Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy English National Ballet

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

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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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021