Feature: Tamara Rojo - director in waiting

Friday 13 April 2012

Tamara Rojo. Photo: Johan Persson

Graham Watts, a regular contributor to londondance.com and many other dance publications reflects on English National Ballet’s new appointment and asks what kind of leader will she be?

The news that Tamara Rojo is to succeed Wayne Eagling as Artistic Director of English National Ballet had been widely anticipated for several weeks, with her name routinely linked to the role amongst ballet insiders even before the brief window inviting applications for the job was announced. It is hardly surprising that she should be regarded as the front runner for such a plum position. Rojo has long made it known that she is keen to make the transition from Principal Ballerina to running a company: in 2008, she attended a Rural Retreat for future dance leaders run at Dance East by the indefatigable Assis Carreiro, which led to a brief placement at the National Ballet of Canada, being mentored by its Artistic Director Karen Kain, in the autumn of 2009.

Approaching the age of 38 – her birthday is next month – Rojo continues to command admiration and respect for the wonderful quality of her performances and there will be many who will breathe a sigh of relief that she plans to continue to dance at ENB. But the time is now clearly right for her to make the step into artistic leadership. So what kind of a leader will she be?

Ballet dancers have to be focused on their art, technique and performance but Rojo takes that steely determination to another level of meticulous intensity. So I expect her to be much more “hands-on” than her predecessor; more involved in rehearsals, communicating directly with dancers and making casting decisions throughout the ranks. Of course, discipline and efficient logistics are always key to any ballet company but Rojo’s remarkable commitment to her own self-discipline will no doubt be applied to the company she directs. I anticipate the possibility of other changes within the artistic staff at ENB, many of whom have been used to running things their own way for a long time.

I have always been impressed by Rojo’s encyclopaedic knowledge of dance. She can be seen very regularly in audiences at different venues – watching a broad range of dance genres – whenever she is not dancing herself. She has strong opinions and is resolutely unafraid to follow her own convictions, wherever they may lead. She has always been prepared to give her time and effort to a good cause and has been tireless in championing dance (for example as a Board member of Dance UK). Rojo is politically astute (a strength of character she shares with her father who was an activist), perhaps even artfully ingenious when it comes to the skill at positioning herself for the right opportunity. There are many stories (some even true) about how Rojo won roles, or at least in one case won a key ballet back after not originally being cast. Her “interview” for the job at ENB must qualify for consideration as the longest on record.

I suspect that there will also be some changes in the dance ensemble and I would not be surprised if Rojo’s own dance career is enhanced for a while longer (as Daria Klimentová’s has been) by a partnership with Vadim Muntagirov. I have seen them dance together – in Athens – and it is a potentially dynamic pairing. Perhaps her first major challenge will be in persuading Vadim and Daria to stay? I’m sure that the future of several young dancers with great potential (such as Yonah Acosta and Ksenia Ovsyanick) will be in good hands. I expect that Rojo will be a great communicator. Her dancers may not like everything they hear; but they’ll hear it from her.

Some people will say that it is not healthy for an artistic director to also dance with the company but there have been – and still are – many successful dancer-directors (look at Nina Ananiashvili in Georgia, for example), like player-managers in football. I am certain that Rojo will only cast herself wisely; she is way beyond being a vanity dancer.

Rojo is the most versatile of performers, bringing a passion for everything she does from Mats Ek’s Carmen to Petipa’s Aurora; from Ashton’s Marguerite to MacMillan’s Manon and even unto the briefest cameo role of a seductive artist’s model in Liam Scarlett’s recent Sweet Violets. And it is this diversity, linked to her enquiring thirst for new and innovative ballet that I find the most intriguing and potentially fractious conundrum in her appointment.

Tamara will want to bring new repertory into ENB; she will look to exciting contemporary ballet choreographers, especially from elsewhere in Europe, and she will encourage new work while respecting the classical and neoclassical traditions of the company’s repertory. Even though she guested in performances of Strictly Gershwin last year, I don’t see her as a director likely to be any more comfortable than Wayne Eagling was with constant programming of that kind of show to simply bring in the cash (as seemed to be the position with ENB in the latter part of 2011). And, the ballets she will want to mount, while no doubt having artistic merit and success, will not necessarily be money-spinners at the box office. With cutbacks in the public funding of ENB still having their effect, this promises to be an interesting dynamic.

The foundations of ballet lie in discipline and intense hard work and its success as an art form moving into the 21st century lies in the ability to take artistic risk to deliver flair and entertainment to satisfy both existing and new audiences. In Tamara Rojo, ENB have found a director who will insist on the rigour while building an exciting future. I’m looking forward to the fun.

Graham Watts is Chair of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle & National Dance Awards

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