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Tamara Rojo

Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 7 January 2011.


AFTER DAVID'S WELCOME, Tamara began by talking about her life during the almost three years since she’d last been our guest when she kindly filled in at short notice for Thiago Soares. The first ballet of the following season was Rushes, a work loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, whom Tamara described as a wonderful man. She had been scheduled to dance with Johan Kobborg who suffered an injury and was replaced by Tom Whitehead, a great artist and lovely man to work with, whom Tamara knew well having also performed with him in Carmen. Rushes was a beautiful but difficult ballet to do particularly as there were two casts which were quite different from each other. Kim was so determined it wouldn’t be the same ballet that he wouldn’t even let the casts see each other at work, and rehearsed them both separately. Although similar, the steps weren’t the same and even the way they approached the characters was quite different. Kim had told Tamara which character she was portraying and she had read the book which was helpful as background though the ballet wasn’t intended as a script and didn’t follow the story. The male character is difficult – almost a psychopath who one moment wants to caress you and the next wants to hit you – but it helps if you know your character is either running away from or towards someone in which case the steps are executed completely differently and this helps give them colour and meaning, thus creating the character and the ballet as a whole. Kim never choreographs the ballet in sequence and sometimes doesn’t even do it to music at first but he does record it on his iPhone and the next day in the studio he switches everything around and, maybe, does it backwards. He’s a tough and very picky choreographer, making constant changes, so much so that there came a point when, a few days before they were due to perform the Goldberg show, Tamara said that that was the last day for changes and banned him from any further alterations to the choreography for the sake of their sanity! So, it’s hard work but very rewarding.

 They seemed to be rehearsing for ever at all hours of the day or night but Tamara liked the work and, as it won an award, presumably others liked it too.

Their next collaboration was to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Tamara had been approached by the Katona Brothers who wanted to do something with her but for various reasons it didn’t gel. Many have tried and failed to use this music for choreography because it’s basically created for a singer, and isn’t suitable for a full length ballet. Then Deborah Bull asked Tamara to do something for the ROH2 programme and she approached Kim to see if he’d be willing to collaborate with her. He agreed and they talked about their likes and dislikes. She’d heard some of the Goldberg Variations which she loved and mentioned it to Kim who said he loved it too. Kim wanted to mix dancers from different backgrounds with different styles and Tamara thought it a fabulous idea and very interesting as it would give a different character to the work. It took a long time and it was a very long ballet, the sets were lovely, with great projections which were subtle and justified and always registered a particular message. You see a shadow and then it appears as a real person and then reverts to a shadow. They seemed to be rehearsing for ever at all hours of the day or night but Tamara liked the work and, as it won an award, presumably others liked it too. She said Kim has a great knowledge of classical music and prepared very well in advance what he wanted and how it should look. David said there’s a lot of repetition and asked how it affects the dancer. Tamara said there were a lot of little variations in the steps so that it wasn’t too repetitive. They were rehearsing every day which involved a lot of sitting around but things happen in the studio where you can be stuck in one place for hours on end with nothing to do but where there’s a whole dynamic of emotions, actions and attractions and that was what Kim wanted to portray. Although Tamara reads the Dancing Times she’d hadn’t seen a recent letter (name and address withheld) about Kim’s choreography which someone described as ‘depressing’. She said it’s a free country and people should be allowed to have an opinion, even if it’s one she disagrees with. Tamara usually puts her name to what she says, not always for her benefit, but she’s willing to pay the price for her opinions. Her father says she’s very opinionated which wins her friends and lots of enemies! One firm opinion is that we should walk away from mime and let ballet movement express the story.

Of another, very young, choreographer, Liam Scarlett, Tamara says she genuinely believes he is the most talented person to come along on the English ballet scene for a long time. The future of the Royal Ballet should be connected to his dance and he deserves every chance. Working with him on Asphodel Meadows was such a joy, he is bursting with talent and steps just come pouring out so quickly that it’s hard to keep up – you have to learn very fast. In 10 minutes he makes 10 minutes of choreography which is amazing. He’s also very sophisticated, intelligent, and listens to music constantly and has stores of ideas in his head. You can see his brain is always ticking and things are always happening. Tamara said she loved being in his work. She thinks there is a lot more to come but he deserves to have the chance to experience other influences especially abroad and this too would be good for dance in general. When beginning a new work Liam reads the score. He is very linked into the music, not just the piano but all the other instruments as well, and is sensitive to each phrase and gesture. Her favourite part in that ballet is where she just stands still. Liam wanted that and knew it was right. He is certain of what he wants so you are equally certain and Tamara would do anything for him but he’s very creative and so gifted that if an idea is physically not possible he will have another immediately to hand.

How about Tamara as choreographer? Tamara said she’d experimented in the Clore for the first time ever and really enjoyed it. She knew what she wanted to do and the particular song she wanted to use, so with the help of a friend who was a sound engineer they made it appear like a much-used scratchy record to reflect a damaged relationship when you as well as everyone else knows it’s bad for you but you can’t escape from it. It was made quickly in two sessions of two hours and Tamara made it on herself and José Martin because she didn’t have the courage to waste anyone else’s time or to give anyone else the freedom to interpret her ideas. She enjoyed the experience and had some positive feedback which gave her an interest in doing more. But next time she’ll make it on someone else and will have the confidence to allow it to be different on a different body.

During that eventful year after her last talk, Tamara was offered the wonderful opportunity to go to a Dance East retreat which was for her a life-changing experience. There was a disastrous situation in Spain where she’d been expected to take the responsibility of running a ballet company and it felt like an imposition and a great weight on her shoulders. She’d started dancing because she wanted to dance and to hide away and the thought of directing was overwhelming with so many questions to ask about how to do things and how to go about changing things. But slowly she realised she knew quite a lot and had had a career which had allowed her to experience many different things so gradually she gained confidence. The Director of Dance East, Assis Carreiro, approached her saying she’d read some of her interviews and thought she should go to their retreat on leadership in dance.

It was an amazing week away with 30 people who wanted to be the future leaders in the dance world. (This time there were assistant directors and choreographers but no actual directors, unlike previous retreats where there had been ballet or ballet school directors.) They were divided into discussion groups, were posed questions ranging over new technology in dance, education in dance, what is dance today, does it still grab people, can it compete in today’s world, should we still hold onto the sophisticated nature of the art form or water it down to appeal to more people. They then had to present their findings. There were a variety of speakers from the media, a football coach and the director of Sadler’s Wells among many others. Everyone just kept talking and talking for hours on end and there was only time for about four hours sleep each night. Tamara met some extremely intelligent and interesting people and the organisers said afterwards they had a feeling that the future of ballet would be in safe hands.

Tamara attended every artistic staff meeting and Board meeting and she took it upon herself to interview everyone in the organisation to find out how they all worked.

From that retreat Tamara was awarded a grant (there were five in all, Will Tuckett being one recipient though he didn’t take it up as he’d accepted the Clore Fellowship) to give her work experience. She was born in Canada but had never worked there so thought it would be interesting to see it for herself and applied to shadow Karen Kain, Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada (NBC), to see also how a former principal ballerina makes the transition from dancer to being the boss. She wanted to see how difficult decisions had to be made which could take away the love people had had for you as a performer, and how you deal with the reality of that. There are amazing benefits because Karen Kain is very efficient in terms of getting money from people – in 30 minutes she can get 5 million! And this is because of who she is and who she was. She can open doors and get people interested in the arts to listen to her. Tamara had nine weeks there and loved every minute. It was the first time this had happened in Canada and to have a shadow is quite tricky but Karen and her assistant Joanna were very generous. Tamara attended every artistic staff meeting and Board meeting and she took it upon herself to interview everyone in the organisation to find out how they all worked. At the same time there was an assembly of eleven ballet schools from other countries taking place in Toronto so she was able to go to those relevant meetings, see the shows, and also interviewed the School’s director and got to understand the various dynamics. Every day she took class with the dancers who soon realised they had access to her and were asking for her intervention at a higher level. Likewise administration asked if she’d explain certain aspects of dance in the UK to the dancers! She felt like a go-between but naturally, Tamara kept mum. The NBC is a beautiful company with a fantastic rep but it’s tough not owning a theatre. They have to guest so can’t even sell promotional goods or food and drinks at a profit and a part of everything they make goes to the host theatre. Money, or lack of it, is the big issue and it’s crushing the art form as the number of shows is restricted and you have to juggle the number of Sleeping Beauties with a sell-out audience, with other productions played to half full houses which run at a loss, thus giving only a few dancers the opportunity to perform, and fewer people the chance to see dance. In order to record what was happening, Tamara would write to a few friends overnight about what she had done that day asking for their views and that became her diary, at the same time allowing her to get a view on what she was doing from people not directly involved. At the end she wrote an article for Dancing Times and gave a written presentation to Dance East about the experience as it was needed for the Arts Council to provide future grants.

While in Canada Tamara took the chance to go to Montreal to see the Cirque du Soleil base camp and meet its director. The traditional circus format died 25 years ago but Cirque is now a global brand, based in Dubai, and making millions so she was keen to see how it was done. She took a plane from Toronto in the worst snow storm she’d ever experienced (no problem for the Canadians!). The base camp is just a huge site with accommodation, restaurants, schools, nurseries, studios and stages where the whole production can be built and experimented with. The artists, some of whom are former Olympic athletes, have to be taught and trained in a different way. They make their own fabrics and costumes on site. She met the dance talent mentor and felt they could be a threat to us as they are walking away from their traditional routines and doing more and more dance shows. This man had worked in ballet companies before so she asked what he thought was the problem with the dance industry and had an interesting discussion which made her realise how we are perceived from outside. With some things she completely agreed as we are very insular in many ways. We have a huge heritage but collaborate with few other art forms and everything these days is expected of one person, the director – who has to be visionary, choreographer, producer, parent, teacher and counsellor – and that’s just not possible. Cirque has discovered there is a huge amount of talent and creativity everywhere and in everyone including a cleaner who might have an original idea. Everyone can write their opinions on panels hung around the place and everyone knows their view will be considered which makes for a richer and happier workplace which for Tamara was very inspiring.

The whole experience made Tamara more interested in taking on a directorship but not necessarily in Spain. She is a board member of Dance UK and the Arts Council which gives her a broad view of what the industry of dance is and what it ought to be. Here we are very fortunate to have the Arts Council which gives us freedom to flourish massively in arts, culture, theatres, writers, plays, dancers, choreographers, music, it gives enough support to allow you not to have to do endless productions of Sleeping Beauty but the opportunity to branch out because it guarantees the dancers’ and artists salaries, working conditions etc. We have that freedom in the UK to do anything in dance form but it’s not the case elsewhere where new choreographers can’t be given a chance because they can’t afford to fail. In America there’s no support and they are condemned to repeat themselves until artistically dead because that’s what sells tickets. You can never give chances to young choreographers because failure isn’t an option with funds so tight. In Spain, Italy and France it’s completely the opposite where government is so very involved in every-day decisions and minutiae that the art forms are suffocated because jobs are owed to a particular politician. That’s not only corrupt but is also very fragile because politicians don’t last for long so you can’t rely on them. Spain has had three different Ministers of Culture in seven years with completely different ideas. When offered the job of ballet director Tamara declined and made it quite clear that she wouldn’t be a politician’s puppet and wouldn’t consider it until there is an equivalent Arts Council in her country.

Apart from shadowing Karen Kain, Tamara has danced with lots of companies here and abroad and guested everywhere and with this experience behind her, what did she think were the essential traits of a director, asked David. First, she said, you must have vision, especially with dance today in the critical situation of where we are going next and wondering if classical ballet stands a chance of survival with so few classics and what will be the classics of the future? You need a clear answer and you have to fight for your vision and drive your company forwards. You also have to get others to go along and collaborate with you. You must allow other peoples’ ideas to evolve, a director should support the artists to become the best they can be in whatever their talent. You must be allowed to fail and you should give people a chance and allow them to fail many times because there will be one gem out of it. Allow people to talk to you and inspire you, because as a director you have to lead but you also have to understand where you are wrong and listen to others’ visions. Essentially it has to be someone who understands that the current fashion for dance which comes from TV doesn’t get lost so we can profit from it. How can we get the Strictly Come Dancing audience to come to see the ballet? We haven’t been able to garner their new found interest in dance and come to see us. Why would you want to see second best when you can see the best, with the best productions, best dancers, best theatre in the country? The media will play a huge part in the future. We need to get people from TV on board. Can we be seen in 3D? Would it be a good thing or just not worth it. You have to have a huge perspective of society and have a huge understanding of what ballet should be today. (David wondered if there might be a role for Ann Widdecombe in Cinderella – why not, said Tamara, she’s a clever woman!) It’s too early for Tamara to apply to the Royal Ballet for the Directorship as she has no directorial experience. If she were asked she would apply but no one has asked her!

 Technique has changed a lot and while Vaganova and Bournonville and Cecchetti have great things to say they are all too distant and we should realise this in teaching.

Tamara has done some work with the Royal Ballet School. They are in an extremely privileged position with everything they could wish for with amazing studios and facilities but somehow the school hasn’t yet provided the Royal Ballet with the stars they were hoping for and she can’t quite point to why. We have a responsibility not just to create good dancers in the way that people do steps well but also to produce artists. We need to show that you won’t get the best out of someone dancing Onegin who doesn’t have the background or hasn’t read the story. Not referring to the RBS but in general schools should be academies in the old fashion sense in that they create the best human beings and within that is dance. Now companies want dancers with huge technical ability but ask the schools to teach the Cecchetti method. You wouldn’t train a modern athlete as you did 200 years ago. Although she much respects tradition, Cecchetti would have no idea of what dancers are expected to do today and how to make it work so therefore he couldn’t supply the answers. Technique has changed a lot and while Vaganova and Bournonville and Cecchetti have great things to say they are all too distant and we should realise this in teaching. For six months Tamara has been working with a trainer, Patrick Rump, who used to be in the martial arts field but has been working with Forsythe Dance Company, and feels she is learning more about using her body from him than ever before. How can that be possible to learn more from someone who knows nothing about ballet but who does know how to get the best use of the muscles? We don’t embrace the science of today which would help to explain how long the brain takes to process information and how to get the best out of our bodies, and it’s essential that we listen to science.

Audio clip - Carlos Acosta and Cuba:

Tamara loves dancing with Carlos Acosta who comes from a very different school and tradition, with a more modern way of looking at and teaching ballet. In the last 50 years there have been generations of great Cuban dancers, especially men and it’s no accident. Fernando Alonso decided he wanted to create a ballet school in Cuba. He’d trained mainly with Russian teachers and he had a short career in America so he absorbed their way of training and dancing too and then went back to Cuba where he consulted the greatest orthopaedic surgeons, psychologists and athletic trainers and said if this is the Cuban body, what can we get out of it? It’s a mish-mash of many schools but perfect for the bodies whose physiognomies he had to work with. He’s a delightful and wonderful man with an amazing brain and lots of experience who, at 96, is still coaching. Tamara has done lots of roles with Carlos and is about to do Giselle. He is almost a brother to her by now with so many years of dancing together in different situations. He’s extremely reliable as a partner and is always there for you in good or bad times. He is a really nice human being to share many hours and wonderful moments on stage with, as well as free time. He will be a very important figure in the future of the dance world. He’s an all-round amazing artist who’s constantly looking for new things, he writes, goes to shows, choreographs, watches what other people are doing, and is still an amazing dancer. For her, not necessarily the best but definitely the most emotional of Tamara’s shows with Carlos was Corsaire pas de deux in Cuba (she’s normally very calm but on this occasion was really nervous for the first time in a long while) when he achieved his dream of bringing to Royal Ballet to his country which originally had seemed an extraordinarily impossible idea. He did it and it was amazing – it was such an emotional tour, thousands of people were watching on big screens in the streets, came to the studios to watch, and went to the theatres. It shook the heart of the country and has left an amazing legacy as they still talk of it as the most important artistic event of the past 50 years which gave the Cubans the chance to see how ballet looks today. She went back to Cuba in October to dance with Nehemiah Kish in the Winter Dreams pas de deux and Ashton’s take on Isadora. Tamara has done all the well-known ballets in Cuba so she decided to do something different to give the public the chance to see things other than the classics. It got an amazing reaction because normally they love the fireworks and technical achievements but they also loved Pavlova and the more artistic and subtle performance and had a huge curiosity in the female dancer. She believes Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes was spot on and as a result Tamara is now named in their Book of Honour.

It was a difficult process for Monica, Deborah MacMillan and Tamara who felt like Kenneth’s orphans needing him to tell them what to do.

Tamara’s also danced the updated MacMillan Isadora. Her problem with Isadora is that she doesn’t respect her – she couldn’t dance but must have had an amazing personality and Tamara admired her feminist ideas, wanting to make a living without a man, and have a child alone. This took courage but she used sex and men constantly to climb up the ladder and gain notoriety which Tamara dislikes and so is ambivalent about her. She’s read so much but no-one can say what was special about Duncan though she must have had something. The problem is that whatever she had we can’t replicate. Ashton’s Isadora is so short and just about the way she danced. But in a ballet about her life you get wrapped up in the gossip and drama and everything Tamara hates about her. You have to believe in it and stop making judgements but the work was being edited without the choreographer there. She wondered if Macmillan would have done this with it, would he have approved of it? It was a difficult process for Monica Mason, Deborah MacMillan and Tamara who felt like Kenneth’s orphans needing him to tell them what to do. They were all doing it for him because they thought it was misunderstood choreography which deserved more and better. There are some things about it which are fabulous but everything has changed since it was created and probably Kenneth himself would have done something different with it today.

Questions from the audience: was Tamara cast to dance with Sergei Polunin in Theme and Variations or did she choose to partner him? Tamara said Monica suggested it and asked how she would feel and Tamara thought it would be wonderful. It was a joy working with Sergei, he is so extremely and naturally talented and so enjoys dancing and being on the stage. She loved every second of it, every rehearsal and found him very instinctive as a dancer and partner. She also rehearsed with him a couple of days in Winter Dreams and she thinks he will be an amazing dramatic dancer.

Concerning her time on retreat and the view of ballet, Tamara’s view which a lot of people would disagree with is that we have one main problem and that is that the classical rep is very small in comparison, say, to music which has a huge classical repertoire. She believes the classical language is still relevant today and could give us new works using point shoes but we need to approach themes that our relevant to today’s world. There are so many issues we could talk about and we should be bold and invest in new rep and new choreographers. The huge rep of the Royal Ballet was created in 50 years when Dame Ninette took chances constantly even with people who didn’t want to choreograph initially but she saw something in them and thought they would add something to the world of ballet and we need to get back to the risk taking. Sometimes we are so respectful of the past and we are scared to let things go and try something else, or we just recycle too often. Geniuses have good and bad days. In ballet, decisions are made by people who are emotionally involved in the choreography and perhaps can’t have an objective view. Definitely ballet has a place now but themes have to be more relevant to today and we have to learn how to publicise our industry. There is a lot to do if we don’t want to be left behind and let ballroom become the new art form instead of ballet which can give so much more.

She wants to be optimistic but what she says is controversial and sadly Boards don’t always want to deal with opinionated and controversial artists but prefer more mellow characters! Usually people with a clear vision tend to be loud about it and stubborn and can be difficult to deal with! Rarely director/choreographers have been a success but those who have like Mats Ek, Jiri Kylian, John Cranko were stubborn but generous and gave opportunities to those with even more talent than themselves. Cranko for example kept bringing Kenneth Macmillan back to Stuttgart even though he knew he was better than himself. How many people are that generous? Is a choreographer/director still someone who can say you are better than him and let a young choreographer who is better than he to go forward? We do need the new blood of creativity.

In thanking Tamara very much for coming, David said it was always a delight to talk to her and hoped she would come again to review the next stages of her career.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Tamara Rojo and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2011



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