of The Benesh Institute. I actually taught on that first course (1965) working with Georgette Tsinguirides, Wendy Vincent Smith, Ann Whitley and Richard Holden."
“Kenneth was concerned with the recording of his works, and with Benesh continuing as a profession”
In 1970, after three seasons at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin Kenneth returned to London as artistic director of The Royal Ballet. Monica came back with him and subsequently became head of notation at The Royal Ballet and, in 1975, combined that role with Director of The Benesh Institute. "The 50:50 position only happened because Kenneth agreed to it", she admits. "Kenneth was concerned with the recording of his works, and with Benesh continuing as a profession."
Recording Kenneth's work in these early years required little input into the choreographic process from Monica. "He would usually have a clear idea of the structure he wanted, and then the piece would change as it went along, latterly more so. The Judas Tree for example went from being almost a solo to a full company work. The choice of music was of course significant; in the case of The Judas Tree it was a commissioned score so there wasn't much time to become familiar with the music and the ideas evolved once the music arrived." Where Monica was involved was helping Kenneth achieve the patterns he wanted on stage. "With for example, the full-length Anastasia, when parts of it were done on tour, we would be having supper in some hideous place and he would talk about patterns. On one occasion he even used coloured pencils and said that what he was trying to do was get the red to replace the blue to replace the yellow - which he drew on a napkin, and then I made it work in a studio.
“The most wonderful thing about working with Kenneth was the variety of his work, each piece was so different”
From all of Kenneth's work that Monica has taught, "Anastasia act three is way up on my list" she concedes. "That's partially because it was the first ballet I saw in Berlin and I was so knocked out by it. I have a huge affection for it. I thought it was brilliant, but it was all those people that made it - a pretty amazing group of people." But "the most wonderful thing about working with Kenneth wasthe variety of his work, each piece was so different", says Monica. "Take 1974, for example: both Elite Syncopations and Manon were premiered - you can't get more different than that in all respects - music, design, movement."
In 1992, the partnership between Monica and Kenneth came to untimely end with Kenneth's sudden death. His heart problems had been a longstanding concern of those close to him. "I remember he ended up in hospital in Munich at the end of his last season there. Then he had to go to hospital at the end of the Australian tour (with The Royal Ballet). That was serious and caused Pagodas to be postponed for two years. His work in the studio never appeared to be affected, just the amount of time that he could spend in the studio."
Since his death, Monica has worked on a freelance basis, "so I do what I've always done without being tied to an office. I have more responsibility with regard to casting, and to the way the whole production looks. Sometimes the responsibility can be frightening, and I'm aware of a big hole because Kenneth's not there. Because he always came - his presence was a part of the process - it took a while to realise that he wasn't going to come. I do think it is different for the dancers, when they're expecting the choreographer...there's a hole."
Reproduction by kind permission of The Royal Academy of Dance