By Eliza Williams

Jia Zhang in a campaign image for English National Ballet's She Said. Photo: © Perry Curties

Tamara Rojo makes change look easy. Artistic director and principal dancer at the English National Ballet since 2012, she has overseen enormous and swift development at the company, shifting its image from stuffy and traditional to increasingly experimental and dynamic in an amazingly short time.

Rojo was specifically tasked to shake things up when appointed as artistic director. “The organisation was not going in the direction that I wanted it to, and part of my brief was to change direction, to make really big change,” she says. “So to take something that has been going a certain way, and people get accustomed to it, and literally in a few months we’re going the other way.

“The main thing was expectation,” she continues. “I think the expectation of the organisation had become very low. About themselves, about their own belief in what they could achieve. They would do the same ballet for months and months, and rehearse the same thing over and over and then they stopped believing they could do more. Also they thought, ‘this is what we have to do because our audiences like this’. The truth was there was no evidence of that. The audience liked it because it’s what you’ve been doing, so they get used to it … it was a bit of a circle. So it was a leap of faith – I knew inside me that this was the right thing to do but I also couldn’t prove it. I just kind of went for it, hoping I was right and thankfully it turned out okay.”

Jia Zhang in a campaign image for English National Ballet’s She Said. Photo: © Perry Curties

Rojo has made bold statements about the ‘new’ English National Ballet through the productions she has staged. These involve her own interpretations of classic works such as Swan Lake and Romeo & Juliet. “The classics are so sacred,” she says with emphasis. “You can’t really touch them, and there are such specific opinions about what the good classics are and what the bad classics are. And the first thing I did was

[say], ‘well I’m going to do the classics as I think they should be done’. It was quite scary, and actually it was an incredible success, both in critic’s awards, and also the audience, they completely loved it. So that was a change – for the organisation to have faith in me, but for me to have faith in my own judgement.”

Perhaps even more significant was the company’s staging of Lest We Forget at the Barbican in spring 2014. A reflection on the First World War, it featured three works choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, and was a world away from previous performances produced by the ENB. “It was so far apart from what everybody expected English National Ballet to do,” says Rojo. “It was so contemporary, it was so different. It just made lots of statements in one programme. It turned around the perception of the company.”

As well as the work’s modern style, the choice of venue was key to breaking down the traditional associations with the ENB. “We had been at the Colliseum and we had been at the Albert Hall and they are amazing venues, but they have their own issues,” says Rojo. “It was almost like I needed to curate a programme for a specific gallery – this was not for the national museums, this was for a small, more intimate performance, so the Barbican was perfect. Also, it put us in touch with a completely different audience. They would never have considered coming to see ‘ballet’, because of the word ‘ballet’. And suddenly they saw ballet as something completely different, that they could relate to.” Another significant move to reach different audiences also came in 2014, when ENB became the first associate company of Sadler’s Wells, London.

It might seem that Rojo is a natural artistic director, though her journey to the role has been lengthy. Now 41, she trained in Spain, where she grew up, and came to the UK to dance with the Scottish National Ballet in 1996. She then joined the English National Ballet – where she became principal dancer – in 1997 and then moved to the Royal Ballet in 2000, where she was a principal dancer until 2012 when she returned to ENB to take on the artistic director role.

While it is common for dancers to become directors in ballet, it is unusual to hold both roles at the same time. “I’ve had to learn what I could practically do,” she says. “I’ve come to a good balance that I think works for everything. I’m also in a place in my career where I don’t need to dedicate that much time anymore to learning roles because I’ve kind of done them all, or most of them. I’m at that point where I make decisions as an artist much faster than when you’re 20 and you really need to research a lot, and you really need to research within yourself. It’s a lengthy and complicated and time-consuming, and emotionally consuming exercise, [but] I think when you reach your 40s you kind of know. It just takes a lot less to actually achieve something than it used to.”

Above and top: Rojo photographed by Rick Guest. Styling: Olivia Pomp
ENB's production of Le Corsaire. Photo: ASHENB’s production of Le Corsaire. Photo: ASH

“I had been preparing for [the artistic director] role for a very long time,” she continues, “and to be honest what was surprising was how much you do know as a performer about how to manage the company. You absorb a lot of knowledge within the company and you absorb a lot of knowledge about the things you like and the things you don’t like, and the ways you would like to do things. So it was interesting to realise it wasn’t such a big step. The only step is that my thoughts, instead of keeping them to myself, I was now sharing them, and that when I shared them, there were consequences!”

Rojo, despite her many years of experience, was never encouraged to offer her opinion and creative ideas as a dancer. This is something she’s trying to change as artistic director. “The people that have to lead the art form are the practitioners,” she says. “It cannot be the intellectuals, it cannot be the management. I can come up with the ideas and the plan, but the people that have to deliver it on stage are the artists, and I find that most of the time, the more you encourage the artists to take freedom, to experiment, the better it gets.

“I found that in my own career, I wasn’t encouraged or even allowed very often to take any liberties,” she continues. “It was all ‘but this is how it’s been done before, this is how we’ve always done it’. That was the phrase that used to drive me insane, because it doesn’t mean it’s right – in that phrase there is no reaching for the exceptional, no one is there trying to push the limits of anything. We’re supposed to be looking for something extraordinary, we’re supposed to be looking for the exceptional, what is the point if all you do is replicate the way it has been done before? I couldn’t understand it, it was very frustrating, and I think is probably one of the reasons I moved into being a director. In a way it’s a positive thing, although I feel I wasted a decade.”

Early into her tenure as director at ENB, Rojo introduced a new identity and website, designed by The Beautiful Meme. The accompanying campaign featured images of dancers in Vivienne Westwood clothing, shot by photographer Guy Farrow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it received mixed reactions from the ENB’s audience, though in time they were won round. “Happily they realised that this didn’t mean we were not going to continue to do the things they loved, it was just that we were going to do a lot more than before, and that I wanted to show that although we are an organisation that is 65 years old, we are made of really young artists.”

She has also tried to make the organisation as open as possible, to banish the image of ballet as distant and elite, and invite audiences in. “We are very clear that what we want is the audience to come and see us,” she says. “We don’t want any distance, we don’t want any secrets, we don’t want any mystery. We open doors to rehearsals, we try and put everything out there. We are as open and as collaborative and as engaging as we possibly can be, to take away part of that fear of the classical ballet world.”

Like Humans, but more graceful 300dpi[2]
Photographs by Guy Farrow, for an ENB ad campaignPhotographs by Guy Farrow, for an ENB ad campaign

The ENB is currently without a permanent home, though in 2018 will be moving to a space in East London, which it will share with the English National Ballet School. The centre will be fully digitally equipped, which will allow the ENB to potentially broadcast its performances to cinemas and reach wider audiences this way too. Despite this opportunity, Rojo is uncertain whether film articulates the best of ballet, however. “The sad thing is that when you know someone is filming – at least myself – most of the time you don’t dance at your best. Because you are so afraid of making a mistake, that you’re not free. It’s because it’s going to be forever – a mistake in a live performance of three hours, you know the audience are going to take away the emotion of that performance, and they’ll remember certain steps, and they might remember that you made a mistake, but it’s within the context. A mistake that is recorded, that stays there in film forever and ever, and ever and ever! And that for a dancer is a very scary thought. So I know that what usually happens is if dancers know they are being recorded, they tend to pull back, risk less. It becomes less exciting.

“I think it’s still one of those things that we need to crack as an art form,” she continues. “We haven’t quite cracked the digital era – which is crazy because we are the most visual of all arts, so we should be leading it. But we’re not – all we’re doing is recording a live performance most of the time … maybe we have to do something completely different.”

In spite of these concerns, Rojo is surprisingly relaxed about the illegal filming that goes on at performances now. On a recent tour to China with the ENB she observed hundreds of phones recording, despite it being technically forbidden, but sees this as an exciting way of reaching untapped audiences, even if it means losing any control over the quality of the filming. “Just relinquish control!” she says with a laugh. “I know many artists have a problem with that, but for me I don’t, because what I’ve seen is that it opens what I do to millions…. But I have artists here who really worry about it, and it’s very important to them that they have that control, so it’s very personal.”

Rojo is modest about her achievements at English National Ballet so far, saying it is far too early to judge yet what, if any, her legacy will be. But she talks excitedly about the new dancers, choreographers and designers that she has already brought into the company – which include choreographers such as William Forsythe, John Neumeier and Jiří Kylián, and designers such as Tim Yip, art director on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who will be working on a forthcoming ENB production of Giselle – and acknowledges that this has been possible only through the changes she has wrought.

“It’s like a circle,” she says. “You need to change perceptions to be able to pick up the phone and reach people like Forsythe and Kylián, and now we are performing their repertoire. You need to create quite loud statements, even if they make some people uncomfortable, so that the people you want to reach pay attention.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Creative Review

Read more here:: “You need to create quite loud statements, even if they make some people uncomfortable”: Interview with Tamara Rojo of the English National Ballet