A delicate balancing act
The feisty Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo is the new artistic director of English National Ballet. And she’s already ruffled a few feathers
The announcement in April that Tamara Rojo was quitting as a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, to take the artistic director’s post at English National Ballet (ENB), set the ballet world en pointe with gossip and chatter. Some critics were perplexed that Rojo was leaving for what was, essentially, an office job. “She never got to dance Natalya Petrovna in Ashton’s A Month in the Country,” one writer sobbed. “It’s a crime against truth, beauty and the muse Terpsichore.”
Swamped in bouquets by the public, drenched in critical acclaim, why, at the peak of her glittering career, would Rojo abandon Covent Garden to take a management post at a company confronted with dwindling audiences and precarious finances? Worse still — for Rojo — the last artistic director, her predecessor Wayne Eagling, left his job at very short notice. The precise reasons for his departure were never made entirely clear.
Thus, whoever took over as ENB’s artistic director would find themselves struggling between balance sheets, the board, creative intolerance and a stable of disgruntled dancers likely to be looking elsewhere. At 38, but still in her prime, was it worth Rojo risking her reputation? She would make it “like Bauhaus at the beginning”, she said. Well, that silenced her critics, even if they were baffled by the analogy.
Rojo started on August 29. Shortly afterwards, I met her at ENB’s home, Markova House, an anonymous building in west London tucked behind the Royal Albert Hall in a cobbled mews. We sat in her office, a white Georgian room opened up by a bay window. I asked her to explain the reference to German modernism. “I wanted to convey the amazing excitement at the beginning of the Bauhaus movement,” she said, dark eyes flashing in her pale oval face, like a coquettish Russian doll, her slightly goofy mouth twitching excitedly, “before it became a business concentrated on making money — when it really was about creating art.”
‘I wanted to convey the excitement at the beginning of the Bauhaus movement, before it became concentrated on making money’
For the next two months I followed her first season, to find out how she would do it.
Rojo’s first public outing as artistic director is a press conference at the Corinthia Hotel in London. She appears on stage in a floor-length white dress, black lace panels revealing slim legs, towering heels lifting her tiny frame. It was at ENB that she first found success. “Fifteen years ago, a 22-year-old dancer arrived at Jay Mews, the home of English National Ballet, full of dreams and aspirations,” she begins, her girlish voice accented in Spanish, her overly careful delivery betraying nerves. “I was never the best dancer in the world, but I was the most bloody-minded.” She promises to bring that drive and ambition to her new job, making ballet “relevant, accessible, fun, challenging — a great night out. Never the sole domain of the moneyed and powerful.”
A whoop goes up, then the press pack attacks. You’ve been without an executive director since January — what’s the problem? What will you change about the culture at ENB? What are you most worried about? She answers quietly, but firmly. “There is no problem [with the lack of director]. We’re in the process of finding the right person… I don’t think much needs changing.” She smiles: “I think I am more ambitious than former creative directors have been.” She’s not worried: “I don’t tend to feel daunted about many things, but the most dangerous thing is how policies will affect the arts.”
The most critical problem facing Rojo at ENB is how to handle the cuts. Last year, the Arts Council slashed its funding by 15%. It will still receive £6.1m in 2012-13, but some spending plans have been shelved. What she won’t allow to be affected, however, are her ambitions to move the company beyond lucrative box-office hits into more avant-garde territory. She’s also determined not to cut back on ENB’s educational drives: “The worst thing is when the cuts start impacting education projects. Then we can’t afford to bring in new people who might otherwise have no income, or access to dance. We really are good at reaching people beyond the big London stages, for whom it might be the first theatrical experience of any kind. That can change your life, give new hope for the future. If you are academically not that successful, there is a whole new world you can fit into.”
When I first meet her, at Jay Mews, Rojo shares her plans with the company, wearing the same elegant dress, her tone much warmer. The dancers surround her in the studio, stretching on the floor as she talks. “Since 1950, ENB has performed The Nutcracker every year. And we will again this year,” she says. But she also has more ambitious plans to commission new work “created for you. This is one of the frustrations of my career, that I didn’t have much created for me. I want that for you.”
Although Rojo inherited much of this season’s programme, she is in talks with musicians and designers at the Royal College of Music and the Royal College of Art, has persuaded the fashion designer Julien Macdonald to create costumes for a new ballet, and is arranging for ENB to perform in unusual locations — a gallery in Milton Keynes, and pop-ups. “If there is an abandoned shop on a high street, maybe we will appear there,” she says. Rojo is already excited about Ecstasy and Death, the triple bill coming to the London Coliseum in April, comprising Petite Mort, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, and Etudes.
“I am truly committed to making this the best and most loved ballet company in the country,” she promises the dancers in the studio. They let out a cheer, banging the floor loudly. For now, though, tradition has stuck: just six weeks after Rojo joined, ENB opened The Sleeping Beauty at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of Rojo’s job is that she’ll combine directing with dancing principal roles, placing her in the ranks of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev and Peter Schaufuss. Dancing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and Clara in The Nutcracker while fitting in the admin requires intelligence, drive and juggling an awe-inspiringly frenetic schedule. Six days a week she practises ballet, rising at 7.20am to get the Tube from her home near Holborn, arriving at ENB to work out with weights. She dances all morning and, at 1pm, showers, changes into a suit and heads to the office for the second half of her day.
As the clock turns to 10am, the mews outside Markova House swells with boys in trainers and headphones, and fine-featured, muscular girls. ENB’s main studio is a grand, art-deco room, with low chandeliers and baby-blue walls crowded with elaborate plasterwork and lined with mirrors. At 10.30am sharp, 19 slender girls skip in for rehearsal, hair twisted in buns, wearing a Fame-style assortment of striped legwarmers, leotards and thin gauzy tops. They are a sea of synthetic colours. Rojo, in their midst, always wears black. She practises alongside them, starting with pliés at the barre as the répétiteur Antony Dowson leads them through increasingly complex moves, culminating in grand jeté jumps, the piano plonking along with Rachmaninov. There’s little chatter, few smiles, just fierce concentration. For the next few months they’ll practise 10am-6pm every day, except Sundays.
Mid-class, they scatter to change into pointe shoes, Rojo falling to the floor to pull off her pumps. Her toes are bound in bandages, which she restraps with white tape. Even a ballet dunce like me can see, just by watching her practise, that she stands apart, each stretch straighter, each leap more pronounced, each limb more elegantly poised, than any other in the room. When they pirouette, she turns an extra revolution. It’s like watching old footage of Jimi Hendrix playing guitar: she is a superb technician, with the confidence to go beyond perfection.