Tamara Rojo tells Georgina Butler all about her new job, The Sleeping Beauty and what she loves to do when she isn’t dancing.
An enchanting fairy tale comes to Milton Keynes Theatre this month when English National Ballet, led by Tamara Rojo, brings a sumptuous production of The Sleeping Beauty to the city.
This classical ballet company comprises 67 dancers and travels the country, bringing ballet to the masses. Ahead of the run at Milton Keynes Theatre, I was lucky enough to catch up with the talented Tamara Rojo – former principal with The Royal Ballet and new artistic director of English National Ballet – to learn more about her new job and what audiences have to look forward to.
Tamara Rojo is a Spanish prima ballerina, known for her strong dramatic sense, expressive musicality and powerful technique. Announced as English National Ballet’s new artistic director back in April, this autumn she formally takes on the top management position – becoming the driving force behind the company and its creative vision. Speaking to her, it is clear she possesses passion, brains and ambition, coupled with the grace and enduring ability to interpret any role that she demonstrates on stage.
Tamara came to Britain from her native Spain, aged 22, in search of work as a ballet dancer and her career has seen her dance with Scottish Ballet, English National Ballet, and The Royal Ballet. Her experience as both a dancer and a board member of many of the UK’s most prestigious arts organisations will have prepared her enormously for her new responsibility at English National Ballet.
So where did it all begin for world-famous ballerina Tamara Rojo?
Tamara saw her first ballet class when she was five years old and describes how she was attracted to the intimacy of class – the simplicity of there being just the dancer, their body and the music.
In past interviews I have read, Tamara has alluded to dissatisfaction with the first ballet she ever saw, which was Swan Lake. Why was this?
For me, Swan Lake was still wonderful, it was just that before I had seen the ballet performance I had only experience of class. I thought that taking class was what being a ballerina was.
Class is personal, intimate, and then all of a sudden I was learning that to be a ballerina was to show off and perform for others – that was what I was not so sure about when I saw my first ballet.
Educated and articulate, as well as determined to succeed in the world of ballet, Tamara’s first dancing job in Britain was with Scottish Ballet in 1996. Joining English National Ballet in 1997, she was fast-tracked and made a principal in 1998. In 2000, when Royal Ballet principal Darcey Bussell was injured, Sir Anthony Dowell (artistic director of The Royal Ballet at the time) invited Tamara to perform Giselle as guest artist with the company. She went on to join The Royal Ballet as a principal at the beginning of the 2000/2001 season. For more than a decade, Tamara performed as a star dancer with The Royal Ballet, delighting audiences with stunning technique and artistry and creating a brilliant partnership with Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta.
Now, aged 38, Tamara is at her peak artistically and – after missing out on the top director’s job at The Royal Ballet – it seems only logical for her to follow in the footsteps of English National Ballet’s out-going artistic director Wayne Eagling. This new appointment is a fitting acknowledgement of how far Tamara Rojo has come, as she returns to the company where she first flourished as a principal.
Basically, The Royal Ballet’s loss is English National Ballet’s gain.
Fortunately for fans, the new role will not be entirely administrative as Tamara will still dance with the company (in a sort of resident guest principal role). This decision goes some way to alleviate fans’ concerns that this ballerina belongs on the stage – not behind the scenes in the boardroom. In fact, the resolution to keep Tamara dancing should prove a wise move for English National Ballet. It is a company that spends most of its time touring the UK – operating at a massive loss when doing so. Therefore, with her internationally-renowned reputation and loyal fan base, Tamara taking to the stage will get bums on seats and allow English National Ballet to reach new audiences across the UK.
The upcoming tour of The Sleeping Beauty begins at Milton Keynes Theatre and provides the first chance for audiences to see Tamara dancing with the company while simultaneously launching into her new role, overseeing English National Ballet’s creative output.
Asked what the dancers can expect from their new artistic director, Tamara was immediately sure of her response.
Total commitment. It is what I am focused on and I am so close to this company. I have such fond memories of ENB from when I was young and I danced there. I want to help it grow and develop, bring the best new artists to the company and the best classical artists to collaborate with us.
I am committed to getting the best artists – dancers, choreographers, musicians – and having the best training and best care to get the best from them. I hope I can inspire the dancers of the company and share all my experiences.
Fans of English National Ballet will know that other directors have been choreographers, so I was keen to ask whether Tamara will embrace the realm of choreography in coming seasons.
At the moment, no. I am very much focusing on bringing in people with experience who I think have the right experience and skills. For now, I think that is my role, to bring in those with the best knowledge.
So, for now, Tamara will be looking at the wider picture, making the general direction of English National Ballet and its reception her primary concern.
The Sleeping Beauty is often the standard by which classical ballet companies are judged because it is one of the biggest and most difficult ballets to stage. It is also regarded as being very much the ballerina’s ballet as it requires the lead female principal dancer to encapsulate the role of both a young girl and an unattainable ideal.
How does Tamara feel about being both artistic director and ballerina for this demanding production?
Classical ballet is a big and important part of the repertoire for a ballet company as it is traditional and it is what draws new audiences to the ballet.
It is like if you are going to go to the theatre, you go to see Shakespeare – a known great. So, if you are going to the ballet you want to see the old favourites. I think the importance of the traditional classical ballets is huge for the audience – and for new audiences – so it is an important ballet in our repertoire and very exciting to be staging.
And yes, classical roles make the dancer – this is true for both men and women. They are a step up, a challenge and when you have achieved a role like Aurora, you have achieved a level of greatness.
It is a great opportunity for me to have both these roles and responsibility. We begin our new season tour in Milton Keynes – where I have never performed before – so I am excited to be able to visit Milton Keynes Theatre in the position I am in now.
Will the “resident guest principal” status be enough for Tamara? Just how much will she miss dancing all of the time?
Not too much, actually. I really feel that there are so many things that I want to do that it is time to move on to fit more things in.
I am committed to sharing my experience, to teaching and making the most of everything I have learned. So I think that right now, for me, I am just so happy to have the chance to move on to my new role as artistic director.
Tamara’s technical execution of the Rose Adagio in The Sleeping Beauty precedes her. In past performances she has been described as balancing so perfectly still for so long it seems as if time has stood still.
Despite her proven technical ability, Tamara maintains a surprisingly strong modesty when asked about her performance and any tips for dancers keen to master balancing perfectly en pointe.
Well, of course, we all have bad days, some days better than others but I would say I will do all I practise in rehearsal and do my best to perform for you in Milton Keynes at this level.
In terms of tips, it is all about alignment – proper alignment of the body and strength in the muscles and legs – and understanding that although you are balancing it is not a static movement but a constant movement. You are pushing down in the legs into the floor but also at the same time lifting up to the ceiling.
It is all about strength and stamina and doing everything you can to stop your legs getting tired.
The chance to talk to Tamara means I can also ask about hotly-tipped Cuban ballet dancer Yonah Acosta, a rising star who will dance in a principal role at Milton Keynes Theatre for the Thursday 18 October matinee performance of The Sleeping Beauty.
He must feel pressure living in the shadow of his famous uncle Carlos (who, of course, had a brilliant working partnership with Tamara) but he is only 22 and already winning awards, forging his own identity on the stage.
Yonah is a very virtuoso dancer – and charismatic. All Cuban men are very charismatic actually, and Yonah is cheeky, technically brilliant and very strong. He will be dancing opening night as the Bluebird and you will see how virtuoso and charming he is.
I first saw Carlos – he is slightly older than me – when he was dancing with National Ballet of Cuba in Madrid – actually as Bluebird too, in fact, and he too is virtuoso and very charismatic.
Tamara speaks eloquently and enthusiastically and her ambition to succeed is clear. This drive for success is what drew her to Britain as her homeland of Spain is exceptional among developed countries in having no national ballet. Most of its state funding is channelled into flamenco and modern dance so Spanish dancers generally have to emigrate to work.
As Spain’s most famous ballerina – with academic brilliance, dancing talent, and an ever-increasing amount of leadership experience – will Tamara ever return to the country to form a new company?
It is a question of not just wanting a classical ballet company but also of cultural organisation in the country.
I very much admire the English system, I support the way there are Arts Councils and a clear explanation of where the money goes, who is supported and the clear expectations of education and learning. The English system ensures legacy creation and a rich landscape of culture.
In Spain, the problem is that politicians decide what gets support and when the politicians change, this support is lost. There is no concept of long-term planning or legacy – so it is an issue with the way the arts and the culture is organised. This needs addressing before a national ballet company will be possible.
Never say never though… I am sure that if she put her mind to it, this driven dancer would make it possible.
All we have spoken about is work. Despite her passion for dance, her long and successful career, and her keenness to chat about English National Ballet, Tamara must have other interests?
I am very interested in theatre, cinema, books… although recently I have not had so much time for reading. I just love to be told a story so if I can immerse myself in a story that makes me cry, makes me laugh, makes me fall in love again – that is what I enjoy.
And a final comment about The Sleeping Beauty?
The Sleeping Beauty is a wonderful fairy tale for everyone. The classical tradition will be great for those new to ballet and I think all of the characters appeal.
*Promotional photography courtesy of English National Ballet.
English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 17 to 20 October 2012.
Following my chat with Tamara, I wrote a preview for the Milton Keynes Citizen’s GO! leisure supplement.
Update 15 October 2017: Read my October 2017 interview with Tamara Rojo.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.