Tamara Rojo is the Principal Ballerina for the English National Ballet. Her performance as Odette and Odile in the 2016 production of Swan Lake was so engaging and exciting that it’s hard to imagine anyone else more accomplished in the role.
She is also the Artistic Director of the ENB, in charge of repertoire and overall direction. Her contribution, both on the dance floor and in her creative direction, has been spectacular and immense. Rojo is a natural leader and an exceptionally brilliant performer. Refreshingly though, she maintains a degree of humility, and has said that when she is in training with fellow cast members, she is "just another dancer".
The ENB's Principal Ballerina and Artistic Director (photo © Johann Persson)
The dancer was born in Montreal to Spanish parents, brought up in Spain and moved to Britain in the late nineties. She is a shining example of the benefit of cultural and artistic exchange both within Europe and globally. In early 2016, Rojo became a CBE for her services to ballet. She is a commanding figure indeed in the world of Culture and the Arts.
Rojo began dancing in Britain in 1996 when she joined the Scottish National Ballet, where the magic of the lake called, and she starred for the first time as the Queen of the Swans. In 2000 she joined the Royal Ballet as a principal dancer and, once again, displayed her prowess as a swan in Tchaikovsky’s classic.
Tara Rojo, preparing for Swan Lake (photo via BBC4)
When Darcey Bussell had to pull out of Giselle through injury, Rojo quickly stepped in, despite being injured herself, having sprained her ankle only the day before. Her performance was a big success. More drama was to follow in 2002 in The Nutcracker, when Rojo felt something burst on stage. Not realising she had ruptured her appendix, she continued until the end of the show, and only then went to hospital.
Ten years on in 2012, Rojo was awarded the Royal Gold Medal of Fine Arts by King Juan Carlos of Spain. That same year, Rojo was invited by the English National Ballet to take on the dual role of Artistic Director and Lead Principal Dancer. She has just completed her second stint as Odette and Odile for the ENB, and this could be the last time she takes on this part for a major company. It’s not all about swans, of course. Rojo has played Giselle in Giselle, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and many other roles.
Raymonda (photo © Foteini Christofilopoulou)
Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty (photo via lostnene.wordpress.com)
Strength and determination
Rojo is extremely disciplined and trains daily; first, an hour of fitness, then a two hour ballet class. She may appear delicate, but she is very tough, and needs to be to maintain such high standards. Still, she is known to look exhausted at the end of every performance. On playing Juliet, Rojo reflects: “you’ve lost everything and you have killed yourself…but you are still expected to come back for a curtain call, straight away”. Rojo finds this rewarding but intrusive. She sometimes feels she needs to take 5 minutes to “come back as Tamara”.
Giving everything as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (photo © David Jensen)
In a fascinating interview for The Southbank Show, Melvyn Bragg quoted her in describing herself as ‘Never the best dancer…but the most bloody-minded’. Rojo had been told many times that she would not be a ballerina since she did not have the perfect physique. But she got there through determination, stubbornness and hard work. Rojo is also a self-professed obsessive and perfectionist with everything to do with ballet.
Not the perfect physique ? (photo via Hoss Intropia)
On emotions, falling in love, and trust
Rojo is a highly emotional ballet dancer and seeks to “connect with humans in an emotional way, rather than an intellectual way”. Falling in love on stage leads to a lot of connection. Or perhaps it’s the other way round. She claims she can be intensely in love with her male leads for hours on stage. When pressed on this matter in an episode of Desert Island Discs, Rojo set out some clear boundaries: “I can fall in love a million times with the men on stage but I don’t carry it home”. She regards this as a kind of animalistic love, and states that it would never work in real life.
Finding romance on stage (photo © David Jensen)
Trust is vital in ballet dancing partnerships. This goes beyond ability. Rojo trusts Carlos Acosta not to drop her, of course, but she also relies on emotional trust. A form of trust “to take things that little bit further”, without being embarrassed when looking at each other in training the next day. Trust is built on honesty and sharing, of course. These are essential qualities in any successful partnership, but especially in such an intensely dramatic one.
Emotionally and physically, Rojo thrives on taking things to the limit, but always recognizing that you need to keep some of your head straight to deal with the technical demands.
Perfect poise and technique (photo © John Ross)
On the English National Ballet
Rojo sees herself as a curator of the collection of classics as well as an investor in new creativity. She believes that ballet is a very healthy art form in the UK, one that is constantly creating. Ballet is alive and evolving. Rojo also sees great freedom of creativity in Britain and believes that, artistically speaking, we live in a very liberal country.
Relaxed on the state of ballet in Britain (photo via the Daily Telegraph)
In an encouraging and inclusive approach, Rojo is proud to point out that the audience of the ENB is not the elite. The ENB is a touring company without a settled home. Ticket prices are not hyper inflated. She firmly believes that “Ballet is for everyone”. Also, that you don’t necessarily have to know the story before you attend a show. Words in the programme are not necessary; the language of ballet is dance. I’m not sure I can quite share her lack of regard for words, but on balance I might exchange some of my words for some of her emotions and flexibility.
Tamara Rojo CBE (photo © Press Association)
Under Rojo’s direction, the ENB has been transformed with new ideas and new ways to make ballet relevant. This includes the way the classical repertoire has been presented, the introduction of new ballets, the places where the company has performed, the way the dancers have trained and the style of choreography. Much of this has been delivered with more than a hint of Spanish passion and intensity. In this way, English cultural values have been challenged, embraced and enhanced.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
All quotes take from interviews on The South Bank Show and Desert Island Discs
TR’s Swan Lake Page
English National Ballet