TAMARA ROJO CBE “IN CONVERSATION” with Gerald Dowler
2nd September 2019

The conversation was wide-ranging, with recurring themes, and this report follows the key topics rather than giving a sequential account of the evening.

During her talk, Tamara explained that she did not come from an arts family (her father was in business) and, until she reached the age of thirty, performing was all-consuming for her. However, constant questioning of her art by her father aroused her curiosity beyond her own dancing and she began to think about how she would develop other roles within dance and to take steps to extend her knowledge and experience.

[Eight years later she was appointed Artistic Director of English National Ballet (ENB). The start of her 8th year in that role (2019) was marked by the Company’s move to its new state-of-the-art headquarters at London City Island.]

Touring and Developing Audiences

Noting that ENB’s 2018/19 season had ended on a high with the Company dancing Akram Khan’s Giselle at the Bolshoi in Moscow, Gerald invited Tamara to begin there. She said that they had been unsure as to how this modern take on the work would be received, as Russians were more accustomed to classical ballet than new choreography. However, the response was one of huge enthusiasm, with at least 100 people on the waiting list for tickets for every performance and Bolshoi dancers coming into the wings to watch each show. The Company had received a very warm welcome, with tours arranged for them to see the historic theatre (they were performing on the New Stage).

Subsequently, Akram Khan had toured to Moscow with his own company in Xenos and there was a cinema showing of Giselle to coincide with his being there. This was also packed out and the screening had now been released all over Russia. Tamara thought that part of the ballet’s success abroad was attributable to audiences being familiar with the classical version and therefore having a basic understanding of the story.

Observing that, on seeing ENB perform Le Corsaire in Paris, Cyril Atanasoff, the renowned former étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, had remarked, “At last, proper classical dancing in Paris”, Gerald enquired as to what touring did for a dancer. For Tamara, both UK and international touring were essential in fulfilling ENB’s mission to show “the greatest ballet to the widest possible audience” and, although that was very challenging, not least financially, she wanted to “take the Company’s work out more and more”. From a dancer’s perspective, it was important for their artistic growth to be exposed to all cultures, adapt to different performing environments, experience other art forms and, not least, collaborate with a range of people outside their immediate daily world.
Tamara thought that it was equally important for audiences to be challenged but that needed to be done with an awareness of what an audience would be like and how their interest could be extended. For example, Cuban audiences would be looking, first, for outstanding technique; Japanese audiences seemed very connected with what was happening in ballet in the west and were probably ready for more new work than the understandably risk-averse promoters there were willing to give them.

Tamara revealed that, even within London, audiences were being encouraged to try dance forms which were unfamiliar to them. Each time the Company visited Sadlers Wells, 30% of their audience was new to that venue. This was partly because people had seen the Company dance elsewhere and, also, the fact that that theatre’s audience for other forms of dance would also book for ENB.

ENB’s funding from The Arts Council was conditional on the Company touring and based on a 3 to 5 Year Business Plan, about which Tamara was closely interrogated, especially in terms of ENB’s audience ‘reach’. Interestingly, the official thinking had shifted from considering touring to be a UK-based activity from one where taking GREAT Britain to the outside world, engaging in cultural diplomacy and opening doors to, for example, trade talks was also important. Nevertheless, ENB could not tour abroad at a loss, although it was acceptable to ‘break even’ if the venue was deemed highly strategic.

Responding to a question from the audience, Tamara agreed that regular cinema relays had changed the dynamic in terms of people’s access to ballet in all parts of the UK. However, she thought that seeing a live performance remained a unique experience. Unfortunately, ENB could not afford the costs associated with filming in a hired theatre but there was the possibility of trying to develop an approach ‘in house’, using the new production studio.

ENB was, however, alive to the importance of its online content. The Emerging Dancer streaming was watched by 150,000 people and seeing short excerpts on a smartphone was surely, Tamara thought, one way of attracting younger generations to come to watch ballet live in the theatre.

ENB’s new home at London City Island

Tamara said that she had a great fondness for Markova House; after all she had been with ENB there early in her dancing career; and it had “an atmosphere full of meaning”. However, it was not fit for purpose – for example, one studio was also the corridor to some changing rooms and a gym, the green room was too small and also formed a passageway, there was insufficient rehearsal space, and there was no room to provide the up to date facilities that dancers needed.

She could scarcely believe that it had taken only 5 years from the initial concept to the point where, a fortnight previously, the whole company (dancers and administrators) were finally in residence. It still felt a bit as if they were only borrowing the building and that they would wake up and find that it had been taken away from them!

When considering the facilities which were required, the dancers had had a major input and had, in fact, designed the green room and their dressing rooms. They were thrilled when they saw the outcome! It was a “dream come true” for everyone.

The overall concept had been built on the vision of having a base with “the scope not only to rehearse but also to create, to experiment and to teach without scheduling compromises”. Being open to the community outside was also a key element of their thinking – “bringing people in to complement the existing engagement activity, not simply in terms of dance but sharing all the related activity”, such as costume-making.  Work was already in hand to draw various community groups into the building. 

Having the ENB School on the same site was intended not only to give the students further opportunities to learn but also to enable Company dancers as well as staff to teach and work with them creatively. Tamara’s intention was that this would develop in such as way as to allow a small group from within ENB/ENBS to both work with schools and tour to smaller venues.

For a Company without a permanent theatre for a home, the Production Studio was a real step forward for ENB as it would be possible to rehearse for productions ‘in the round’ as well as more traditional stages, to build sets, and to practise set changes there prior to arriving at a particular theatre. Other companies would be able to rent the space (bookings were coming in already!) and their artists would be able to “hang out” with ENB dancers to the benefit of both.

Dancers’ Career Development

Following on from what she had said about ENB dancers having the opportunity to teach and choreograph with ENBS students, Tamara explained that she wanted to try to create more routes for dancers to progress their careers. Not all could rise to the highest ranks of the Company and she had to “manage expectations” while, at the same time, having an eye to complementary ways in which they could use their skills, perhaps with an eye to when they eventually retired from dancing.

One approach was to create internships so that dancers could ‘shadow’ particular members of staff with a view to taking on an aspect of their role (temporarily) at the end. This year, one such trainee would be managing The Emerging Dancer competition.

Also, Stina Quagebeur, who had choreographed for ENB Workshops and various outreach projects and had recently created a successful work, Nora, for the main stage, had been appointed Associate Choreographer. This would provide her with the “choreographic bridge” of being able to work with students and assist with ‘engagement’ activity before her next larger scale commission. She would also have an “income safety net” which would enable her to reduce her performing commitments. This was, said Tamara, an example of the kind of transition she would like to help dancers achieve, perhaps into more managerial roles as well.

Where dancing per se was concerned, artists were now more aware of the dance world than previously, more focused on their social media image, and more outspoken about their aspirations. Although they worked in a supportive environment, dancers also exerted a lot of pressure on themselves - they wanted rapid promotion, they expected to recover speedily from injury or illness; new mothers felt the need to get back to full fitness too quickly  – and this could be unrealistic. Tamara consequently felt the need to caution some dancers so that they acted in their own best interests.

In relation to casting, sometimes dancers might be technically capable of undertaking a particular role but not yet ready to tackle it intellectually or emotionally. This could lead to “unpopular decisions” and the need for careful explanations and advice.

The Emerging Dancer Competition was just one way of furthering the development of dancers. For Tamara, winning was the least important aspect as what mattered far more was that the finalists were chosen by their peers, that they had the opportunity to prepare pieces they might not otherwise dance, that they had coaching support from other Company dancers, and that they performed pas de deux and solos in front of a large audience on an iconic stage.

The 70th Year Anniversary was important developmentally, too, as small excerpts of choreography from ENB’s repertory over the years would be taught to the current generation of dancers by “people from the past”. Tamara said, “It will tell the dancers of today who we are and where we came from, instil additional pride in what we are, and honour those who took us there”.
 
ENB’s Repertoire

Asked to talk about the thinking underlying her choice of repertoire, Tamara said that her priorities were: the development of ENB’s artists; satisfying/pleasing the audience; aiming for the highest possible quality; achieving ‘balance’; and being distinctive. She also pointed out that she could mount only six programmes each season.

Elaborating on the need “to be different”, Tamara said that there were so many ballet companies in the UK that it was important for ENB to show works and commission choreographers which would give the Company a clear identity and a unique selling point (USP). She likened her role to that of a curator of a museum: accumulating knowledge, deciding what to display, and exhibiting to best advantage.

Giving dancers the opportunity to have work created on them and to experience varying choreographic demands was essential to Tamara if she was to nurture the Company in the way that she wished. However, every repertoire decision had to take account of the financial and logistical commitments involved, including possible co-production, and the constraints imposed by touring.

Invited to offer some examples, Tamara said that, having experienced MacMillan herself, she was anxious for her dancers to have that opportunity as well, firstly in Song of the Earth, then in Manon. On the other hand, although she had never worked with a female choreographer, she wanted to “give a voice” to the people whose work she admired. Even so, the popularity of Broken Wings had really surprised her. 

While, initially, a ‘statement’ in the form of She Said had been important, female choreographers now had more opportunities than ever before.  And, yes, Tamara might be tempted, at some point, to stage works by historically renowned women, for example, Nijinska.

Gerald’s mention of The Nutcracker led Tamara to say that it was a very significant element of ENB’s repertoire. It sold well and brought people into ballet (50% of the audience every year had not seen it before) but, as importantly, with so many performances to cast, many of them matinees,  it provided opportunities for younger dancers to take leading roles.

Giselle

Tamara had contacted Akram Khan at a very early stage in her directorship and he had initially agreed to choreograph a pas de deux. However, this had developed into the 25 minute ballet, Dust, which had formed such a memorable part of the Lest We Forget programme at The Barbican in 2014. 

She thought that the experience of working with Akram had been hugely beneficial for the dancers, physically and mentally, and that the “amazing process”, whereby he discussed his intentions and “unpeeled every character” to get to the core of the story, lent itself to his undertaking a big, narrative ballet. Akram was not familiar with Giselle and there had been a long, developmental process, during which she had portrayed the traditional character to him, sometimes leading to intense debate, and he had then given the story his own, modern interpretation.

Akram’s next work for ENB, entitled Creature, was now at the research and development stage. It was to be based on three different books, with Tamara joining Akram in exploring where the ballet would take everyone. “It is about the possibility of creating a new kind of life and what that means for humanity”, she explained, adding that technology had been allowed to develop so quickly without the necessary questions being asked about the consequences and that the risk of our becoming slaves to artificial beings gave rise to a whole raft of other issues.

Tamara as Artistic Director and Lead Principal

Asked if she was ‘hands on’, particularly in relation to new commissions, Tamara replied that she would take risks but she would always try to “commission the possible” as that was what was right for ENB. If something wasn’t working, she would give advice and support herself or, perhaps, bring in someone from outside to provide support. She also thought that it was important to have ‘a plan B’ in case things went wrong.

In relation to her combining the roles of dancer and director, Tamara said that, when she first became Artistic Director, it was both useful and, even, necessary to have her name on the bill to help bring in audiences. That was not so significant anymore. There were certain things that she would be performing but there was “only so much room in one’s brain” and the major share of the dancing was now for other people to take on. She did, however, do class every day as keeping fit was essential to her sense of well-being.

Turning the dialogue away from her personally, Tamara ended by emphasising the crucial importance of embedding children in the art form as it was so vital for their own education as well as for the future of ballet.

The evening ended with grateful thanks to Tamara for an enlightening conversation and with a prolonged round of applause.

Written by Linda Gainsbury

Edited/approved by Tamara Rojo

 © The LBC

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