Tamara Rojo: interview
The Royal Ballet’s inspirational, 33-year-old Spanish principal, Tamara Rojo, has been busy. As well as dancing here and abroad, teaching at the Royal Ballet School and studying for a PhD, she’s been collaborating with choreographer Kim Brandstrup on an exciting new project. We grabbed her between rehearsals and found her to be slight, sweet and endearingly prone to giggles…
Tell us about the new piece.
‘It’s set to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”. When Kim [Brandstrup] and I started chatting, we found we had two things in common: Bach and Murray Perahia – our favourite pianist. I’d just been to a concert of his and he played one of the “Goldberg Variations”, so we said: “Let’s do it!” The basic structure and the atmosphere of the piece come from the music.’
How about the theme?
‘I wanted the piece to reflect what happens in the studio, to capture some of that subtlety that happens in rehearsals but gets lost in the dimensions of the big theatre. The beautiful thing about the Linbury Studio Theatre is that the audience is really close. So it’s about a studio where a small group of dancers come to work and the dynamics and relationship between all of them.’
You’ve excelled in dramatic roles but this sounds more abstract. Which do you prefer?
‘I enjoy both. I enjoy the investigation that comes with a big character where you really have to do proper historical research about that person to do it justice. I love getting completely lost in that character. But I also like creating moods and letting the audience fill in the gaps and decide what that means for themselves.’
What about completely abstract work?
‘As long as I’m not a moving body that has nothing in it. As long as they don’t ask me to be empty – that I cannot do. For example, working with Nacho Duato, he was constantly saying, “I don’t want to you to express anything.” But just by being a human being you express something. I felt so self-conscious. I couldn’t even move an eyebrow – that meant something. It was quite restrictive. It was quite horrid, actually. For the first time in my life I was self-conscious.’
You’re known for classic roles. Were you itching to do new work?
‘I needed to do something new, something different, something creative. The Opera House is such an institution; very rarely do we get to experiment. We get to do all the big ballets, the big repertoire, but there isn’t much creativity. To start from nothing and make something new is part of what every dancer needs. It’s fine to bring back rep, but it’s also necessary to make sure that in the future there’s some rep to bring back.’
Are you bored with ‘Swan Lake’ yet?
‘I actually still really enjoy it, but every year I want to start from the beginning, so I do it differently. I hate to repeat myself; I couldn’t just phone it in.’
But you did once describe ‘Swan Lake’ as being ‘like McDonald’s’…
‘Because you know what you’re getting, like a Happy Meal. You get the white act with the adagio, and the black act with the 32 fouettés. You can develop as an artist but you’re not going to bring something completely new to it. Of the classical ballets, “Swan Lake” is the best, in my opinion, dramatically. With “Sleeping Beauty”, after Act I there’s nothing to say. Act III is just a happy ending. It’s difficult to give that some serious integrity.’
Which roles would you still like to dance?
‘I enjoy MacMillan’s “Mayerling”, which we are about to do. I want to work more with Mats Ek, and John Neumeier as well. I’m working with Roland Petit a lot and I’m really looking forward to working with [the Royal Ballet’s] Liam Scarlett in his first piece.’
Do you feel you’re at the top of your game?
‘I think so. I think between 33 and 38 is when you are at your best, so the next five years are going to be good. I might stop then.’
And what then? You’ve talked about becoming an artistic director.
‘That’s my main interest. I’m spending a month shadowing Karen Kain, the artistic director at National Ballet of Canada. And that’s why I want to learn about everything else [outside the Royal Ballet]. As an artistic director, you should gather the best people at each thing. I want to know: Who are the choreographers of the future? What is Roland Petit’s best ballet? So I can bring them all to the company.’
Spain doesn’t have a native ballet company – will you go back there?
‘Not necessarily. I have my career in England and I always felt that I could work somewhere like English National Ballet – work with new talent and take a little bit more risk. Like Peter Schaufuss did at London Festival Ballet – make a smaller company so relevant.’
So you feel settled in London?
‘Yes, I love London; it’s difficult to find a better city. It’s the life, the speed, the creativity, the amount of things on offer: the best theatre in the world, the best concerts, amazing exhibitions.’
What have you seen recently?
‘I wish I had gone to the Proms but I wasn’t in London. Although I find concerts exhausting because I always see movement in my head; sometimes it’s really tiring. But I saw Jude Law doing “Hamlet”, Rachel Weiss in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Twelfth Night”, “Ivanov” – basically the whole of the Donmar season.’
So London it is, then!
‘I travel around the world and – New York, I’m sorry – London is much better.’
Okay, change of subject. I heard you were named after Che Guevara’s lover, because your parents were communists. Is that true?
‘Yes. The last of Che Guevara’s lovers, who died in Bolivia with him. Supposedly she was a spy, and she was called Tamara.’
Were your parents very political?
‘I think everyone was in Spain. I was born just after Franco died. Everyone was politicised: if you were left you were extreme left, if you were right you were extreme right. Spain is always extremely polarised politically, there is almost no dialogue. I remember going to rallies at the age of three.’
Were your parents surprised you went in an artistic direction?
‘I think my father was. He thought I was too analytical to be an artist. He thought I would be more practical. But once I’d decided this was what I wanted to do, he completely supported me. In a way they are also artistic. There was no television at home so there was always music. I used to dance constantly. All the time. I was an only child and I got bored really quickly, so my mum would put on music and I would dance for hours and hours. My dad would draw, my mum sewed and made clothes, but they never thought of that as a career, just a hobby.’
If you didn’t have a TV, were you very bookish?
‘Yes, I read a lot. And very grown-up books. There was not much to talk about with my friends! I was reading “Wuthering Heights” when I was maybe nine. I got to back to school and they were like: “Who? What?”’
Do you have to have brains to be a good dancer?
‘I think it’s essential if you want to be your own boss. If you want to make the right decisions for you own career. It’s essential to take time to reflect. I don’t think it’s that people aren’t intelligent, but they take the easy option, and let management make the decisions.’
You obviously do have brains, and your dad was right about you being analytical, because you’ve just done a PhD.
‘I did a PhD last year in performing arts, at a Spanish university, and now I’m working on my thesis. It’s about stress and performance. It’s basically a study that was first designed for athletes who were fantastic in a training environment but couldn’t deliver when it mattered. Why do some people deliver beyond their training capabilities and some people deliver less? There’s a physiological reason.’
What made you want to study dancers under stress?
‘I’ve seen extremely talented people in class who don’t perform to the level you expect on stage. So I started testing dancers to see how they manage in stressful situations, to see if there’s a correlation, if people with the same talent achieve more because they manage better with stress.’
Have you ever struggled with stress?
‘No, not at all [giggles].’
‘Goldberg: A Brandstrup-Rojo Project’ opens at the Linbury Studio Theatre on Mon Sept 21.
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