Tamara Rojo. Photo by Jeff Gilbert, courtesy ENB

Affairs & Accusations: What's Going On At English National Ballet?

British ballet fans have been in a tizzy over Tamara Rojo lately.

Last month, a number of current and former English National Ballet dancers made anonymous claims of mismanagement to The Times, blaming Rojo for the fact that a third of the company's dancers have left over the past two years. The blog Ballet Position followed up earlier this month with further accusations, and Rojo responded in a feature in the Evening Standard yesterday.

Until this all came out, Rojo had really only been covered in recent press as someone who'd transformed ENB into a darling of the ballet world with her forward-thinking repertoire.

So what's all the drama about? We broke it down:


Tamara Rojo Isaac Hernandez Hernández and Rojo rehearsing the Black Swan pas de deux. Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris for Pointe.

Accusation: Company members say they felt uncomfortable about Rojo's relationship with lead principal Isaac Hernández—who's 16 years younger—and some say it played a part in their decision to leave.

Rojo's Response: The Evening Standard reports that Rojo seems a little bemused, if hurt, by these claims. She told the writer that Hernández arrived in London in 2015 as "a fully fledged star" and that there's "not even a possibility" of conflict because "he has won all the awards you can possibly win, so there was nowhere I could promote him." Also, she added, "I don't deal with contracts." She said the pair never made a secret of their relationship, which began a year and a half ago. "All I can say is that we've always been honest and I hoped there was no animosity towards us."

Our Take: Rojo neglected to mention the sudden departure of Cesar Corrales to The Royal Ballet in December. It's not hard to imagine that competing with the boss's boyfriend would have grown tiresome, and might have been part of the rising star's motivation to look for opportunities elsewhere.

Accusation: Sources say Rojo perpetuated a culture of intimidation by screaming at dancers in front of other company members. Others say they were given the silent treatment by both Rojo and assistant artistic director Loipa Araújo, never receiving corrections. Decisions also felt capricious: Dancers say roles and opportunities would be taken away with no explanation.

Rojo's Response: "We couldn't recognize our company in that description," she told the Evening Standard. "People had left, yes, but we felt it was explicable because a lot of change had been going on. We didn't feel it was unnatural, that there was anything to be concerned about." She said she's gone through all the issues raised with the ENB board, as well as the UK Arts Council (which funds 40 percent of the company's income) and the unions, and reports that "they were satisfied." ENB has since added new channels of communication.

Our Take: Of course, behaviors like screaming and silence aren't examples of great people skills. But they don't seem all that unusual in the ballet world. Not that that's an excuse, but if it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.

Also, we can't help asking: Rojo is known to be an exacting director, and not exactly the warmest personality—but would those qualities be taken differently in a male director? And would her relationship with someone 16 years younger seem as scandalous, for that matter?

Tamara rojo Rojo still performs with ENB in addition to directing. Here with Akram Khan rehearsing his Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, courtesy ENB.

Accusation: Dancers say they felt pressured to perform despite injury. One told Ballet Position that they hid their condition after Rojo said asking for more recovery time showed "a lack of commitment to the company." Ballet Position also reports that advice from the medical staff was consistently ignored.

Rojo's Response: When Rojo arrived as artistic director in 2012, she immediately invested in the dancers' health: She replaced the studios' sprung floors; she brought on a sports scientist, nutritionist and psychologist; and she increased physical therapy hours for the dancers.

Our Take: In the same Evening Standard feature where she lists what she's done for the dancers, Rojo appears to boast about performing even when her appendix burst while she was onstage, and how ignoring a sprained ankle led to her big break at The Royal Ballet. We need to stop glorifying these kinds of decisions. Sure, almost all dancers have performed in some level of pain at some point. But if they are being pushed—whether explicitly or implicitly—despite medical advice to rest, that needs to be addressed seriously.

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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