- Posted by Amy Bell
- On March 9, 2023
By Graham Watts OBE
Following 10 years of incredible creativity and leadership Tamara Rojo CBE, stepped down as Artistic Director of English National Ballet in late 2022 to take up the role of Artistic Director at San Francisco Ballet.
On 14th October, I was privileged to see Tamara Rojo’s final performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, within sight of the Eifel Tower, dancing the title role in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Earlier in the year – just a couple of weeks before her 48th birthday in May – I had also seen Rojo give a powerful performance in the same role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu before taking Giselle to New York. I spoke to her shortly after the Champs-Elysées show and asked if it really was her final goodbye to dancing and why she had chosen Paris for her swansong.
She was emphatic about never dancing again. “It’s becoming so hard for me to keep in shape, not just because of my work as an artistic director but also needing time to be with Matteo,” she explained. Matteo is Rojo’s infant son – born during lockdown – with her Mexican partner, Isaac Hernández, who took a break as a judge on Mira Quien Baila (an American Spanish-language version of Strictly Come Dancing, which attracts several million viewers each week) to partner her in Paris. “Giselle in Paris seemed a perfect way of saying goodbye and it was very special for me to dance this last show with Isaac.”
That Parisian farewell was an emotional affair, not least because it was also the final performance of Stina Quagebeur who was retiring prematurely as a dancer to concentrate on her choreography. There was a special synergy to their simultaneous retirements since Quagebeur’s emergence as a choreographer had been progressively mentored by Rojo who made the Belgian dancer English National Ballet’s associate choreographer in 2019. Quagebeur had become particularly associated with the role of Myrtha in Khan’s Giselle and so it was also a special end to her dance career. Both women finished on an eloquent high with matching five-star performances.
On 1st December, Rojo left ENB to take up her new role as artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, succeeding Helgi Tómasson (artistic director since 1985) and her first season has already been set by him. She believes in the importance of continuity. “It’s more a passing of the baton that one door closing and another opening,” she explained.
“Helgi has been generous, open and supportive and he has left a really beautiful season for me to get to know the company. I come across as someone who likes change but my risks are always carefully considered. ENB was a company that I knew well and so I was able to move fast when I joined in 2012. In San Francisco, I will need time to get to know the city and what excites its people. It will be a learning process. I would like to bring some of the dramatic narratives that I have learned from the British repertoire and also retain the focus on abstract ballet that has built San Francisco Ballet’s reputation under Helgi. I have no interest in burning the past. I just want to build upon it and since Helgi has run the company for four decades there is clearly a lot to learn from him.”
Rojo has both enjoyed praise and endured criticism during her ten years at ENB. I asked how ENB had developed during her tenure and she responded diplomatically. “I don’t want to undermine the work of my predecessors and I’m proud of what we have built together. Our move from Markova House to a new purpose-built home on London City Island has been an existential change for the organisation and without it we would not have survived the pandemic. I knew it was going to be a very important step forward artistically and financially to have this building, but I could never imagine that it was going to be essential for our survival.”
Rojo also credits changes to the repertoire as her legacy, particularly “the great works by Akram Khan and giving opportunities to female choreographers, such as Stina.” “This repertoire has clarified our identity, nationally and internationally,” she continued, “I believe it has transformed ENB into a trailblazer that other companies look to as a reference for innovation and for what ballet in the 21st century should be. So, I would say that the standard of the company and our dancers and the variety of the repertoire have all been essential to putting ENB in a very different place than when I started.”
One of Rojo’s extra-curricular talents has been her leadership of the UK dance sector. During the pandemic she juggled pregnancy with speaking out for recovery in the arts, appearing prominently in the media. It seems that the UK arts scene will lose a powerful advocate.
She is sanguine about this, confident that others will come forward to take on the mantle but adding that “supporting and nurturing future leaders is obviously important.” Rojo’s views on leadership are explicitly detailed in Perfil psicológico de un bailarín de alto nivel (Psychological profile of a high level dancer), her doctoral thesis recently published as a book in Spain. Unsurprisingly, she achieved her PhD from King Juan Carlos University with distinction.
In 2018, Rojo endured a brief but volatile media storm alleging a culture of verbal abuse and a hostile working environment amidst claims that ENB had lost a third of its dancers in two years. Media criticism also focused on her relationship with Hernández raising accusations of a conflict of interests.
Although deeply upset at the time, Rojo has clearly adjusted her mindset to the realities of such criticism. “It goes with the territory. If you are going to stand up and be a leader you have got to take this kind of stuff. What I can say is that I will leave ENB with a tremendous array of talented dancers who seem very happy in their work and with their future. I’m always willing to be criticised for my work; that is right and fair, especially in any organisation that enjoys public funding. But I don’t agree when it becomes personal and journalists comment about my age and whether it is appropriate or not that I should date someone younger.
When it becomes personal it affects you at a different level but that’s the world in which we live right now. There are no limits (she thinks carefully about what words to use) and so it’s not easy…I certainly don’t enjoy it. It affected me and the people close to me. The worst thing is that such personal scrutiny can make good people – especially women – decide that they don’t want that level of interference, or it prevents them from being outspoken. They don’t want to fight for certain issues because part of the British press will attack you with whatever excuse they can find. And not necessarily because of the issue that they are portraying but because they want to undermine your role or shut you down completely so that, for example, you don’t continue to lobby for public funding of the arts, against the effects of Brexit or whatever. So, I’m perfectly aware that if you put your head above the parapet people might shoot at you but I worry that this will deter other people from becoming leaders in our sector.”
The experience appears to have made Rojo more resilient and she has defiantly kept her personal life separate from her public persona. “As a leader I don’t want to be tougher. I want to be open to people’s opinions and to be able to share my thoughts without being terrified of them being taken out of context so that they become the last public sentence I will ever utter. We’re in the territory now where we see that happening. People share an opinion about a current subject, whatever that might be, and suddenly their entire careers are in jeopardy and that’s an issue we need to consider carefully if we are not going to lose fantastic people.”
We have known Rojo the dancer for 25 years and Rojo the director for a decade but Rojo the choreographer is a new phenomenon. I asked why she waited so long. “My priority was always to enable other people to have opportunities to create dance fit for the 21st Century.
I always saw my role as an enabler but when I decided to commission a new interpretation of Raymonda I found it difficult to recruit a suitable choreographer. And then somebody suggested that my ideas about what I wanted were so clear that perhaps I should do it myself. At that time I had been in the company for over seven years and so I felt that maybe I could take on this new challenge.”
Raymonda premiered in January 2022 and led to a second commission, to make a new Cinderella for Royal Swedish Ballet. Rojo had known the company’s director, Nicolas Le Riche, a former étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet, since she was sixteen. “He came to my company in Madrid, and I had the privilege of pressing play and stop on the cassette during his rehearsals,” she recalled with a laugh. Le Riche asked if she could recommend someone to choreograph this new Cinderella. “He was particularly looking for a woman who could choreograph in the classical language and I sent him a list. Then Nicolas discovered that I was making Raymonda and he said ‘but you are a choreographer ’ and I replied ‘not yet, I’m only talking about it.’” However, Le Riche was keen and Rojo realised that it was an incredible opportunity to refine her craft. “It was also an opportunity to give ENB a break from me and it felt like it could be beneficial to experience what it would be like to work in another organisation and understand how their creative process happens. And, so I said yes before I could think about it.” Rojo’s second full-length ballet inside five months opened at the Royal Swedish Opera House on 25th May 2022.
Rojo is uncertain about whether she will continue as a choreographer in San Francisco. “I have a lot of learning to do first. To really get to know an organisation you need time inside it and that will be my first priority: understanding it properly, developing my vision about what I believe ballet can be by diversifying the voices and the stories that we tell and the way that they are told; and inviting different audiences into our art form. I need to understand how my ideas fit in a different culture on a different continent. And that is going to take time.”
When we spoke, Rojo and Hernández (who is already dancing with San Francisco Ballet) had signed the agreement on their new home in California and we joked about Matteo growing up with an American accent, but Rojo will defiantly remain European. Born in Canada, she came to live in Madrid as a four-month-old baby. However she reminded me that she has spent more time in London than in Madrid.
“I feel that I am a Londoner,” she declared. “My values have been formed by the British arts scene; and all the amazing people from whom I have learned so much through 25 years’ in this amazing city, which I really believe is the world capital of the arts. But, I felt that it was time for something new. America has always been a question for me. When I was 19 there was the possibility of working in the States and I’ve often wondered what my life would have been had I taken that path, so I need to give it a go before it’s too late,” she said with a smile!
Rojo’s passion for ballet is compulsive. During our interview she asked as many questions as she received. “What is the art form for? Who are we speaking to? Who are we supposed to serve? Whose voices deserve to be heard?” And perhaps most pertinent of all: “Why are we pursuing this art form that makes no financial sense when nobody can make a ballet business model work! So, why are we doing it? It’s obviously not for money. It’s because we believe in its values; what it brings to society, to the audience, to the artists, to the musicians, to everybody that gets touched by this wonderful art form.”
Tamara Rojo may be moving on but it’s clear that her beliefs and values will always travel with her.