As artistic director of the English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo is one of the most important figures in the British arts. After almost a year in charge, she is ready to reignite her company and transform ballet’s image. The Spanish dancer came to her current role with the best credentials. Dramatic interpretations of the great roles won her a legion of besotted fans during her 12 years as a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet. ‘Technically sensational’, according to the New York Times, she’s a real tearjerker in the tragedies, notably Kenneth MacMillan’s emotionally charged ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Critic Ismene Brown called her ‘the Juliet of our era… a dance actress of heartbreaking power’, while Dance Magazine put it simply: ‘Tamara Rojo is one of the world’s great ballerinas, a true superstar.’
Brought up in Madrid by parents who actively opposed the fascist Franco regime (she’s named after Che Guevara’s communist lover), in the flesh Rojo is eloquent and serious (if prone to giggles). Ahead of the company’s latest performance, a tribute to the legendary Rudolf Nureyev, Rojo, in one of the glam Matthew Williamson dresses she has stashed at her South Kensington office, told Time Out why she is so driven to succeed. You’re known as a very emotional performer. Where does all that drama come from?
‘I’m a great self-abuser. I really do go for the kill. I know how to move the audience but I want to feel it too. You could just fabricate that emotion but that doesn’t interest me. I need the emotional outlet. Which is something that worries me when my career is over – what am I going to do with all this? That’s essentially who I am: a really emotional human being. Dance gave me a way to get it out without going insane.’There have been headlines saying you’re going to put the sex into ballet…
‘I never said that! But classical ballet is generally pristine, virginal. There is no sexuality. In fact, I was criticised the other day because my kiss in “Swan Lake” was too passionate. [It was hot – a full-on snog with Canadian Matthew Golding at the climax of the piece]. Well, I thought, after three hours on stage I deserved it! Look at him, who wouldn’t? I’ve always been a good kisser on stage. That’s one of the perks of my job.’
Do the other dancers treat you differently now you’re in charge?
‘There is a certain distance. They’re not going to come to me and moan about the boss! I’m aware that they’re not my friends, they are my employees, and although we are friendly, there has to be a mutual respect. It’s lonely, but being a principal dancer is already lonely. You are very rarely in rehearsal with other dancers. And every elite person, whether it is a sportsperson or an elite dancer, lives a rather lonely life. I think before it was easier to let off steam. I could always find someone to go: “Oh my God!” to. I can’t do that now. I am there to make them feel safe and guarantee their future.’Are the qualities you need as a director different to the ones you needed to be a good dancer?
‘For great artists, dancers or otherwise, you need empathy; you need to understand people. That’s something you have to have when you’re in charge of any organisation: emotional intelligence. I don’t think that applies to a dancer, but I wasn’t a typical dancer in that I was always interested in the bigger picture, and I was always questioning, which wasn’t so easy for my previous management. I was told to mind my own business.’ You don’t have any trouble expressing yourself.
‘Not now, but it’s a new thing. I started ballet because I didn’t like talking. The one thing about school I hated was the noise. In ballet there was silence and space to think! I love it and I know that it made my life better. I know that it’s made many people’s lives better. I just want to do everything I can to reach as many people as possible.’ Does classical ballet train dancers not to think, but to just ‘do’?
‘No, that’s really not right. We are trained to think very much. You are trained to think from the tip of your toe to your last hair.’ What makes a great dancer?
‘You need to have something that is extraordinary. That’s not just what you do on stage but it is also who you are. It doesn’t need to be dramatic. We’re not going to do “The X Factor” backstory with everybody crying. I want to create a new generation of great dancers and make the public fall in love with them. The kind of dancers that make people queue to see them. Find the talented people and go out there and say,“Look, this is really extraordinary, you really don’t want to miss it.”’
What would you like to change about the perception of ballet?
‘That it’s a girl’s thing, a fluffy thing, a child’s thing. It isn’t. I just hate the infantilisation of women. In everything. In fashion, in ballet, in politics. Ballet can be many things and I don’t think we have yet managed to spread that information. The audience who go to the Tate Modern should be coming to see ballet, but they don’t necessarily.’ Now that you’re the boss, will you be kicking the old ballets out?
‘Absolutely not. It’s not just about “new”; it’s a question of artistic integrity. I’ve already introduced new repertoire. I want internationally acclaimed choreographers to create four pieces with us.’ You’ve commissioned works from Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Liam Scarlett. Where are the women?
‘I’m going to be really honest: I’ve approached two women and they’re both pregnant. So in the future, yes, they are there and willing, but at the moment I have to let them have children. That’s one reason we don’t see more female choreographers. Women take breaks to have children and then they don’t have the support to get back into work. Another part is that we are not aggressive in self-promotion. I’ve received dozens of applications from choreographers and very few are women. ’
Does it matter that there are fewer female choreographers?
‘Yes, because female sensitivity is different. And there are issues that I want to see on stage approached by women. Very often we see relationships approached from a male perspective. Like in porn, it shapes the way you look at things.’ How does this porn-like male perspective come across in ballet?
‘It tends to be a more physical approach. Men start with the steps. I find women start with the emotional landscape. They say, “This is the situation, let’s find the language for it.” With men it tends to be, “This is the language,” and then you try to work out the situation through the steps.’
What do you get from ballet that you don’t get from the other arts?
‘You get raw emotions, rather than intellectual exercise. Because it has no words, it goes straight to the soul and to the heart. You can be overcome by emotions in a dance show.’