English National Ballet’s Tamara Rojo profiled
Over an hour, the documentary attempts to get under the skin of English National Ballet’s latest Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, as she takes on the dual role of artistic head and principal dancer. The programme comprises a studio interview with Melvyn Bragg interwoven with performance clips (La Bayadere, Romeo & Juliet and Manon) and commentary from Rojo’s dancing partners, including Carlos Acosta and Sergei Polunin, as well as her father.
Rojo is characteristically honest and direct with her answers. When she is asked what it means to really trust a partner on stage, and how important it is, she describes how it feels, and says “you are naked on stage. You get to a point where you breathe together.”
Acosta is keen to stress that although he works very hard, Rojo doesn’t know the meaning of taking it easy even when Acosta would stop through exhaustion or pain.
Polunin says, “Tamara is a great actress. Just that one look creates a big drama. She lives a role. It’s all real. It’s amazing to be on stage with someone like that.”
There are clips giving a behind the scenes look at how tutus are made – oddly – as there is no reference to Rojo or any of her costumes to make it relevant.
We go backstage with footage of Rojo in class, feet taped. Daily ballet class, as a dancer, is for yourself, to improve your technique, fitness and flexibility. One of the things she is finding tough as an AD/dancer is focusing on herself during class. If she see’s something that is bothering her in another dancer, she won’t intervene because that’s the job of the ballet mistress, but she finds that she can’t concentrate on herself either.
When asked why she felt it was time to take on this role, she says of her dancing days “I was satisfied personally.” She knew she had danced more than she’d ever hoped for, and that she wasn’t going to find a dance partner and dance until she was 60 either.
“There’s one scene at the beginning when it’s just the men, in silence with swords and to see ballet dancers dancing like men, feeling like men; it’s a pleasure. I felt really proud for the first time.”
How does she define her new job ? “My job is a curator. And then I have to invest in new art. And that’s really what I’m going to do.” At the same time, she is rehearsing the up-coming triple bill at the London Coliseum and we see footage of Petite Mort, which she describes as “like poetry. There’s one scene at the beginning when it’s just the men, in silence with swords and to see ballet dancers dancing like men, feeling like men; it’s a pleasure. I felt really proud for the first time.”
On the future of ballet and it’s relevance she counters, “ballet is very much alive. Very much evolving.” To this end, English National Ballet recently underwent a major re-brand to reflect the new artistic direction, and there is some behind the scenes footage of the photo shoot, with the dancers dressed by Vivienne Westwood. Rojo says, “we are young. We are dynamic. Therefore it is our responsibility to change that perception. We’re going to be rather loud.”
In her early days, Rojo didn’t realise that being a dancer meant that the public would come and watch performances, and clap. She thought that she would train in the studio and later, teach. As an only child she always sought the quiet, to mull over her own thoughts, and found that in the ballet studio, rather than school, which she hated because she was surrounded by people. It was much later she found a way to live with the “showy” side of ballet, though she doesn’t seem to have come to terms with it.
Some footage of Rojo, aged 22, dancing Victor Ullate’s Jaleous prompts a discussion about how tough he was as her teacher, and how much he demanded of his dancers. Rojo says that sometimes a ballet class would last five hours (it’s normally about 1.5 hours). She says that as a result, she developed stamina, strength of mind “and a thick skin. Like an elephant.” But she is also keen to point out that Ullate “created a generation of great teachers. We have the knowledge but we’re going to share it in a different way.”
One to one time with Rojo is afforded to the dancers, where they receive detailed technical advice and character development. Rojo chose Ksenia Ovsyanick to dance Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, a very technical role, and there is a section that shows her coaching Ovsyanick. Rojo offers sage advice, “you need to start showing me who is your Aurora. I need to see the story. You need to develop whoever your Aurora is now, at this age. In five years’ time there’s going to be a lot of expectation. By then people will come to see you because you are famous, because you have a name. You can’t experiment there; there you just have to deliver.” Later, Rojo gives more technical advice including, “the music does 80% of the job for you. If you’re late, the music does 80% of the job against you.” She explains how many performances a dancer needs to be able to develop a character, and says “the only way you can develop dancers is to give them the opportunity to be on stage.”
As the London dates for Sleeping Beauty approach, Rojo says that this will be her last Aurora. She doesn’t plan to bring it back into the rep for a few years, and by then she will be over 40, and doesn’t see herself dancing the role then, because the classics are “the measurement of a ballet dancer” and now, after her last performance in London in this role, having “created a different face” she says she felt liberated, “it was a good show to say goodbye.” Rojo certainly felt the pressure of not being able to make a mistake – in the past if she made an error then it would be her error – but now, leading the whole company, “the consequences go to many people.”
It’s back to the lack of quietness as the documentary closes, with Rojo saying “it’s really intense. Everything is louder. For the good and the bad. I have to get used to this new volume of life.”
Tamara will be profiled on 9th May on Sky Arts nd the programme is produced by Suzannah Wander