Celebrating Monday Moves
For over 30 years, Monday Moves, the Royal Opera House’s class for visually impaired adults, challenged the perception of ballet as a predominantly visual art form. Find out more about the legacy of this vital initiative, and how it continues to inform conversations around inclusivity at the theatre.
‘A lot of people think ballet is sacred, that you can't mess with it,’ says David Pickering, a former Royal Ballet Soloist who now works as the Creative Associate in the Royal Opera House’s Learning and Participation department. ‘That's just not the case at all. You can use the fundamental principles of ballet—like extension, balancing, turns, and counterpull—with anyone from young children to grown-ups with access needs. Once you have them, the sky’s the limit.’
Pickering speaks from experience. For nine years, he taught Monday Moves, a weekly dance programme in the De Valois studio for visually impaired adults. Started by modern dancer Stanley Hamilton, the class was made up of participants from all walks of life—from NHS workers to musicians—some of whom attended regularly since the 80s. Initially, Monday Moves focused on exercise, stretching, and free movement as a way to help visually impaired people improve their posture. Shortly after Hamilton sadly fell ill in the early 2010s, Pickering took over as Monday Moves’ main teacher and shifted the focus towards ballet.
It was a smart move: through the course of teaching the class ‘it became very apparent that compared to other dance forms, ballet has got a lot of named movements and positions,’ says Pickering. As a result, regular attendees acquired a vocabulary that enabled them to—aided by audio description and tactile feedback—learn and reproduce complex choreography inspired by the ballets on stage at the Royal Opera House. ‘The group would embrace everything from the classics to more abstract pieces by the likes of Wayne McGregor and Frederick Ashton,’ he adds, noting that working with live musicians every class also helped provide ‘the full Royal Opera House experience.’
The programme was more than just a weekly dance class. Pickering often organised sessions with the costume, prop, and armoury departments so the class participants could touch objects, try on garments, and learn about their historical significance. ‘Anything sensory with a group like Monday Moves is hugely beneficial,’ he says. Sometimes, the group would attend bespoke ‘touch tours’—pre-show sensory tours giving context to visually impaired audience members by enabling them to familiarise themselves with the studio and productions—as well as Royal Ballet rehearsals on the Main Stage. ‘Kevin O'Hare, the Royal Ballet’s Director, was 100% aware of the group and would invite them along.’
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, and these additional activities presented their own challenges. For example, while the class’s carers often provided audio description for Royal Ballet rehearsals, they weren’t necessarily best placed to do so. Ramona Williams—one of Monday Moves’ participants, who also gives sight loss awareness training to organisations and employers—explains that audio description should really be delivered by people who are present during the Company’s creation process and have an in-depth knowledge of the work. Many lessons were learnt, but ‘it was 100% a two-way dialogue,’ says Pickering, noting how he has applied knowledge he accrued to other programmes he works on. ‘It's about learning how to work with who's in front of you, and planning how to make that space inclusive for each and every member of the class.’
Pickering obviously made some mistakes over the years—he recalls asking the group to spell their names with their bodies in an exercise inspired by Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, before realising one member of the group had never seen the alphabet and only read braille. Overtime, however, he developed techniques to ensure everyone felt welcome and included. ‘We always started by making a semicircle. Whoever was in the room would do a ballet movement and say their name,’ says Williams, explaining that with a visually impaired class, unless it’s explicitly stated, you can’t presume everyone knows who is present. ‘David also always took us around the space so we knew how big it was or if there were any props lying around.’
Practices like this, combined with the fact that the class always took place in the same studio, enabled the participants to orient themselves and feel self-assured. ‘They could travel, run, jump, and be free to do things that they couldn't do safely anywhere else,’ says Pickering. Consequently, the Monday Movers not only developed their creativity, mobility, flexibility, and balance, but also their confidence. ‘Even though I was really confident already, it made me feel more comfortable to just go out and be myself,’ says Williams. There was also a strong social aspect to the class. ‘You could meet visually impaired people who were like you. We’d often have coffee after class. It gave us independence.’
In 2020, the Royal Opera House had to cancel Monday Moves as a result of COVID-19-induced financial and logistical challenges, but they are committed to staying connected with the group they’ve known and loved for so many decades. Since then, the Learning and Participation team have run ‘Creative Exchanges’—eight-week long creative projects for underrepresented and underserved adult communities—for former Monday Moves participants and the wider visually impaired community.
The first took place earlier this year. Inspired by Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody (1980), the series of workshops featured a guest appearance from Lesley Collier—the first to dance the female principal role alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov—and, as with some other Creative Exchanges, culminated in a performance in the Paul Hamlyn Hall during a Live at Lunch event. ‘We always loved doing sharings at Monday Moves,’ says Williams, recalling one where she brought in some sight loss simulation glasses for members of the public to try. ‘It opened up people’s minds. People have this misconception you’re either blind or partially sighted, but there are many different spectrums of sight loss. Only a small percentage of people with sight loss are totally blind, while others might be able to see light and dark, see shapes, or see blurrily.’ Sharing this information changed the way audiences thought too. ‘They didn’t look at us with pity,’ she adds, ‘or think that the Royal Opera House was exploiting us, which I’ve heard people say before. People think that if you’re visually impaired, you can't do anything. That’s not true. We can make our own informed decisions.’
The legacy of the Monday Moves programme is keenly felt in other ways too, and points raised by the group have inspired internal conversations about access at the organisation. Amongst other things, they’ve highlighted the need for better audio descriptions of performances, more accessible routes into the building—Pickering notes that getting from Covent Garden tube station to the Royal Opera House is a ‘hell of a journey’ for someone with sight loss—people to take care of service dogs during performances, and regular touch tours that are available as standard practice, not just when requested. All of these services are things that the Royal Opera House has committed to improving.
Learnings from over 30 years of Monday Moves will also inspire an upcoming teacher training workshop. It will offer a rare opportunity for dance teachers from around the country to gain valuable knowledge on how to run classes for people with access needs, and the hope is that the influence of Monday Moves will ripple out far beyond the Royal Opera House. ‘It can be so easy to shut down certain groups of people, because one might wrongly assume that it’s not possible to achieve as much as they actually can,’ says Pickering. ‘I found it remarkable what people could do in that class. I feel very lucky to have been the caretaker of a really brilliant group of people over the last eight or nine years, and for us to be able to share and enjoy the repertory of The Royal Ballet together.’
This article is published on International Day of Persons with Disabilities.