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Tamara Rojo

Artistic Director, English National Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 18 January 2013.


AFTER DAVID'S WELCOME, Tamara began by talking about her dancing at the Royal Ballet since she’d last been our guest two years ago.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the big new ballet. She’d never worked with Christopher Wheeldon before but he asked if she would be interested and she said yes. The Queen was to be Zenaida Yanowsky and herself but Zen was unwell so the role which is technically challenging was really made on Tamara. It’s good to have a challenge though the whole process of the ballet was quite complicated. For Chris it was difficult as it was a very big ballet and he should have been with the Company for a longer period but was in Denmark so there was less time to prepare and it was quite a tense environment and not a very smooth process. Her role was exhilarating and she could take any bad feeling onto the stage and do something about it! She was also the tallest person on stage which doesn’t happen very often!

 Then there was Marguerite and Armand. She’d always thought it an amazing piece…

Then there was Marguerite and Armand. She’d always thought it an amazing piece. She’d stepped in at a dress rehearsal for Sylvie Guillem who couldn’t make it back to Paris in time and did it with Jonny Cope, who was a genius and wonderful partner, with whom Tamara had a great relationship and she loved performing it. When it came back she was asked if she’d do it here, and this time it was particularly special as Sergei Polunin was her Armand. She finds his performance the closest to the way Nureyev played the role. Also Nicolas Le Riche, of course, but he’d been a student of Rudi, with the slightly awkward gestures. Sergei is a person who has that arrogance and defiance and goes on stage without fear and preparation. It was a joy to dance with him. She was concerned about the age difference but her character is very much in love with this young passionate man and it was inspiring.

Rehearsing with Sergei for Marguerite was fine – he turned up every day on time, respected Alexander Agadzhanov very much and Tamara too and took the work seriously. Half way through Tamara realised he didn’t know the story and was making it up as he went along, so she told him the background and who he was representing and then it was easier as he didn’t have to judge the character just from the steps which is quite an interesting take on it. He has an amazing instinct, and makes educated guesses and you have to respect him as it works for him though you can only ride on your instincts and talent up to a point and if you want to have a long career like Carlos Acosta, which he claims he doesn’t but probably does, you need to do more. Sergei is so concerned about perceptions and wants to shock you but Tamara wouldn’t rise to the bait. One day he’d say ‘I was high on heroin yesterday’ and she’d say ‘how was it for you?’ He has to grow up a little and settle down and find himself. He has an amazing gift which is also a curse as he didn’t ask for that talent or to be spotted and told he’d be the next big star, and he wonders why he should come to class as he didn’t ask to be in that body or to be given that responsibility. So he needs space to be what he wants to be, even if that means we lose the best dancer of his generation (though of course Tamara believes that is actually Vadim Muntagirov at ENB!) But Sergei has chosen to come back for Marguerite and Armand and he’s also doing Peter Schaufuss’s Midnight Express in the spring.

About the same time Tamara branched into choreography. She’d made something before for herself but this time wanted to try it on someone else so chose a friend whom she really trusted, José Martin, who was an amazing dancer and great actor, very dramatic and gifted, and Camille Bracher, a very interesting ballerina with a special gift for movement though perhaps not so much for the classical. She developed the relationship between the abused and abuser and when the abused becomes a willing accomplice and what should we do about that and how society deals with that. It’s a horrible thing to hear that she loved him in the end. Asked how much of this she explained to Camille, Tamara said not very much as she was the victim and needed to be uncomfortable throughout but Camille has immense presence and charisma and is very beautiful on stage.

Last season she was in Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets. She’d worked with Liam before on Asphodel Meadows but prior to that they had had a long working relationship almost from the beginning of his choreographic career. When she was asked to go to the International Competition in Beijing she named him as her choreographer of the future. They spent that summer together and are very good friends and Tamara believes him to be one of the most talented choreographers around today, and is going to get better. He is, though, getting very, very busy. Choreographers today are willing to say yes to everything and travel to make pieces for many companies but they run the risk of becoming ‘thin’ and not taking the time to reflect and challenge themselves. She’s told him that and also that he shouldn’t stop dancing because in Tamara’s experience those with long dancing careers make better choreographers – if you’ve never partnered you don’t know how to make a pas de deux. Nothing about Liam’s work is abstract while not necessarily being narrative.

For the critics it wasn’t a complete success but for the artists the whole process was seamless…

Asphodel Meadows is about souls finding each other in the after life and unable to remember after crossing the river. Her pas de deux with Ben Gartside was about feeling this love without recognising each other – it was about story telling. Sweet Violets is straight narrative, MacMillan style. When Liam asked her if she would be naked on stage, she almost fainted but said for you, whatever! The first time in the rehearsal room required all her courage as there’s nothing more scary than doing it in front of your peers but she felt that if she could do it in the studio, she could manage it on stage. It was an amazing time. Another of Liam’s gifts is that he can take the most talented and famous stars and they all want to please him because they respect him and want to make something special. For the critics it wasn’t a complete success but for the artists the whole process was seamless – Liam knew what he wanted but at the same time he was willing to listen to suggestions about how to tell the story. Each cast looked at the other from out front and made suggestions so it was collaborative. The last pas de deux is exquisite and the first beautiful. He was open about the Jack (the Ripper) character to Steven McRae but not to the rest of the cast. Probably he does that quite a lot – Liam will tell some people some information and others different information but you are free to interpret. Tamara, being a pain, asked questions all the time! Steven’s role is a mystery – we don’t know who he was and Liam wanted to leave it that way, he wasn’t there to solve a mystery, just to tell the story. They researched in books about the lives of the characters. Tamara’s woman was a model and an alcoholic in a relationship with a painter but not the witness of any crime so her character wasn’t too complicated – she was a woman who had to survive and drank and chose to pose naked and with not a lot of drama to her. Liam gave them a lot of literature and visual images of the paintings.

Then there was Prince of the Pagodas. Before seeing the ballet Tamara, having said she’d like to do the role, had a conversation with David when he said Epine has lots of jumping and Tamara said ‘they won’t give it to me then’! She was glad to have done it, and really enjoyed it – since working with a sports scientist her jumping is better and she now enjoys it. The role is fantastic. She’s a woman who is hard done by – a father who doesn’t like you and splits his kingdom unfairly so they have to be taught a lesson. She liked the choreography too – the solos and pas de cinq are the most fun in the ballet – and the music is challenging, though she’s not a fan of the sets which are dated. Initially she wasn’t sure of the editing for this production but changed her mind and felt it was right and we should do it all the time. If we want these works to live on, we need to treat them with the same freedom as we treat Shakespeare. Every production is different – seeing Julius Caesar played entirely by women makes it a different play. We could do the same with Beauty and Kenneth’s works. It may succeed or not but you have to try, as you do with music. Otherwise in 50 years time no one will want to watch these ballets. In principle, we should be able to interpret as we do with literature, music and painting – Picasso did it with Velazquez and what he did is not better but is different. We do it with Tchaikovsky – no-one sees the original Sleeping Beauty.

 One of the most dangerous things for dance is the rights of the choreographers and those who inherit those rights as it means these works are frozen for 60 years.

One of the most dangerous things for dance is the rights of the choreographers and those who inherit those rights as it means these works are frozen for 60 years. What if something is almost a success and with a bit of tweaking it could be a great success? If dance wants to be as creative as other art forms, choreographers have to be less precious. Although they’ve changed things in their life time, they wouldn’t allow anyone else to interpret their work. How many covers of Elton John’s This is my Song have we had? Some people have done amazing things with that song. Tamara grew up with the music of Leonard Cohen, an idol of her father’s, and suddenly she was outraged to hear Leona Lewis do a version of one of his songs. But she liked the new arrangement and it meant that a whole new public were in touch with Leonard Cohen and his work is inspiring a new generation.

Birthday Offering is very much about the people of that time and now whoever does it it’s never going to be the same and that’s boring for an artist. Even before they started rehearsing they knew it was a lost cause and you couldn’t please anyone involved. When you approach a work that way you haven’t a chance and it’s almost pointless. It could be reinterpreted, with a change of costumes, and made into something that has a point, and not simply to compare the new generation with the old.

Tamara was in the Wayne McGregor/Kim Brandstrup collaboration on Metamorphosis:Titian 2012. She enjoyed having artists coming in to work with them and designing outrageous costumes you couldn’t dance in! She loved her music, and learning about the machine and how it worked, waiting for the machine to move like her. It was a very interesting process as Kim and Wayne are opposite in everything in the way they work – Kim is about experimenting and looking and finding and Wayne is about doing and go, go go, all adrenalin and power while Kim creates a nice atmosphere and lets you float. It’s like China and Japan but they respected each other and the work was good and she enjoyed it. Seven choreographers in one evening is political correctness gone crazy. You want to please everyone and perhaps it didn’t please everybody but Monica chose the choreographers who had worked with the Royal throughout her tenure.

Tamara had a whole range of roles during that period. Song of the Earth is wonderful. It has been her favourite MacMillan ballet from the beginning, a real masterpiece and the last pas de deux is an absolute joy to do. She danced it first with Jonny Cope and no one can make her feel as he did. But Rupert was a wonderful and very sensitive partner who did a great job of being the Man and Carlos is the best Death around. Once again, Tamara was very lucky – it’s a ballet which needs a strong cast and that is what they had. It was great to be able to do it again before she left the company.

Audio clip - applying for directorships:

Soon after she was last our guest, Tamara applied for the post of Director of the Royal Ballet. She had had no intention of doing so as she had no experience and didn’t think it was possible but a Board Chairman, Simon Robey, said they wanted her to apply. She thought it was crazy and she wouldn’t be considered but it was a good way of learning about the process. It was an experience, wonderful and crazy as she landed up being second which was scary. She was very nervous and spent the whole of the Sunday crying as the decision was to be announced the following day – what should she do if she was offered it as she didn’t really want it! She learnt a lot and they were very generous in the process and with feedback on how she was doing things and her plans for the company and through it she developed a better friendship with Tony Hall and Simon, so it was a great experience. It led to the next application, for English National Ballet, so by then she knew what she really wanted to do and that was the luxury of having had a ‘dress rehearsal’. She’d always been candid about ENB having had a huge emotional and important meaning in her career, her first real roles, opportunities, her first choreography, and it shaped her understanding of the responsibility of the arts to society and giving back to the taxpayer. She learned it through their amazing work, touring and in education, and it’s an important part of the dance landscape. She realised that Royal Ballet dancers have no perspective of what a diverse country England is and how different other areas are from London in terms of traditions and religions, likes and dislikes. It’s strange that as a foreigner she was aware of all this but it’s because of ENB.

She is very happy and proud that her application there was successful. She was very young when she applied but had no second thoughts about it being the right time.

She is very happy and proud that her application was successful. She was very young when she applied but had no second thoughts about it being the right time. She wanted to use her name to bring the media attention that ENB deserves, and choreographers and collaborators (there’s a new collaboration with Vivienne Westwood, of which more later). Her position as ballerina is essential to what she wants to do for and with the company in the next five years as it opens a lot of doors and brings people’s attention to what they are doing. It’s the right time. She knows where she is as a ballerina. Someone said recently she is a classical icon so is allowed to break the rules! Now it’s about giving the company the pride of being part of ENB, and encouraging them to be the best they can be, and lead them to excellence by example. She’s not so hungry for herself now. There are a lot of young dancers with a lot of talent so there’s no need to change dancers at present but she has surrounded herself with different ballet staff. A positive result of travelling the world as an artist is getting to know good teachers like Loipa Araujo who with Alexander has been a constant presence in Tamara’s career. She is the best ballet teacher and coach in the world. She asked Loipa to come as associate artistic director and she said yes, despite Tamara’s worry that she might find it too cold here, though she did take the precaution of asking her in May! The next person she got on board is her great friend since the age of 9, who is like her brother – José Martín. After a career in the US and around the world, they found themselves together again at the Royal Ballet. José is always mentoring others, the kind of dancer who other dancers like Claire and Sander go to for advice. She knew it was a little early for him to stop dancing but she also knew he would be an amazing teacher and he agreed to join.

Tamara met Hua Fang Zhang at the National Ballet of China and she’s an amazing teacher for the corps. She is kind and caring and very good at her job. She had married an Englishman and was living here so that was a plus. For family reasons, Anthony Dowson sadly had to step down, at least for a while, so she asked Yohei Sasaki, former RB soloist, to join them. She has an almighty team.

The repertoire. The first part of the season was already programmed with Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. She respects Kenneth MacMillan and his Beauty is lovely, the costumes great, but the sets by Nicki Georgiadis are not for touring and Peter Farmer did theirs. As a production it’s really good and she asked David Wall and Alfreda to come and help put it together. Then Nutcracker – to have your previous director back after two months isn’t ideal but Wayne was a pleasure to work with.

Tamara then announced the programme for the rest of the season. She wants to give ENB an identity of its own as it’s unfair that they are thought of as a lesser London company. They need works of international reputation and value with good choreographers. She invited Jiri Kylian but he doesn’t create outside Holland though he said he would give them a piece and she asked for Petite Mort which is outstanding. It’s very important for the dancers to have that sort of language – very hard work, very specific, very much like poetry, you can’t change a word or the rhythm, or the meaning and they are very fussy about that. It’s stunning and will look good. She admires Roland Petit whom she had the fortune to work with at the end of his life, so they have Le Jeune homme et la mort, another dramatic ballet of the 20th century, and lastly comes Etudes which is beautiful and showcases the company well. It’s modern in concept and shows the process of how dance techniques develop in class. It’s a good piece to end and represents the three strands – poetic, dramatic, abstract. When the dancers heard about Kylian they were jumping with joy as he has such a reputation and it’s the dream of every dancer to work with him. The other programme is all Rudi – as someone who is very important for ENB she wanted him to have a programme of his own. Petrushka is where he came from and was important in his career, Song of the Wayfarer reflects his life, not being able to go home and always travelling and moving around, and Raymonda which is Rudi the choreographer.

Obviously when putting these programmes together Tamara chose pieces she liked, but David asked if she also thought about the dancers in the company. Tamara said very much so. They have amazingly beautiful women and men and she wants to show them off. Sometimes with beautiful costumes you don’t see the beauty of the body. Le Jeune Homme et la mort will show off the talent and they will see what the piece should look like. To progress you have to challenge so Etudes will be good for the company as it is a very challenging piece. There are also some really good actors in the company who will suit Song of the Wayfarer, and the more poetic and lyrical rather than the bravura dancer.

Tamara had chosen choroeographers who have been neglected here – Petit, Kylian, Béjart. The critics have been rude about them and she believes it’s unfair to them, the dancers and the public not to show what international choreography is. It shouldn’t be seen as a threat or protecting our own choreographers as one can’t exist without the other. John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan were best friends who helped and inspired each other all their lives. In the future Tamara plans more creations for the company and more ballets and choreographers who have been neglected and a lot of interesting things that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.

 Tamara’s favourite ballet at the Royal was Mats Ek’s Carmen. She said he’s coming to see ENB…

Tamara’s favourite ballet at the Royal was Mats Ek’s Carmen. She said he’s coming to see ENB so she will hopefully get him to work with them. Asked why Carmen is so important to her, Tamara said that in her opinion Mats is as honest as Kenneth – he represents the characters as they are, and though it’s a different language, when you are dancing you feel so free and honest, not hiding anything or trying to pretend. Carmen wasn’t a victim of love, she was atrocious and a prostitute you feel it is right. As a man Mats Ek is kind and generous and wants you to feel included, to get the best out of you he encourages you to feel you have it in you, and to look for and find it. One moment when she steals the red cloth from the heart of Don José, and he’s left shivering, Tom (Whitehead) couldn’t quite get it or understand what it was about and Mats explained she is relieving you of all your guilt so you’re born again. Tamara wants her dancers to experience that amazing feeling. John Neumeier is busy and she is discussing with him but he is talking about 2027 which may be rather late! It’s much harder to get him as he has to run his own company and produce work for them every year.

Kylian developed other choreographers including Paul Lightfoot. She’s talked to Paul, director of NDT, but there’s a new movement in contemporary ballet that they don’t want to share as they feel it might lose its identity. It is a shame. She is working on him but for him it’s an ethical issue and perhaps they will never agree.

Forsythe was danced a lot at the Royal before Tamara arrived. She had a meeting with his agent a couple of days ago, but she wants also to leave room for other people and their own Associate Artist, George Williamson, to develop their own choreographers. She wants a big collection of treasures to enjoy, but she wants to leave space too. The back rep of ENB is good, they have some beautiful ballets including Rudi’s Romeo and they will do Derek’s Romeo (in the round) and La Sylphide.

George has a lot of responsibility – they are doing his Firebird, and he’s working on ‘My First Cinderella’, part of a series of ballets for children aged over three years, where they take a big ballet and break it down to make it child friendly. He is in charge of connecting the company with other artists, making a network to support artists who want to create together. He is very young, so internet and media savvy, and is a very busy boy. In the interest of collaborating with different art forms and as part of the rebranding of ENB, Vivienne Westwood has come on board and allowed them to use her creations in which the dancers look amazing and which makes for a very successful collaboration. Fernando Montaño had brought Vivienne to Cinderella and after the curtain call they went back stage and Tamara was amazed to see Vivienne dressed as Cinderella, just like herself, as she’d had the costume copied that day!

Tamara said it felt good to be touring again. Luke Jennings wrote about a performance of Sleeping Beauty in Manchester which was full of children who were so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Afterwards a little mixed race boy said to his teacher he wanted to be a ballet dancer and Tamara thinks that’s her biggest success. They also have contacts with Northern Ballet Theatre school contacts.

Asked how she managed to do it all Tamara said she doesn’t sleep much! But she’s backed by a wonderful team – Karen Napier will be important for the company in terms of managing future financial cuts, there’s an amazing ballet staff, and an extremely generous Board, so there’s a lot of people who want her to succeed. She will continue dancing – she doing Sleeping Beauty at present and plans to be in Raymonda for a few years to come.

Tamara talked of the challenge posed by the new laws which prevented the ENB and other schools from offering positions to Japanese and other non-EU students with a lack of adequate English. They might only be able to offer places to Europeans, so perhaps the non-EU students would have to marry someone suitable! It was not the intention when the law was passed but it is a consequence. Dance UK amongst others are trying to help.

Tamara talked of her partners. Carlos was very important in her career as he was someone she could trust physically and emotionally. She first danced Swan Lake with him and then Romeo and Manon. She had a great emotional understanding with Jonny Cope who was also very important to her. Steven McRae is fantastic and they hear musical similarly. Everyone hears it differently – Alina and Johan attack the music, she and Carlos feel it the same way and are often just behind, and Marianela and Thiago are further behind. She’s not sure where the idea of a similarity between her and Margot Fonteyn came from. She’s been fighting against it as she was always told she needed to be more classical when she holds her balances and does her pirouettes. It’s just her personality.

Tamara then talked about the awful acid attack on Sergei Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi, who’d been operated on in the hope of saving his sight. He had been receiving death threats and was victim of other intimidations. Russia is becoming a lawless country where you can’t trust that people will be caught and justice served. Tamara mentioned some of Johan Kobborg’s experiences when he went to work on La Sylphide. Who will be brave enough to risk his life to fight the political battles which have nothing to do with the art form when the Director says they can’t provide the right security?

It was sad to end on such a note but Tamara said that’s why we need to treasure and protect the Arts Council. It was set up after WWII to protect the arts from politicians and it is still as important today helping create the amazing cultural life that we enjoy here.

David said it was always a pleasure to have Tamara with us and thanked her very very much for being our guest once again.

Report written by Liz Boutell, corrected by Tamara Rojo and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2013.

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