Saturday 19 January 2019

She dances to her own tune

The fiery Spanish ballerina and director of the English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, talks to our reporter about life on stage - and the current scandal stalking the company

Tamara Rojo, the lazy child who became 'the greatest dance actess of her generation'
Tamara Rojo, the lazy child who became 'the greatest dance actess of her generation'
Tamara Rojo with Issac Hernandez - together in life and at work

Julia Molony

I find Tamara Rojo in her office at the heart of the English National Opera.

There is a scented candle burning, and she has a herbal tea in hand. Her composure is impeccable.The only hint of her recent troubles comes in the shape of the watchful publicist who remains in the room throughout the interview.

It's rare that the world of high culture and tabloid gossip collide, but 43-year-old Spanish ballet dancer Rojo has been hitting the headlines recently.

As a dancer, she is a superstar of the ballet world. "The greatest dance actress of her generation," according to The New York Times. And in 2012 she took over as artistic director of the English National Ballet, overhauling the institution's remit and producing daring new work, including a ground-breaking new production of the classic Giselle, created with Pakistani choreographer Akram Khan. The lead character was re-imagined as a refugee, and the show became a global sensation.

Tamara Rojo with Issac Hernandez - together in life and at work
Tamara Rojo with Issac Hernandez - together in life and at work

But despite all this success, disquiet has apparently been rumbling at the ENO. Earlier this year, the British newspapers published rumours of rumbles of mutiny backstage and suggested that as many as a third of the dancers had recently left the company in the wake of accusations of bullying and harassment.

The root of the problem, the papers suggested, was Rojo's romantic relationship with one of the company's lead principal dancers, a curly-haired Mexican rising star by the name of Isaac Hernandez, who just happens to be 16 years younger than her. There were accusations of a "Spanish-speaking" inner circle and suggestions of preferential treatment.

"Well," she says of the furore, "I've learnt to read the news with a pinch of salt now." That is not to say she is waving away the issue as guff. On the contrary, while the official position of the ENO is to refute much of the scandal (they say dancers have left for a variety of reasons including injuries, dismissal and retirement), Rojo's approach has been to lean in to the problem. "I've learnt to go back to the drawing board. To open even more channels of communication," she says. "We have been sitting more and more with the dancers. Creating more and more platforms in which they feel safe to give their feedback, and to continue the dialogue."

Though the ballet world is often believed to be one which supports a punishing kind of pursuit of excellence, Rojo doesn't believe creating ballet has to involve crisis or turbulence. She denies the idea that the creative process must necessarily involve conflict.

"I don't think that's right," she says. "I don't think that has to happen. What is true, at least with our organisation - with the resources we have and what we are trying to do - it's a lot of work. And little time and no resources. And that sometimes can cause tensions and can cause frustrations and can cause people to feel stressed. And that's understandable. And I think it's how we deal with that, because those are facts that we cannot always change. Any creative environment obviously has pressures."

"I'm by no means a perfect manager," she admits. "I'm still learning and still trying to listen to the dancers. And I think that the secret is trying to communicate as much as possible. And that's something I've learnt slowly. Sometimes things in your head are really clear - you really understand why you are doing something and what it will achieve. But that's not necessarily clear for the person who is actually performing that piece or rehearsing that bit if he doesn't have the long-term perspective of where you want to be in two, three, five years' time. So I think that is the one thing that is the most important and the one I've learnt the most, is communicate, communicate."

As for her boyfriend, she has dismissed out of hand any suggestion of preferential treatment, saying earlier this year that "he has won all the awards you can possibly win, so there was nowhere I could promote him," and adding, "he makes me feel lucky".

But perhaps she's more recently learnt that this insouciance is not exactly politic under the circumstances. "I will only say," she says carefully, "I think it's important for everybody to be fulfilled, however they see fit. Whether that is in relationships or not. Whether that is having children or not, whether that is having a career or not. I think we are all entitled to pursue our own happiness."

She is, she says, someone who needs to feel settled and happy in her personal life in order to thrive creatively. "I'm not self-destructive. I don't believe in that myth that you have to be self-destructive in order to be a great artist. I think the opposite. I think you have to be balanced. And intelligent about how to have a long career. Because it is a long career that will allow you to have the time to be the best artist that you can be."

One anecdote forms part of the mythology that surrounds her life as a performer - she once finished a show despite the fact that she was suffering from an undiagnosed burst appendix. But she insists this is not evidence that she is self-punishing in pursuit of her art. She says: "Let me say, I'm not proud of that. I really don't recommend it. I don't think it was the right decision to make. At the time, when I saw the doctor, he thought that if it was a burst appendix I would be in more pain. It was more of a miscommunication... I guess the only thing I can say is that I don't complain loud enough."

An only child, Rojo was born in Canada to Spanish parents. They met there when her mother was studying and her father had fled their native country under Franco. When she was a small child, the family returned to Madrid, moving into a working-class neighbourhood at a time of huge political change. It left an indelible mark on the woman, and artist, Rojo was to become.

"I think there is no doubt that being in a country like Spain during a transition from a dictatorship to a new democracy, and the opportunities that brought, but also the questions, about what kind of democracy we were building - it felt like a new world was being built," she says.

"I was only a baby, but I could see it in my parents. This possibility. And the questions that that brings. It's possibly made me, by default, interested and aware of the conversations of society. Of how a society chooses to move forward. And so I don't think it's something that has happened since I'm a director.

"Already as a dancer, when I danced roles like Mary Vetsera in Mayerling, I was completely obsessed to understand the world in which this character, or woman, because she actually existed, was. What was the Austro-Hungarian empire like just before World War I? What kind of aspirations this woman had? And then you understand why she made the decisions she made. I always want to portray a character without judgment. But for that you have to understand them."

Her passion for ballet emerged at a young age, and came initially as a surprise to her parents. "As a child. I was incredibly lazy," she says. "I wouldn't walk anywhere. I was a nightmare for my parents because I just didn't want to move ever. Or they just had to carry me everywhere."

As for what persuaded her to get moving, "I think it was the music," she says. "We didn't have a television at home because my parents believed it was bad. It was only much later, when I was seven or eight, that they bought our first television. So my entertainment as an only child was to put on music - LPs that my parents had brought from Canada, and dance to it. And it was everything: it was Leonard Cohen, it was classical music, the best classics of Vivaldi, whatever. But that's how I entertained myself at home. I got bored really quickly."

And is that still true? "Yeah!" she says, wrinkling her nose with amusement. "I was curious and needed constant entertainment and that was how to amuse myself. And so the moment I walked into a room where that was the thing to do, to disappear into this world of movement and music, it kind of finally made sense to me."

She was never a huge fan of school. "I wasn't very focused," she admits. "I was a good-ish student. But it was very much because the condition to do ballet was that I had to achieve a certain level in my academic studies. I hated going to school. I found it boring. I didn't like doing homework. I guess it was useful for my Mum to find she had something to bargain with."

Music, she says, helps her deal with the constant noise in her own head. "I am aware that my mind is constantly travelling," she says. "And it doesn't always make sense! But there is noise all the time. Which is also why I need music. I can't be in a silent environment."

Does she ever get homesick? "I've been here in Britain just as long as I lived in Spain. There are characteristics of mine that are very Spanish - how I express myself, how loud I am, how outgoing I am. I think there is that tendency to express your emotions more freely in Mediterranean and Latin countries, I think that's true. But I also have a more pragmatic side. And I have huge admiration and respect about the British system."

Akram Khan's Giselle will run at Bord Gais Energy Theatre from May 2 to 6 and will officially launch the Dublin Dance Festival. Tickets from €20. On sale through Ticketmaster and Dublin Dance Festival www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie www.dublindancefestival.ie

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