Dancing the Mistress

13 March 2014 | By Behind Ballet

Former Soloist of The Australian Ballet Jane Casson talks about performing the scene-stealing role of the Mistress in Manon.

Who coached you in the role, and what did they impart to you about the character of the Mistress?
Fiona Tonkin and Danilo Radojevic taught me the role, and also I had Lynette Wills, who had done the role previously – it was great to get the perspective from her eyes, and she really delved into the character. The Mistress is Lescaut’s lover: his main one, I’m sure he has many! He’s like a pimp, and he actually pimps off his sister. But the Mistress loves him, no matter how he treats her. She’s incredibly strong, opinionated, gutsy, a party animal; but she’s quite vulnerable, because she’s so in love with Lescaut, and she’d forgive anything – his drunkness, when he slaps her, anything.

How did you portray her?
I think that the Mistress has come from a very dark place … She’s become a “lady of the night” very young, she’s been very naive, just trying to struggle her way through life and do what she can to get out of the slums. That’s where I came from with my characterisation: she’s worked really hard to get to where she is, and isn’t willing to throw it away. Lescaut, for her, is almost part of the deal. With him she has a better life, she’s moving in more aristocratic circles. She’s looked up to by the other harlots. When he pushes her towards the prisoner women in the first scene, like “this is where you could end up”, it’s almost like she has a realisation: “I’d better watch my mouth, keep my place, do as he says.” But in saying that, I feel like she really, truly loves Lescaut. That’s how I portrayed her. She’s really ballsy, very strong, but vulnerable: a very three-dimensional character.

What are the technical challenges of the role?
It’s a very technical role, a lot of turns, a lot of tricky pointe work, and very intricate articulation of your feet. Because you’re wearing a longer dress, the audience can only see your face, your arms and your feet. So the lines and positions of your arms and feet have to be just beautiful, and you have to be wearing great shoes, ones that support the articulation of your feet. There’s a gentleman who comes to the bordello in Act II, and he seems to have a bit of a foot fetish, and of course the Mistress caters to all tastes, so she lifts up her skirt and is like “look at my dainty little feet!” and you do this intricate pointe work – all that has to be perfect, of course!
She has really great solos. Manon is very demure, very sophisticated and delicate, very sweet. I think the Mistress has to work a little bit harder to be noticed – she has to put herself out there a bit!

See the Mistress scintillate in our Melbourne and Sydney seasons of Manon
Did you know that the marvellous Jane Casson now teaches Adult Ballet Classes at our Melbourne HQ? Bookings for the next block of classes will go open on 20 March.