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Tamara Rojo on Becoming English National Ballet's "Overqualified Understudy"

Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy English National Ballet

In the six years since taking over as artistic director at English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, 44, has been lauded for revitalizing the company. She has presented classics danced with gusto alongside contemporary commissions, including a radical reworking of Giselle by contemporary/kathak choreographer Akram Khan, setting the story in a community of migrant factory workers. ENB brings Khan's Giselle to Chicago's Harris Theater, Feb. 28–March 2, the company's first trip to the U.S. in 30 years.


Why is it important for you to take English National Ballet to the U.S.?

We're very proud of what we have achieved, especially this production. It follows our vision of challenging the art form and respectfully questioning the classics and keeping them fresh for the audiences of today.

What was most rewarding about working with Akram?

Everything. His way of consistently developing and questioning and sharing and including everyone in the room, so that everyone's opinion can be heard and everybody brings something to the production and everybody owns it.

Tamara Rojo and artists of English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle

Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

Will you be dancing in Chicago?

I am trying to dance less, to be honest, because I think we've now gone into a phase where the company doesn't necessarily need me as a performer.

You've said you're just going to quietly stop dancing with no fanfare. Is that what's happening?

Yeah, I mean, I didn't dance in the whole autumn tour or at Christmas. Right now I don't actually have any performances planned.

Rojo in Akram Khan's Giselle

Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

But if a role came up that you wanted, you'd do it?

My personal ambitions as a dancer have been more than satisfied. So it will only be if a choreographer thinks that I'm the right person for that particular role and will bring something nobody else can. Or if there are circumstances, like we've had in past years—all my female lead principals are mothers, which is wonderful, but that has meant we've had some gaps in the casting. So if it's necessary, then I step in. I still love performing.

Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan's Giselle

Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

So you're a very overqualified understudy?

Well, that's nice of you to say [laughs]. Yes, that's basically what I am, an understudy!

What else is on your to-do list?

Oh, so much. I still believe that there's so much work to do around our classical repertoire and so many questions that need to be asked. What works can we present, in the society that we live in, without questioning them? We do have to ask ourselves, "Is the story still relevant?"

Have there been changes within the company since the claims of mismanagement last year?

It's always difficult to respond to anonymous allegations. But it was an opportunity to have even more open conversations and to say if there are concerns, we take those very seriously. I genuinely think there are few organizations that are as transparent as we are with our dancers. Every Friday we have a good discussion with the dancers about every aspect of the company: budget, planning, programming, promotions, hiring.

You're currently sharing three dancers with National Ballet of Canada (Jurgita Dronina, Francesco Gabriele Frola and Emma Hawes). How does that work?

In the same way we share Alina Cojocaru with Hamburg Ballet. We have many shows, but they are concentrated in certain periods of time, so our pattern of work can adapt to sharing artists. Artists grow by having more experiences and working with more people.

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle

Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

It must be an exhausting schedule for them.

Well, you know, dancers want to dance! No matter how much you tell them to take their paternity leave or take a holiday or have a rest, dancers just wanna dance.

Except for the one that I'm talking to right now.

[Laughs] Yeah, funny that!

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