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By Margaret Willis
Tamara Rojo takes the helm at English National Ballet.
Rojo in costume for Life is a Dream, by Fei Bo. Photo by Matthew Karas.
It’s not every prima ballerina who is willing to share her stage with a live goldfish, and Tamara Rojo chuckles in remembering her unusual partner in Life Is a Dream (choreographed by China’s Fei Bo). Now, months after premiering that work, the dancer finds herself in the proverbial goldfish bowl, being scrutinized by ballet watchers worldwide as she takes on a new challenge—that of artistic director of English National Ballet. Seen as the toughest job in British ballet today, the position sits at the head of a company that has no London-based theater, tours the country extensively, and has serious funding restraints. But Rojo is a woman who loves challenges.
Tamara Rojo is one of the world’s great ballerinas, a true superstar. Her dancing ignites stages with her quicksilver technique, elegant plasticity, supple and eloquent back, and natural beauty. But overall, she is renowned for her remarkable dramatic skills that draw out the very core of her characters. She is beloved around the globe, her friendly manner and disciplined dedication making her a most welcome guest in top companies and at star-studded galas. She has been a member of The Royal Ballet for 12 years, filling the Royal Opera House auditorium with an adoring public. Now 38, she is at the peak of her career—that moment when technique comes so naturally that concentration can be focused on ever deeper interpretation.
It’s also a time when her audiences expected to be watching her for a good many more years. So it was no wonder that the announcement of her departure from the famed company was heralded with disbelief and the fear that she was going to give up dancing to sit behind a desk and attend meetings. However, Rojo strongly refutes the idea, saying she plans to perform as well as direct. She has made it known to ENB that she intends to be in the studio as much as possible and that participating in daily class comes before any meetings.
But there also arises the question of past experience to prepare for such a job. Despite various qualifications, she has never headed even a small company before, and it’s a very long jeté from performer to director. So what kind of leader will she make?
“I’m very committed, hard working, and hopefully inspirational,” she answers. “I have clear ideas of what I want to see done, but I also will listen. I plan to have an open-door policy for everyone in the building, as I want to know their views.” But will she be strong enough to confront the notorious ENB Board, recognized for hiring and firing all too frequently in the company’s recent history? “It’s the board’s responsibility to see that the company is run properly,” she replies diplomatically. “I will take notice, but I will certainly stand up for my dancers on artistic matters.” She doesn’t feel that being a woman will make it harder to direct, and trusts that she was appointed because she was deemed best for the job. She will rely on her international connections and strong vision for the company to inspire top-notch choreographers, composers, and designers to come work with her.
At right: Photo by Matthew Karas.
Rojo’s decision to leave The Royal Ballet has not been totally unexpected—it was just somewhat sooner than predicted. She has never hidden the fact that she has been grooming herself for a directorship role. Writing in Dancing Times two years ago, she admitted that these thoughts had long been churning in her mind. Recognizing that she had to be prepared if and when a job came up, she has taken every opportunity to learn the hows, whats, and wherefores.
Well educated in her native Spain, she continued to study, receiving her BA in dance and her master’s in scenic arts in Madrid. She is resident guest teacher at The Royal Ballet School, gives master classes, is an eloquent speaker and advocate for dance, and has received various international honors in ballet today, including a Laurence Olivier Award, a Benois de la Danse, and the Kennedy Center Gold Medal for Fine Arts, presented by King Juan Carlos I of Spain. She spent a month shadowing Karen Kain, artistic director of National Ballet of Canada, observing every department of that company (arranged by DanceEast in England); she has also visited Cirque du Soleil, which has revitalized the art of the circus. Both these experiences gave her new insights and fuelled her desire to become an artistic director.
In 2011, The Royal Ballet announced a search for a new director to take over from retiring Dame Monica Mason. Rojo applied, though claims she had no expectations. She says, however, that it was invaluable to go through the process of applying and being interviewed. (Kevin O’Hare, a former Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer and Royal Ballet administrative director, took over in July.) Then she got wind last fall that the ENB Board had asked director Wayne Eagling to resign (for reasons still unclear). The dancers, appreciative of his effort to establish a company of top technicians, petitioned and he kept his job—but not for long. In early 2012, he was again asked to leave, and this time the order stood. After a somewhat hurried application process, Rojo’s name was the one bandied about by speculators, so there was little surprise when the announcement was finally made.
As Odette with The Royal Ballet. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.
Rojo has spent most of her working life attached to British companies. After training in Spain with Victor Ullate, she danced first with Scottish Ballet, but sped to stardom when she joined ENB in 1997 under the direction of Derek Deane, who choreographed his massive in-the-round productions of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet on her. Her departure to The Royal Ballet came after stepping in as guest artist for an injured Darcey Bussell in a performance of Giselle. An instant success, Rojo was offered a contract. In 2000 she joined as a principal, quickly becoming a favorite with the Royal Opera House audience.
“I always said that one day I wanted to go back to ENB. It was my first home and I had such a feeling of family there.” Yet she knows she will face enormous challenges. “While I want thinking dancers as well as excellent technicians, my vision for the company reaches further. It’s all about protecting and retaining our ballet art and also having the foresight to reach out and keep it relevant in today’s world. The company must continue to be creative.”
At left: As Juliet in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Dee Conway, Courtesy ROH.
She will find the repertoire at ENB very different from that at the Royal, where there are constant changes of programs. ENB does things in chunks: Kenneth MacMillan’s The Sleeping Beauty had already been planned for the fall season, and there will be at least 40 performances. Rojo sees this positively, saying that it will give everyone a chance to shine. The company offers many excellent productions and performs them well, so it is a mystery as to why their houses are not full. “We obviously need to advertise more!” she surmises.
Because there will be a 15 percent cut in subsidy from Arts Council England during the next three years, balancing the books as brilliantly as she balances on pointe is another challenge she will have to face. Dancers at ENB help with fundraising and visibility by performing at private functions for sponsors and supporters. Does this, wonders Rojo, bring new people in? When asked if potential viewers are perhaps put off by the expense of ballet tickets, her hackles raise. “I am sick and tired of journalists writing that ballet is an elitist art form, that it’s too expensive for the average family. People are willing to pay thousands for football! Journalists have to stop whining on about costs and tell their readers that they’re going to have the evening of their lives!”
During her time at ENB, she plans to stage works that will develop the company to their full potential, and to invite guest artists. Speaking of her own dancing partners, she singles out Carlos Acosta, with whom she will always be associated. Their performances would metaphorically set the National Grid on high alert as they sparked off each other, taking audiences into their world. Jonathon Cope also was a favorite, especially in MacMillan’s Mayerling and Song of the Earth. And of course there was the goldfish! The Chinese choreographer brought it into the studio after a few days of rehearsing in Beijing, saying Tamara needed a partner. “When I danced the piece again at the Youth America Grand Prix gala in New York this year, I was given the most enormous fish—it was absolutely huge. Very American!”
With Carlos Acosta in MacMillan’s Song of the Earth. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.
For all her strengths, does the bright, intelligent, thoughtful ballerina admit to any foibles? “Well, I am terribly organized,” she giggles. “Leanne Benjamin, with whom I have shared a dressing room, always kids me about my well-planned and tidy setup at my dressing table. But sometimes I intentionally muss them all up—though it’s only for a moment before I have to put everything back in place.”
Along with self-discipline, Tamara Rojo possesses the energy, drive, ambition, talent, and profound love of her art to succeed in her new role. She should make a demanding yet sympathetic director, one whose ultimate aim is to further the art of classical ballet.
Photo by Matthew Karas.