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Tamara Rojo: ‘I became a dancer because I needed to disappear’

Tamara Rojo. Photo: Jeff Gilbert Tamara Rojo. Photo: Jeff Gilbert

Now in her fourth year as principal dancer and artistic director of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo has handled her roles with determination and tenacity. “I can be overbearing,” she says. “I am very passionate and difficult to live with. I don’t let go. I think I am perceived as a bit of a pain.”

Having come in to shake things up, she is now beginning to reap the dividends. The major news is the company’s prospective home on London City Island in E14, which will house ENB and the English National Ballet School together for the first time. Like all the projects with which she is involved, Rojo radiates passion when speaking about it.

“It will provide the space to be more creative and to have more choreographers create for us,” she says. “There will be more outreach in the community. And it is enormously helpful to have the school with us. Students will be able to see what their life is going to be like. Above all, there is what I call the Dance Lab. This is a full stage with a full rig for lighting and scenery. We can sit with a production with full lights and sets. No other company has this. It allows us to finish the production to the highest possible standard. We need to be at the same standard as major theatre productions like War Horse. It also means we can run previews for the community. It is a full facility which we will rent out for all kinds of productions like opera and theatre.”

The company hopes to move into its new home by autumn 2018. But it would not have happened at all without the extraordinary drive of the woman who is hailed as one of the world’s greatest dramatic ballerinas. Her onstage partnerships with Carlos Acosta, Sergei Polunin and Nicolas Le Riche to name but three are the stuff of ballet legend. Sitting in her offices in Markova House just behind the Royal Albert Hall, it is quite clear how she has managed it. Compact, lithe, her dark hair tied back in working mode, she has a dazzling, slightly mischievous smile and the ability to make you believe she is taking you into her confidence. It is a salesman’s gift. She has large eyes that can fix you with a steady, interrogatory gaze. There is also something of the progressive headmistress about her. As movers and shakers go, Rojo moves better than most. And she has shaken things up from the moment she took over the company reins from Wayne Eagling in 2012.

The initial poster campaign set out to shock – dancers in smeared make-up and provocative Vivienne Westwood costumes challenging passers-by with a sexuality that bordered on the predatory and taglines such as: “Looks like a doll. Dances like a demon” and “Like humans. But more graceful.”

“I wanted people to notice first and foremost that change was happening,” she says. “Then it is much easier to make these changes. It helped to commission new work and new choreographers. It continues to be the mission.”

As an opening gambit, it might have alienated the core audience even as it attracted ballet outsiders. But her instinct was right. It did precisely what was intended: to raise ENB’s profile. This made it easier for her to use her considerable powers to acquire the funding needed to put her plans into position. Tremendously well-connected across many disciplines and countries – Nicholas Hytner is a close friend, as is Alicia Alonso in Cuba – she can pick up the phone to King Juan Carlos of Spain as well as many of our own politicians. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she has a hotline to the Pope. And she doesn’t just talk the talk. She danced privately for George Osborne at Number 11 to show him what he would be missing if he failed to deliver on tax incentives for arts funding.

When I put it to her that she is good at schmoozing she gives me a headmistressy look: “The word is ‘lobbying’, Neil. Not ‘schmoozing’. The fact that we can afford the new building is down to the developers who have given us the building and the land for free. They are philanthropists. There is a change in attitude – they see the benefits in all areas. And we are getting better at doing it. The successful boards are those who have adapted to new ideas of financing. There is more proactive fundraising at all levels.”

It is no secret that ENB was in dire straits when she arrived. Savage cuts to arts council funding and falling box office attendances at the Coliseum, as well as sluggish returns on tour, had lowered the morale of the company to an unprecedented level. What would have happened to ENB if all her efforts had proved unsuccessful? “We had no Plan B,” she says simply. “We had to change. We had to collaborate more.”

Consequently, Rojo has negotiated new ways of working with regional councils to assist ENB’s touring strategy and forged co-production alliances at Sadler’s Wells – ENB is the Islington venue’s first associate company – and Manchester International Festival, both of which are on board the latest commission, a new production of Giselle by Akram Khan designed by David Yip, designer of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This will premiere in Manchester on September 27 before embarking on a UK tour, which concludes at Sadler’s Wells in November 2016.

The combination of Khan and one of the oldest classical ballets characterises the new-look ENB, building and extending a core legacy of classical work but with a sharper, more adventurous policy. It is designed to drive ENB into the 21st century and gather new audiences by maintaining the company’s position as the premier British ballet company while delivering new work. The first works Rojo commissioned were The Corsaire, which took a little time to get going outside of London, and the outstanding Lest We Forget, the triple bill of First World War ballets from choreographers Khan, Russell Maliphant and Liam Scarlett. Had she managed to dislodge provincial resistance to anything other than the stalwarts such as Nutcracker and Swan Lake? The conservatism of local audiences is the usual argument against trying anything new and excitingly different.

“I am not sure that it is true,” she says. “We toured Lest We Forget and got twice the box office we expected. Swan Lake was not quite as good as expected.”

Attitudes are changing everywhere, she believes. But the challenges continue. And Rojo is ready to take them on. The next exciting programme is a triple bill of new work by three female choreographers, She Said, which will premiere at Sadler’s Wells in April. Assuming that this is a response to the current debate about the lack of female choreographers in dance, I find myself gently but firmly corrected.

“I had the idea for female choreographers four years ago before the current debate started. My original motive was simple: I had never done a piece by a female choreographer. In the theatre the dynamic of the piece is always from a male perspective. The problem was that those who are around are either very busy or having families. Crystal Pite, for example, was just too busy. Other replies were ‘I have just had a baby’. Worst of all was to be told ‘I don’t think I’m capable.’ I have never had that reply from a male choreographer.”

She has, however, managed to pull together three terrific choreographers: Anabelle Lopez Ochoa from Scottish Ballet whose Streetcar Named Desire was one of the best new narrative ballets in many years, will be creating a piece based on Frida Kahlo, Yabin Wang from House of Flying Daggers is bringing a Chinese perspective to bear on Medea and Aszure Barton is contributing a piece based on the individual attributes of her dancers. It sounds exciting, dangerous and unpredictable: “All three are very brave and clear about what they want.”

Rojo is cautious about being cast as a poster girl for Femme Power and becomes more reflective on the subject of gender difference in the arts: “I was offered a directorship before and I said no because I thought I needed to know more. I think women want to be absolutely certain they know they will be capable of fulfilling a role before committing to it. Maybe men are more willing to take on challenges that they have no skills for.”

She laughs and looks me directly in the eyes: “I am going to get into trouble for that, aren’t I?”

Born in Montreal in 1974, Rojo moved with her family to Madrid when she was four months old. Rojo started taking local dance classes at the age of five in Spain. By the time she reached age 11, she became a full-time student at the Madrid Royal Conservatory of Dance, studying under Victor Ullate and Karemia Moreno. Though her parents were thrilled at her talent, they insisted that Rojo also complete an academic education.

“When we came from Canada to Spain we lived in housing for families that don’t have much income,” she explains when I ask her about her childhood. “It was a kind of Spanish banlieu. There were lots of families and communal areas. Madrid has a great climate so we kids were always playing together. It was a normal working-class childhood. I started ballet at school where I was taught by French nuns.”

Because her parents were aspirational they encouraged her artistic endeavours in tandem with her schooling. Spain was full of great ballet teachers, she recalls, who had been in touring companies and had simply stayed in Spain but had no companies to join. So ballet schools sprang up all over the place.

Anti-Franco propagandists, her parents printed anti-Fascist literature and kept the press beneath Rojo’s crib, so the story goes. Whatever the truth, they instilled in her a strong sense that if something is worth having, it is worth fighting for.


Q&A: Tamara Rojo

What was your first job? Apprentice at the Ballet de Madrid for Victor Ullate
What is your next job? She Said.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Be braver. The only things I regret are the decisions I didn’t have the courage to make. The scary decisions are the ones that have always paid off.
Who or what is your biggest influence?The performing arts. Fiction, plays, movies, books. I don’t like to be told what to think but I like to be shown the reality of the world from a different perspective. And my parents, of course.
What is your best piece of advice for auditions? Research. Where are you going to? What are you going to do there? You should know what we do and what you can contribute to our family. Can you fit in?
If you hadn’t been a dancer, what would you have done? I am a very curious and passionate person. I think I could have been anything. I would have been a writer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? My only superstition is not to do anything superstitious.

After winning a major prize she was invited to join Scottish Ballet by Galina Samsova in 1996. Her career path from then has been well documented. From Scotland she moved to ENB under Derek Deane and then to the Royal Ballet at the invitation of Anthony Dowell. In her 12 years at the Royal she danced almost every major classical role and had many new works created for her, scooping up awards and plaudits as a whale sucks up plankton.  Finally, following some speculation that she was to succeed Monica Mason as artistic director of the Royal Ballet, she moved back to her spiritual home, ENB, four years ago. What were the big differences between the RB and the ENB, and what made her return?

“The longest time I have spent with a company was 12 years at the Royal Ballet. I don’t regret it but I did miss ENB. I missed that close-knit company. It’s a family. You all belong to this one dream. It comes from touring together and having that shared experience of not being in the best B&B or bad food. This is not a ballet company where you can dance comfortably. If you are still here it’s because you believe in the romantic concept of the life of an artist. This is why I want to ensure the company has proper health care, proper nutrition, proper physiotherapy and a gym. I want to bring all that to them but to keep the bohemian ideal. I think we are going to see more of this. We have had two decades of celebrating the superficial. We are at war. I felt it in Paris after the attacks. People are going back to culture that is part of their identity. It is something they are not willing to sacrifice.”

What has set her apart from her peers as a dancer, I suggest, is her ability to dive deep inside the character, to inhabit each role with authenticity and conviction.

“I had great teachers,” she says, graciously acknowledging the compliment. “Lynn Seymour did a huge amount of research. You can teach people to act but not everybody has the need to disappear. One of the reasons I became a dancer is that I needed to disappear. I find the world complicated. I find emotional reactions difficult. Fiction gave me a window to understand the world.”

She pauses, as if surprised at the candour of her response.

“Kenneth MacMillan and Mats Ek are the best teachers of characters – they are not judgemental. My favourite role is Mary Vetsara in Mayerling. She is Kim Kardashian. It is the most fabulous role to inhabit. Kenneth allowed me to be her without apology. She is as far from me as possible. And I love dancing in Marguerite and Armand. If you are a prostitute you are a prostitute. You cannot apologise for it.”

This being the case, I finally ask her if she would consider moving towards acting. At 41, she is aware of the fact that her days as a dancer are closing fast. She makes a little moue with her unusually expressive mouth.

“I love to be a facilitator. I am really good at being an audience member and disappearing. That would be fulfilling. But that’s a long way off. As for acting…” She pauses, shakes her head. “I have a very strong Spanish accent that I cannot get rid of. So, I would always play the maid.”

CV Tamara Rojo

Born: Montreal, Canada, 1974
Training: Madrid Royal Conservatory of Dance
Landmark productions: The Nutcracker (English National Ballet), Le Jeune Homme et La Mort (English National Ballet), The Sleeping Beauty (English National Ballet), Romeo and Juliet (Royal Ballet), Mayerling (Royal Ballet), Marguerite and Armand (Royal Ballet), Ondine (Royal Ballet), Swan Lake (Royal Ballet), Chroma (Royal Ballet)
Awards: Grand Prix Femme et Medaille Vermeille de la Ville de Paris – Concours International de Danse de Paris, 1994, Premio Principe de Asturias a las Artes (2005), Prix Benois de la Danse (2008), Olivier award for best new dance production (Goldberg, 2010), Gold medal for Fine Arts, John F Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (2012)
Agent: none

Tamara Rojo is appearing in English National Ballet’s production of Nutcracker, which runs at the London Coliseum until January 10

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