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Spectator Life - Culture

Tamara Rojo looks back at her first year at the English National Ballet

As both artistic director and lead principal dancer of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo has set herself a punishing schedule. But with the help of a 90-minute pre-breakfast workout – and a little relaxing reality TV – she’s taking it in her stride

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

Tamara Rojo has been enjoying a very high profile during her first year as player-manager of English National Ballet. Photogenic, gifted and passionately articulate, the ballerina has revealed an unsuspected genius for publicity — her own Sky Arts documentary, a Lexus car commercial and, most recently, a set of ‘Ballet is like porn’ headlines (actually a twisted summary of her perfectly reasonable remarks on the gender imbalance among ballet choreographers).

The 39-year-old Spanish star sits curled up in a chair in her sunny Kensington headquarters, swathed in a hideous brown onesie that will keep her muscles warm between the rigours of morning class and an afternoon of rehearsals. Her dual role, as artistic director and lead principal dancer, has added massively to her workload, but Rojo’s perfectionism has made the burden heavier still. ‘I realised that to keep the same level of fitness I needed to put in a little bit of extra work in my personal time.’ This ‘little bit extra’ turns out to be 90 pre-breakfast minutes with a personal trainer. She has been so pleased with the results that she has hired the company’s first ever full-time sports scientist. ‘It’s very helpful for the rehabilitation of dancers and the prevention of injury,’ she says. ‘The sports world has a lot of money to invest in research and we can reap the benefits. We expect more versatility from dancers today: classical, neo-classical and contemporary.’

She will be calling on all their strength and versatility for the 2013/2014 season with a repertoire that combines the classicism of Le Corsaire and Coppelia with new works at London’s Barbican, including commissions from hip and happening dancemakers Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan.

Both men have a strong personal fan base, but one wonders how ENB’s core audience will react to such a fiercely contemporary programme. Rojo is optimistic. ‘I’m trying to bring people that might want to watch contemporary to see something more classical and to bring those who like classical to see something more contemporary. Greedy? Yes I’m greedy. I want everything. Always.’

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This determination to widen ENB’s audience base is exemplified in the groovy new marketing campaign dressed by Vivienne Westwood, which replaced the usual production stills with a series of inky tableaux featuring ENB dancers in goth-punk drag that challenge ballet’s ‘fluffy’ image. This costly makeover earned acres of coverage in the fashion magazines and played well with the graphic design gurus (who loved the new fonts). But while it was clearly never intended as a granny magnet there’s little evidence that this bold new concept has delivered at the box office.

A spring revival of Derek Deane’s 60-swan Swan Lake at the Albert Hall brought welcome revenue but neither April’s Ecstasy and Death programme nor July’s Nureyev tribute at the London Coliseum were big sellers — especially disappointing given an 18 per cent cut in ENB’s Arts Council grant.

Culture minister Maria Miller’s emphasis on ‘economic impact’ has meant that Tamara Rojo’s arguments are as well rehearsed and as neatly turned as one of her own solos. ‘Not only do the arts generate £2 for every pound invested, but we generate a huge amount of parallel industries: tourism, food, transport, all kinds of things that give jobs to the nation.’ And don’t even get her started on the idea that ballet is only of interest to a tiny elite: ‘I don’t think it’s elitist at all! Neither the people that do it nor the people that watch it. We have thousands of tickets every year at only £10. When I go on tour I see very normal people sitting in the audience and although eventually, through training, the dancers acquire an elegance that makes them look like they are from a different class, they all come from very working-class backgrounds.’

Does she have any sympathy with the view that the arts might be considered a luxury in a time of austerity? ‘The arts are not a luxury!’ she asserts. ‘The arts are a necessity. It’s not just about eating and sleeping. We need to use our imaginations. It gives us hope. It makes us learn about existential questions that are intrinsic to human beings.

‘We want to know who we are, where we are going, why we are here. The only place where you can find some answers is not in the market, it is in the arts.’

Le Corsaire — the navel-jewelled tale of an oriental beauty rescued from slavery by her pirate lover — may leave a few of those existential questions unanswered. ENB’s new £700,000 production, which begins its national tour on 17 October, is packed with tutus and toe-dancing, but you wouldn’t know it from the publicity material, which features three topless hunks on a life raft. Rojo makes no apology for her high-risk strategy: ‘Ballet isn’t only for grandmothers with granddaughters. They are important, but there are also young people, gay men, single women — lots of single women — and men themselves. And that’s exactly why I chose an image with men — not only because Le Corsaire has five principal male roles, but also because
it tells everyone that this is a different classical ballet: it’s about power, strength, masculinity.’

Rojo, who shares the lead in Corsaire with Daria Klimentova and Royal Ballet defector Alina Cojocaru, will have hardly a spare moment this autumn. Although she admits to a tiny weakness for reality television — ‘Gypsies, bridal shows, cookery programmes. It’s just a way of not thinking’ — what little leisure time remains is devoted to relentless personal growth. ‘This job is very intense, very time-consuming: lots of meetings, lots of dinners, lots of interviews’ (a patient smile). ‘It’s a long day and it takes a lot of effort to go out afterwards. I’ve got tickets to go and see Othello [at the National Theatre] and I know when the day comes the last thing I will want to do is go somewhere. But once I’m there I’ll enjoy every minute of it. What is not a night off is going to see another ballet company. Then I am really analysing everything — their programme, their curtain calls, the marketing they use, everything.’ Another winning smile. ‘I still have a lot to learn.’

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