A newly commissioned portrait of former ballerina and Director of the Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason, by artist Saied Dai has been unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

In the larger than life-size portrait, Dame Monica takes on a commanding pose as she sits holding a mask, looking sideways at the viewer; a position reflective of a dancer’s poise combined with a director’s authority and scrutiny. The deep violet colours, the heavy curtain evoking a stage in the background and the opulent folds in the blouse and shawl she is wearing create a theatrical feel to the portrait. Dai first met Dame Monica at the Royal Opera House during her final weeks as Director of the Royal Ballet before her retirement in 2012. The sittings for the portrait took place at the artist’s studio in Bath over a period of eight months.

A key figure in British cultural life for over fifty-four years, Dame Monica Mason has led a remarkable career. She was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to Britain with her family in 1941 at the age of fourteen to attend the Royal Ballet School. She joined the Royal Ballet Company when she was just sixteen as their youngest ever member, and came to prominence when she was selected by choreographer Kenneth MacMillan for a highly demanding lead role in his production of The Rite of Spring (1962). Following this, she showed her impressive athleticism and technical abilities in her performances as Clytemnestra in Elektra (1963) and alongside Rudolf Nureyev in Hamlet (1964), before being appointed Principal dancer 1968. Following a number of subsequent acclaimed roles, she became Principal Répétiteur to the Royal Ballet in 1984. In 1991 she was appointed Assistant Director and succeeded Ross Stretton as Director in 2002.

Her tenure saw the careers of choreographers such as Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon take off and also saw the Royal Ballet reaching out to new audiences by taking advantage of new technology and by selecting alternative venues for performances. Dame Monica was appointed OBE in 2002 and then DBE in 2008.

Artist Saied Dai was born in Tehran in 1958 and moved to England at the age of six. He trained at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and then at the Royal Academy of Arts, where he later taught. He has been a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters since 2004 and the New English Art Club since 2009. In 2006 he was awarded the Ondaatje Prize for Portraiture by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and his work has been exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery and at the Holburne Museum in Bath.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, says: ‘I am very pleased that we have been able to honour Dame Monica Mason – as a great figure in the world of ballet – with such a striking and original painting by Saied Dai.’

Saied Dai says: ‘The paradox of painting is that whilst the image is static and inert, on examination it must reveal movement and life. This was especially so in the case of a dancer. I was conscious of not resorting to any cliché about dance. Since Dame Monica Mason has spent her whole working life performing through ‘masks’, it appeared to be a fruitful metaphor to pursue.

‘The composition of the painting is tightly organised – in line, tone and colour. The drapery creates a vortex of movement at the centre of which is the still and hollow mask that draws the eye up to the living head above. I hope the painting works as a compassionate study of the person, before the attributes and appurtenances of her profession.’

Dame Monica Mason by Saied Dai is on display in Room 32 at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from Thursday 27 March 2014. Admission free.

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