English National Ballet’s artistic director and lead principal dancer Tamara Rojo talks to Georgina Butler about why the company’s new double bill has the potential to change your life
Tamara Rojo is in no doubt that we need the arts in our lives. That is why she has devoted herself to the business of ballet dancing.
The Spanish ballerina danced with Scottish Ballet and English National Ballet early in her career, before moving to The Royal Ballet for twelve glittering years. Dedicated, ambitious and articulate, Tamara Rojo dreamt of not only dancing with a world-class company but also running one. This dream came true when she was appointed in the dual role of artistic director and lead principal dancer of English National Ballet in 2012. Upon starting the top management job, she initiated a rebranding process to sharpen the company’s identity as a distinctive troupe of incredibly versatile ballet dancers with something to say.
Five years later and the touring company, which endeavours to bring ballet of the highest quality to the widest possible audience, has found lots to say under Tamara’s leadership. It has developed collaborative relationships with exciting choreographers; confidently crossed into the realms of contemporary dance; staged new versions of old classics and made history as the first ever ballet company to perform on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.
English National Ballet returns to Milton Keynes Theatre with a brand new double bill from Tuesday – and Tamara will perform a lead principal role. Unsurprisingly, keeping on top of her duties as artistic director and the demands made on her as a dancer keep Tamara extremely busy.
Happily, she still managed to find time for a chat.
I first interviewed Tamara Rojo in 2012 and was struck by her readiness to enthusiastically and intelligently talk all things ballet with me, despite her busy schedule and a limited prescribed interview slot (which we exceeded by many, many minutes!). Speaking to Tamara, it is clear she is utterly enamoured by the art of dancing and its potential to speak to people. So, with the 2017/18 season in mind, I asked Tamara what she believes English National Ballet is striving to say at present. Her response was assured:
“That the arts matter. Your life can change if you go to the theatre. It can make you experience things, feel things, appreciate things. As dancers, it’s what we want to do. We want to dance in a meaningful way. To transport people; make them think and feel and lose themselves in stories and emotions.”
The passion and pride Tamara Rojo feels for the company she now manages and the work it produces is evident in every syllable she utters. Still, there have been significant changes recently with dancers leaving, joining and being promoted within English National Ballet. Has it been difficult for Tamara to balance a need for continuity with the inevitability of change?
“When I came into the company as artistic director, I decided to keep everyone. I felt it was unfair not to, many people have been here for twenty years or more. But, over five years, the company has changed. The repertoire has changed and what we are about and trying to do has evolved. So those who are here now are those who have chosen to be here now.
With change comes so much opportunity and the energy is very positive. It always has been. English National Ballet people have always been the hard workers, those who want to work and perform the most they can – more than any other company in fact.
We have been able to attract some fantastic international talent, with new lead principals Aaron Robison and Jurgita Dronina and new principal dancer Joseph Caley. Audiences will keep seeing dancers of the highest talent performing dance that will speak to them.”
The new double bill we are being treated to comprises legendary choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Song of the Earth and former Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Frank Andersen’s faithful recreation of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide.
Song of the Earth is a powerful story of love, loss and mortality, performed to Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s haunting symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde. The ballet is now considered to be one of the greatest to emerge during the twentieth century. However, when MacMillan first proposed it to the Royal Opera House board, in 1965, the powers-that-be rejected his visionary project.
“They actually considered ballet to be a lesser art form than the symphonic song cycle. They didn’t think that ballet could match up to it! Eventually, MacMillan became obsessed with his idea of setting a ballet to this music. He knew the music so well that when he was given the opportunity to create Song of the Earth for Stuttgart Ballet, it felt like the music and dance was made at the same time.
Certainly, when you are dancing in Song of the Earth, it feels like the ballet completes the music.”
Stuttgart Ballet premiered Song of the Earth in 1965, enthralling audiences and critics alike. It was subsequently added to The Royal Ballet’s repertoire just six months later.
The ballet combines haunting music, lyrics inspired by ancient Chinese poetry and sublime choreography to capture the fragility of life and its constant renewal. Three characters – a woman, a man and a messenger – are prominent within the twenty-strong cast, which also highlights an assortment of additional soloists.
It has been at least ten years since Tamara last danced as the lead woman when she was a principal with The Royal Ballet but the choreography came flooding back to her in rehearsals.
“I remembered everything as soon as I heard the music. It is just an epic piece of dance, everything is bigger than any way of dancing you have ever seen before. Mahler’s score is for an orchestra and two singers: a tenor and a mezzo.
The combination of the dance, the music and the meaning of the piece is really overwhelming in a beautiful way.”
Song of the Earth’s profound message is that death awaits us all and is a constant presence in our lives, yet it is not to be feared. Tamara is certain the ballet will resonate with everyone who sees it.
“It really shows the naivety of people. We continue with life every day, unaware of how it is going to end. We just get caught up in the mundanity of life. So, we have to go to work, we have to take the dog to the vet, we have to do all our daily chores. These things are so important.
Yet, suddenly, life can be over, just like that. I feel a tenderness towards people and our naivety in this way thanks to this piece of dance, I think. It makes me reflect on the meaning of our time here on this earth.”
English National Ballet’s first ever performances of Song of the Earth coincide with the 25th anniversary commemorations of MacMillan’s death, making its addition to the company’s repertoire especially meaningful. Tamara is heartfelt in her gratitude to the late choreographer’s wife, artist Deborah MacMillan, for her support and encouragement.
“It is just an incredible honour that Lady MacMillan has let us add this work to our repertoire.
I am also very proud because Lady MacMillan sent me a note in which she wrote that she feels Kenneth and I are spiritually connected in some way. That meant so much.”
Tamara recognises that she does not endeavour to embody any specific character or emotion when she prepares to dance Song of the Earth. Instead, she surrenders herself to the whole concept.
“It is a strange ballet really because you do not become a character, you are not dancing a Juliet or an Aurora. You almost have to empty yourself, let the music invade you. It is tiring physically and emotionally but I just let the steps and the music carry me.
I think I understand it better now because I am older. As we get older we experience more loss, whether romantically or just with people you love. You see life differently.”
MacMillan’s masterpiece is being featured alongside the Romantic Era ballet La Sylphide. Both works are being debuted on tour before they are performed in London and my observation of this is something Tamara responds to with zeal.
“I am very excited to be bringing this double bill on tour to Milton Keynes. I have always been of the opinion audiences outside London are just as sophisticated as those in the capital. It is so very patronising to think otherwise.
I want to bring the best dance to audiences nationwide. Everyone can appreciate and comprehend it and they should have the opportunity to do so.”
La Sylphide is the tale of a mortal man’s infatuation with a beautiful, but unattainable, otherworldly being for whom he is willing to risk everything. Scottish farmer James finds himself torn between the mysterious winged Sylphide from his dreams and the woman he is betrothed to.
The 1830s classic has been devotedly recreated by Frank Andersen and his wife Eva Kloborg, both leading producers of Bournonville ballets. English National Ballet is making history this season as the first company to dance their version in the UK, but what inspired the pairing of La Sylphide with Song of the Earth?
“They are both quite mystical works and they both reflect on the meaning of life. In Song of the Earth we reflect on how relationships develop during brief moments of life. How we must enjoy each second as we don’t know what comes next.
And La Sylphide is also about the meaning of life. James is set to marry the girl he is expected to marry and have a normal life but then another creature, a fantastical creature, makes him consider a quite different life. Should he marry or have an adventure? Should we do what is expected of us, or do what inspires us?”
Dance always inspires me and I don’t need persuading to seize a chance to see English National Ballet perform! But what would Tamara say to anyone who is still considering whether to book any remaining tickets?
“They must come! Audiences will get a very moving experience. It is a double bill that can change your life. Both works, but particularly Song of the Earth. It can make you change your life because when you leave the theatre you will be thinking: am I happy with life and what I am doing with it? If my life finished tomorrow, would I be happy with how I have spent it?
This is a double bill of dance that is easy to understand and it is not alienating at all. The dancing evokes emotions that everyone can understand. Everyone will be touched and moved.
Really, if people miss it, it will be very sad!”
* Portrait of Tamara Rojo by Rick Guest.
* Rehearsal photographs featuring Tamara Rojo by Laurent Liotardo.
* Production photograph of Tamara Rojo dancing in Song of the Earth courtesy of The Royal Ballet.
English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth / La Sylphide double bill comes to Milton Keynes Theatre from Tuesday 17 to Saturday 21 October 2017.
A version of this interview with Tamara Rojo is featured on Total MK.
Update 19 October 2017: Read my review of English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth / La Sylphide double bill.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.