Tamara Rojo: one of the Best Actor-Ballerinas Takes Over at English National Ballet

With Tamara Rojo’s time at the Royal Ballet coming to an end and taking the helm at the English National Ballet, I felt compelled to try and write about how excited I am at the prospect and the effect she could have on ballet in this country.  After Wayne Eagling’s shock departure, it is a formidable task but one that I think the Spanish Prima Ballerina is more than capable of and as she appears to thrive on pressure, completing multiple academic degrees whilst sustaining a career at the highest level of dance, speaks to me of someone that has been planning this future for quite some time.  La Rojo, as she has affectionately come to be known, is one of ballet’s greatest actor-dancers.  She has stood up to comparisons with Margot Fonteyn, although, unlike Fonteyn, her career as Prima Ballerina is not going to go on quite so long, although, with her move and the English National Ballet famous for the magnificent partnership of Vadim Muntagirov and Daria Klimentova already lighting up stages, Tamara may use this to extend her career in the manner of Nureyev and Foneyn.  Although Tamara does not have the pressures that Fonteyn was under to keep supporting a roguish husband and his South American rebels!.  Tamara is ferociously intelligent and I am sure she has plans for the English National Ballet and her own career and I am sure if she feels she can dance for another few years whilst maintaining such a high standard, I’m sure she will.

There are other comparisons between Rojo and Fonteyn, not just her fragile, dark-haired looks with shining, large dark eyes that she puts to great use in her acting but in body image.  Fonteyn’s career was dogged by jokes about her being ‘plump’ throughout her career.  Tamara honestly let it be known that she had lost roles because someone did not feel that she embodied the outdated notion that an audience wants to see a dancers’ chest bones to be the complete package which is an outmoded notion dating back to Balanchine and his idea of the perfect female form based on dancers such as Suzanne Farrell.  The outside world would be incredulous looking at these two women that they were considered somewhat “fat” and I think that as outspoken as Tamara has been over such issues and dancers at other companies saying that eating orders are not so much encouraged but is acknowledged to be a problem, I think that Tamara will lead her dancers to overcome these negative issues and build a healthy future. 

Where Fonteyn was an English rose, Tamara is a full-blooded Spanish Senorita who would not be deterred by the lack of professional ballet opportunities in her own country but followed one of her teachers to the UK and the Scottish Ballet.  Tamara appears to be full of passion and fire and Latin temperament which has injected some life into what outsiders may see as the rarefied air at the Royal Ballet.  Of course, it was after a career with the English National Ballet that Tamara moved to the Royal.  As both of these large companies share the city of London, probably the Arts Capital of the World, it will benefit ballet, by and large, for these companies to have a close relationship as they fight to stave off cuts to the arts and vie for donors.  It has also just been announced that Tamara will return to the Covent Garden stage for Guest Appearances, alongside ballet enfant terrible, Sergei Polunin in Marguerite and Armand in ravishing red costume.  Her main partner at the Royal Ballet has been Carlos Acosta and this Spanish fire meets Latin American heat has produced one of ballets greatest partnerships of two dancers at the top of their game.  A young Acosta is making a name for himself at ENB, Carlos’s nephew Yonah, who is continuing the Acosta ballet dynasty and is a really exciting prospect, will he surpass his uncle but without maybe having the obstacles that his uncle had to overcome or a partner such as La Rojo herself, it is a difficult act to follow but the right partnership is key  and most seem to come about largely by chance, but I’m sure if anyone would be able to develop such young talent and there seems to be a wealth of male talent at the company with the English ballet dancer, Max Westwell, a terrific talent as well, it will be Tamara.  However maybe more solo works or developing her own choreography is the way that Tamara will go forward instead of trying to assert herself into existing partnerships that have largely rescued the company are brought much positive publicity.  I think Rojo will be an innovator and independent spirit. 

Tamara may not be native to this country but by the luck of circumstances, following a mentor and teacher who recognised her voracious talent, to the Scottish Ballet.  It is great to see also that her success was nurtured and I’m sure she gained much from her time at a smaller, regional, ballet company but one famed for it’s exciting use of more limited budget and of course Tamara is taking over ENB at a time of austerity and cuts in arts funding where she will need to be shrewd and innovative.  Tamara’s background, learning her craft in a country where ballet is not a major art-form will be a great asset too as she will be used to fighting for her craft and with her skill as an actress, her continental aura, but rooted in the beauty and fragility of classical ballet, she will be hard to say no to. 

Many have wondered at being publicly rejected for the top job at the Royal Ballet, to replace Monica Mason, but I believe that this was probably the correct decision.  The Royal Ballet is an institution and the leading ballet company in the UK and one of the top in the World.  With this comes a huge legacy and responsibility and the staff is huge.  Most people take on this top role towards the end of their careers, compare the grey hairs of those that are stepping down and usually after years of being ‘in training’ in more minor roles.  The Royal Ballet’s recent history is also haunted by the Ross McGibbon debacle and just because Kevin O’Hare is seen as a safe pair of hands, this does not mean that he will not be creative or innovative when he takes over and there is so much at stake in getting the appointment right. 

I think the role of Artistic Director at ENB will much different from Wayne Eagling whom we saw choreographing his own works in one of the most poignant scenes from Agony and Ecstasy, with the lonely, shuffling figure under an umbrella in the car-park for fifteen minutes of ballet.  The role of AD can be one of agony and will not be an easy role to take on without much choreographic pedigree.  Although Tamara is obviously not going to be Wayne Eagling and she is going to give the company something different.  She has tested her choreographic mettle and in front of a tough audience of her former employers and the man that pipped her to the top job at the Royal Ballet.  One of the most important figures in her career over the last, pivotal years at the Royal Ballet and the woman that Tamara Rojo will probably have learned a lot from, is Monica Mason, whose retirement precipitated her foray into management.  Ballet is one of the few arenas that is largely female dominated, however, there are few at the top.  I think, like their forebearer, de Valois, we will see a change with more women in senior roles.  Both women have just finished at the Royal Ballet and it was an emotional set of performances and one of the most innovative projects the RB has put on in Monica Mason’s tenure.  The ballet was a newly commissioned work combining ballet and art, choreographers taking their inspiration from an exhibition of paintings by Titian.  Both women deserved a very big send off and this project was highly praised for its’ choreography and the boldness of the concept.

One of the criticisms of British Ballet can be that it has not developed a particular style.  Tamara herself is an import, trained in the Spanish system, she herself experienced limited opportunities that the UK provided for her.  Opportunities to become a professional ballerina are lacking in our own corner of the UK with no real recognition of top ballet dancers from this region, although, it could be argued that not every region and especially one as small as Northern Ireland, needs its’ own professional or associated ballet school with provision as world-class as the Royal Ballet and its’ school where NI dancers have previously been very successful but they are at a distinct disadvantage.  Figures like Tamara Rojo are charismatic, photogenic, ferociously intelligent, highly creative, opinionated, strong and passionate, I feel will further lift ballet and make it exciting to talk about. 

ENB is a touring company and that is how they are funded but as an English company, it is not strictly within their remit to tour the UK, however, as the Northern and Scottish Ballets are regular fixtures in our Arts calendar and Birmingham Royal Ballet have danced many times and, on occasions, the Royal itself and will be coming up, it would be good to see them grace our stage.  The company have been criticised for relying on big earners recently, such as the ballet-ballroom production, Strictly Gershwin or Eagling’s own Nutcracker but praised for breaking out of the confines of the theatre, as the focus of the excellent Agony and Ecstasy: a Year with English National Ballet, and taking on the footballers of Arsenal for a car advert and Sky Arts, Swan Lake in the Painted Hall, Greenwich Naval College and in-the-round at Royal Albert Hall.  It will be interesting to see where the company will go in this media-savvy age and whether the company can sustain this interest and funding to be so diverse in their ouput. The media can be a bit of a Pandora’s Box and as long as the cameras stay largely in the background and ballet doesn’t change for the cameras, this can be a good thing.  Ballet is already a highly innovative industry and letting the cameras in has helped ballet to innovate further as with the Ballet Rocks segments on Sky Arts in a pop video style but with the style firmly classical ballet complete with pointe shoes. 

So, this promises to be a new era in British Ballet with two new Artistic Directors at the head of two of Britain’s biggest ballet companies and both sharing the arts capital of the world.  I really hope that Tamara Rojo is very successful and has the impact of her most prestigious forebearer, de Valois and takes ballet into the future as one of the most innovative and successful art forms with a very bona fide history going back to the French Court and through Russian Revolutions to a fake-celebrity-dominated age, we need characters like Tamara Rojo and her dancing partner, Carlos Acosta who also is coming to the end of his dancing career but the moment belongs to Tamara Rojo.  She has taken her final bow at the Royal Ballet with her mentor by her side and a woman that I’m sure has helped her to take the first steps into management, Monica Mason.  At the Royal, Tamara has become one of the most popular dancers in a long legacy of dancers that have lit up the Covent Garden stage.  She has had the opportunity to dance across the world and she will leave behind an adoring audience but she will build upon this success as a dancer to nurture her new company of dancers that have a number of household names and rising stars.