Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer & Artistic Director, English National Ballet
Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme Ltd., interviews Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director and Lead Principal Dancer for the English National Ballet.
Really Moving the Human Story Forward
ideaXme’s mission is to Move the human story forward!™.
In today’s interview, this concept of movement takes on a literal meaning of moving the human body forward. We explore the new, evolving and breathtaking ways in which humans move in the world of dance and speak to a pioneer who is shaping the sector.
Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director and Lead Principal Ballerina for the English National Ballet (ENB) takes us through her unique journey into the world of dance.
Tamara’s story is one of profound resilience, dedication, and bravery. After stumbling upon ballet accidentally as a child, she fell in love with it and went on to study at the Madrid Royal Conservatory of Dance, Real Conservatorio Profesional de Danza Mariemma, resuming her academic studies at night.
She later attained a Bachelor of Dance and Master of Scenic Arts degrees and ultimately achieved a PhD in Performing Arts, becoming D.A. Magna Cum Laude from the King Juan Carlos University.
Tamara began her career in Madrid with the Ballet de la Comunidad de Madrid. She went on to represent the company at the Paris International Dance competition in 1994, winning both the Gold Medal and the Special Jury award.
After this, Tamara was invited to join the Scottish National Ballet, where she danced principal roles in numerous productions including Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and The Nutcracker. She later joined the Royal Ballet from 2000–2012 as Principal Dancer.
In 2012, Tamara accepted the role of Artistic Director and Lead Principal Dancer for the English National Ballet where she has and continues to create her legacy.
Tamara Rojo has won upwards of 20 awards both on her own and through her work as Artistic Director of the English National Ballet, such as Laurence Olivier Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Dance (2017) and Best New Dance Production (2010).
Today We Will Hear About
Tamara’s background and journey toward becoming Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director of the English National Ballet. Her work with Akram Khan. Her experiences battling through challenges and injuries. Tamara’s advice for young creatives, such as the MetFilm students who collaborated in filming this interview. The rich connections that helped Tamara on her journey. Finally, we’ll hear about the upcoming productions that Tamara is currently working on.
For the full interview, click the audio link above, head to ideaXme’s YouTube Channel, or read the transcript below.
Tamara Rojo Interview Transcript
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:00:01] Who are you?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:00:03] I am Tamara Rojo. I am a ballerina and I am the Artistic Director of English National Ballet.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:00:09] How did you find dance?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:00:12] I found dance by accident. My mother was a working mother and one day she arrived late to pick me up. It was a very wet day and one of the teachers at my school told me to wait inside the gym because you will I’d be warmer. And they were doing a ballet class. I had never seen ballet before and I fell completely in love with it.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:00:38] Your first breakthrough was a gold medal. Can you tell us about that?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:00:45] Again at the time it was a bit of a surprise. The ballet scene in Spain was very limited. So, we were not exposed to what was happening internationally. There was a competition in Paris and my director wanted somebody to represent the company but there were only two weeks left before the competition and I was the only one who raised their hand. I’m not sure why. I think more curiosity than anything. I wanted to know who I was in the wider world, I wanted to know where my level was because it was very difficult to know, I was so isolated. So, almost without any preparation, I went. I never expected to win. I just wanted to see where I sat. So, it was a wonderful surprise because winning that competition opened up the world of ballet to me.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:01:41] And you were approached by the Scottish National Ballet as a result.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:01:46] Galina Samsova was the director of the Scottish Ballet at the time and she was in the jury so she was one of the members of the jury that gave me the gold medal. And she offered me a contract as Principal Ballerina. I was only 19. And up until that point I had never done classical ballet. So, I did my first Swan Lake, my first Nutcracker, my Sylphide, my first Romeo and Juliet at the Scottish Ballet. And I am very grateful to Galina. She was incredibly generous and patient and to all of the team there because they taught me how to be a ballerina.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:02:25] You have a reputation for being an incredibly brave and resilient dancer. There are a number of stories that have been widely publicized, one of which is your replacing Darcey Bussell at the last moment because she was injured. Could you talk to us about that?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:02:45] I guess I always felt I had no other choice. I didn’t come from or belong to any of the institutions that had a big reputation in the ballet world. I didn’t come from the schools like Vaganova, Bolshoi or Paris Opera. So every time a door opened I had to jump in. I guess I was fearless because I felt that I didn’t have much to lose, since, you know, it was just me. I was very lucky that I was offered the opportunity to replace Darcey because that translated eventually into a full-time contract with the Royal Ballet and I spent 12 years of my career there.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:03:29] But you were injured. And you replaced an injured person and just continued nonetheless.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:03:36] Yes. I felt it was an opportunity. I couldn’t say no because I thought that an opportunity like that might not come around again.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:03:46] There’s also another story of when you had a burst appendix in the middle of a performance, felt something pop as you would and you continued.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:04:03] I had gone to the doctor before the performance and he thought I just had a tummy ache. So, I accepted that diagnosis. I guess I have a high pain threshold but it’s a story that makes me uncomfortable because I don’t want other dancers to feel that they have to push you through this. I should have not continued with the performance.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:04:27] I was very lucky to survive. I wish at the time I had listened to my body better. So, there are pluses and minuses to being resilient.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:04:40] You have worked with many unusual and famous names, both within classical ballet and outside and you have a reputation for really shaking up the English National Ballet and dance overall. Could you give us some examples? Maybe you could talk to us about your work with Akram Khan?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:05:07] I try to bring the people that I admire to the English National Ballet, the people I enjoy watching. The people I feel to be the best. I think that is what I’m here to do. Akram is an artist whom I’ve been following for many years as an audience member. I love going to watch him dance, I love his choreography. I really admire him and so from the beginning when I came as Artistic Director, he was one of the first people I contacted because I wanted to make sure that he would come and be a part of this journey in English National Ballet.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:05:52] He’s a very fascinating person to work with. I love the whole process, the collaboration. How he brings his whole team and all the dancers into the creation process. So, it has been fantastic for myself as an artist as a director but also for the company. I was also lucky to be able to bring William (Billy) Foresythe. Another extraordinary artist of our art form. And a fascinating man.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:06:32] I’ve been very lucky that those people I admire so much have agreed to work with me.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:06:38] Can you tell us about some of the performances, for example with Akram Khan — Lest We Forget, Dust and also Akram Khan’s Giselle? Can you talk about them and explain to the audience why they are so unusual?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:07:01] I guess they’re unusual because he is a choreographer that had not really collaborated in a classical ballet context. He had not worked in a classical ballet company. For me it seemed a natural thing to do because he came from a classical tradition of Kathak and he had transformed that tradition by mixing it with contemporary dance and by telling the stories that were very relevant today which in my opinion was a very similar vision to the one I was trying to bring to English National Ballet. So, for me, it was a marriage of visions and minds. It felt natural to work together.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:07:46] So, the first project we did together was Dust. It was part of a mix bill called Lest We Forget, to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the end of the First World War. There were three choreographers: Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram who did the last piece. And it was a piece very much about the figure of the woman. The strength that the women showed in the war. The fact that they had to step into the role of men in the factories and to work on the land. And take over all those roles and then the relationship between the men and the women when the men came back and and the women were strong and the men were broken.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:08:44] So, it was a beautiful work. And work that we have revisited a few times. That collaboration was just over a 20 minute piece and assured me that I wanted to do a bigger project with Akram. And there was a classical ballet of romantic ballet, the first big romantic ballet of our tradition, Giselle, that I believed could be seen in a new way. I was partly inspired by a film Dancer in the Dark. When I saw that film, which had Bjork as the main actress, in my mind, it was clear that she was Giselle, and that story was a way to tell the story of Giselle.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:09:37] So, I was looking for somebody that had the courage and the vision to tackle this story with both understanding of the tradition but also with a new voice. And after working with Akram on Dust it was obvious that he was that person. He has become the main work that represents the company internationally. He has opened incredible opportunities like performing at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. So, it is a very important work for us.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:10:14] So, could you tell us about the current projects for which people can buy tickets for at the moment if they’re lucky and tell us a little bit about the future projects that people need ought to watch out for?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:10:31] We are about to bring back Giselle to London after two years. We will be presenting it at Sadlers Wells. I will be performing the role of Giselle there. Then we are going on tour around England with Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Then we bring back one of the first classical productions that I brought to ENB which is Le Corsaire, also on tour and later in January 2020 in London and then I’m very excited that later on in January we’re celebrating 70 years of the English National Ballet. So, we’re doing a big gala celebration visiting quite a lot of the repertoire of the past. We will be revisiting the work which is part of our history and the dancers and the creatives and choreographers who have been instrumental to our history. I’m very excited about that.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:11:24] And then in the Spring, Akram comes back for a new creation. He has called it Creature. It is based on both the story of Frankenstein and Prometheus. We will be discussing the current questions around the creation of artificial intelligence, the creation of life through all the ways that are possible today. And we believe that the same philosophical questions that were being asked when Frankenstein was first written about: What is the role of Man when it creates life? Are we gods? And if now we’re creating a life that is superior to ourselves will then they become gods? So, it is a very interesting subject that we’re going to be looking into.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:12:21] Do you have any plans to work with artists, performers, even scientists away from ballet to get inspiration to create other pieces of work?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:12:35] I mean we work with a very big variety of people for example, writers. We collaborate a lot as far as research is concerned and with universities. I think the best thing about this new building is that it will allow us to bring in both the adult audience as well as children to see the creative process and to also share their feedback. So, I’m very excited about opening that process up to the general public and to children and students because I think it’ll be very interesting to see them respond to a piece of work.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:13:13] We’re always looking to work with people that are unexpected.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:13:19] Can you tell us about this amazing building in which we sit?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:13:24] We’ve just moved in. For 60 years the English National Ballet was working in a space that was very limiting and very difficult because we didn’t have one single studio the size of the stage, so you can imagine everything we create is for this stage but we couldn’t actually try it out until we were on the stage.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:13:47] So, I felt that I needed to give the company a space that could liberate it and could give it what I believe it deserved. The National Ballet have worked very hard and they had very little in terms of a supportive environment. So, I’m very happy because this building was purposely built for us. It has four studios the size of a stage for the company, three for the school. We have a production studio where we’ll be able to develop productions to the last detail with lighting, costumes sets, everything before we take it on the road. We’ll also be able to invite other people to create here. We just had Mackintosh rehearsing the new Les Miserables. So, that cross fertilization of the artists of English National Ballet and the artists from other kinds of art forms, other kinds of composers, of singers of directors and writers, choreographers, I always saw this as this kind of pot where all of this creativity can mix and all these new possibilities can open up. Of course we have what every dancer would wish today to have in terms of physiotherapy, pilates, gym therapy. We have a pool, proper changing rooms and all the things that we were never able to offer the dancers before. So, it is an amazing building and for once I feel that I have a legacy because the company can be here for the next 200 years.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:15:34] So, how is the funding managed? You’re a registered charity. How does that all work? Presumably, you get some government funding. You have foundations involved. Could you maybe talk to us a little bit about that and also to maybe go into and elaborate a little bit more on why it’s so important to have a broad base in terms of the audience?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:16:06] We have two separate needs. One was the building, the capital project and one is the running costs of the company. So, for the running costs of the company, we receive a grant from the Arts Council and that represents about a third of our total budget. Another third comes in from audiences, that is from ticket sales, so it’s important that we are successful. It’s important that we have relevant shows and that people are interested in what we’re doing. And then another third comes from donors and foundations. And I think that is a very good mix because the public funding gives you this safety net to be able to take risks and to be able to give opportunities to young talent that hasn’t been successful yet. But the fact that you also have to be creating art that people want to see and that touches as many people as possible. And we’re funded to tour. So that’s why we are scheduled to tour the UK and then as I said the last bit is the generosity of individuals and also some organizations and foundations. The capital building was similar although the public funding was a very small amount of the total cost.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:17:40] You’ve mentioned in the past that the arts make a country. And also how important it is as part of our human story. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:17:56] I think when we think about any country, if I ask you what do you think of Italy and what you think of Spain? Well what we are actually asking is: “What is the culture?” Whether that is the food, the traditions, the music, the stories. It is all culture. And that’s why I mean that culture makes a country. It gives people identity, it gives them a sense of belonging, it gives them an opportunity to tell their stories. And there’s a very basic need of humanity, to tell stories. It is how we evolve, how we learn. It is how our children learn who they are and who they want to be and what is right and what is not. And so for me it is very important that the arts are understood and they are protected. They have an important place in everyone’s life. I think that they can make everyone’s life better.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:19:05] You are a very public facing artist. You’ve had to go through an awful lot to overcome a great deal of challenge to reach this point. Can you talk to us a little bit about the rich connections that you have made along your journey, the people you’ve connected with and in what sort of situations. To help both your art move forward your personal life, your personal human story?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:19:41] There are so many important people, so many people that I am grateful to that have helped me achieve so many of my aspirations and dreams. And I feel like I will never have the time to say thank you to all of them. I think the most important people in my life are my parents. They gave me the grounding but also the support throughout my life to be what I wanted to be, To have parents like mine is an amazing privilege.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:20:16] I have felt throughout my life I’ve met incredible people that have believed in me before I believed in myself. Robert Wallace whom I met on a plane. He is a dancer who has become a lawyer and an investor. We discussed a lot about ballet and he told me you should be an artistic director one day. He was the first person to say this to me. At the time I thought he was crazy.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:20:53] But later on again he came into my life at the point where I was starting to think I wanted to do this. And he gave me a lot of advice. Justin Bickle, who was the Chairman of English National Ballet who gave me the opportunity of being the Artistic Director was again a man that saw beyond what I could see but also who understood the vision and supported it throughout. He has for example, made it possible that we are in this building today. But as I said I’ve had amazing inspiring friendships. Nicholas (Nick) Hyner is a very important figure in my life. Somebody I really trust and who has been very generous with his advice as a director himself. And as mentioned earlier, Akram is a very important person to me. I’ve been very lucky.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:21:52] I’d like you to talk a little bit about the support that you have given female choreographers.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:22:00] I have spent 20 years performing in England and I was never part of a commission of female choreographers and as I became Artistic Director I felt that that was not right. There was something amiss because half of the population’s voice was not represented on the stage. So, as soon as I could I commissioned two mix bills She Said and She Persisted. I commissioned wonderful women Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Yabin Wang, Aszure Barton and Stina Quagebeur, who is a member of our company. We brought in the work by Pina Bausch.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:22:57] It has also been wonderful to see that there was that reaction from the rest of the industry and the ballet world. Suddenly everybody became aware of this issue and that the doors had now become now open for female choreographers. There are so many more opportunities now than 10 years ago.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:23:20] Obviously, I also commission men. But I do believe that the more variety of voices that we can see on this stage, whether those are men, women, whether they come from Indian, Pakistani or African backgrounds, the biggest variety of voices we can put on the stage, the better the art form will be.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:23:53] We’re here at the new headquarters of the English National Ballet. This interview is being recorded by the MetFilm students, future creators. Could you maybe give us some words of inspiration and advice for future creators and future innovators setting out on a journey to create something amazing?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:24:22] Two things that I have learned that I hope might be useful. One is be brave. I think no one ever regrets taking that chance, no matter what the result.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:24:44] Second, surround yourself with good people. People that want the best for you. And do the same in return, be a good friend. We all have good days and bad days and on the good days everything is great. But on the bad days, you need friends and you need to be a good friend to make sure that they are going to be there when it’s your turn. So, I think those are the two things. Just be courageous and be a good friend.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:25:22] During the everyday normal course of activities as Artistic Director of the ENB, you meet incredible people. Who out of everybody that you haven’t met so far, living or dead, who would you like to meet? And what would you like to ask that person?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:25:45] Well that’s a very difficult question. First, I would love to meet Diaghilev because he’s a very inspiring figure for me. I would love to have dinner with him and have a proper conversation about ballet and ask him: “What would you do next?”. And the other person for very similar reasons, Nureyev.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:26:09] I was just not lucky enough to be able to meet him personally, or to work with him and again he was a transformational figure in our art form. I’d like to meet and speak with Kenneth MacMillan as well.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:26:28] I’d love to have dinner with so many people. It would be amazing to be able to travel through history. And ask all these people what they think.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:26:42] Before we say goodbye, could you talk to me and tell the audience as well about the project Das Lied Von Der Erde, inspired by Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde The Song of the Earth and the message?
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:27:06] It was one of the first pieces of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography that I had performed. And he was one of the most moving experiences of my career. So, I really wanted to bring it to the audiences of the English National Ballet. It is a piece about loss but also about hope. And the meaning of life and the importance of those you love in life.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:27:34] It is a very quiet piece in a way even though the music is huge. The movement is is very detailed and very subtle. That makes the whole experience quite an introverted experience for an artist. You are not talking together, not even shouting. You’re not even dancing for them in a way. It is about an experience within and with your colleagues.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:28:08] I was very lucky that Kenneth MacMillan’s widow agreed for us to perform it and to take it on tour around the UK because I wanted the audience outside of London to see it. For me it’s a very important piece of work. And again it was a piece of work that made me question what the past is and what tradition is and who owns what culture.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:28:37] Mahler composed it at a very painful time in his own life. But it was based on poems, on Chinese poems. And that was translated into German and then that was a piece of work that was then interpreted by our English choreographer. That took some inspiration from Japanese Kabuki and I love that. I love that suddenly this new language that comes from all this cross fertilization of different cultures. That if it’s done with respect and with love it can be just extraordinary. So, again it was something that I felt was appropriate for the English National Ballet because we’re a company of many traditions, of 21 nationalities, many languages many heritages. We understand our history and our past. We want to be relevant today and we want to build the future for our artform. So, it was in a way a perfect piece for the company.
Andrea Macdonald Founder ideaXme [00:29:55] Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director and Lead Principal Dancer, of the English National Ballet thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Tamara Rojo, Lead Principal Dancer and Artistic Director, English National Ballet [00:30:04] Thank you, the pleasure has been mine!
Thank you to Farooq Chaudhry, co founder of The Akram Khan Company for introducing Tamara Rojo and helping to make this interview possible. Farooq Chaudhry’s ideaXme “Go to the place that you are most frightend of!”.
Director — Carlotta Beck Peccoz
Director of Photography — Orestes Mersinias
Sound Recordist — Pierluigi Papaiz
Camera operator — Alan Johnson
Camera operator — Valentina Gonzalez
If you liked this interview, be sure to check out our interview with Akram Khan ” I am only still when I dance !
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