Newly appointed San Francisco Ballet artistic director Tamara Rojo may be best known as a world-renowned Spanish ballerina, but she’s also not-so-secretly Canadian.
Born in Montreal to politically active parents who fled fascist general Francisco Franco, Rojo, 47, trained in Madrid and has danced in Britain for nearly three decades. In 2000, she joined the Royal Ballet as a principal and spent the next dozen years dazzling in lead roles, often partnering with Cuban star Carlos Acosta. Then in 2012, to the shock of many, she left to serve as both a lead dancer and artistic director of the English National Ballet, a no-frills, lower-budget troupe that had long toiled in the Royal’s shadow.
“She totally changed the company,” said her friend Julio Bocca, a retired American Ballet Theatre dancer who presented Rojo with a 2021 Dance Magazine Award in New York last month. “She made the company grow up: new choreographers, new styles, new creations.”
The announcement that she is leaving for San Francisco comes just days before the opening of her most ambitious project yet: a reimagining of the 1898 Alexander Glazunov ballet Raymonda. Instead of being set during the Crusades, with its hero an anti-Islamic conqueror returning from battle, Rojo’s Raymonda is a Clara Barton-like figure attending to soldiers during the Crimean War. The story is new, yet the ballet retains much of Marius Petipa’s choreography and a score choreographer George Balanchine called “some of the finest ballet music we have.”
Raymonda follows a critically hailed Giselle from English-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan. Rojo also invested heavily in the work of prominent female choreographers, including Canadian Aszure Barton. When Rojo danced in a 2016 triple bill titled She Said, she noted with astonishment that those performances marked the first time in her long career that she’d ever taken on roles created by women.
But Rojo, who gave birth to her first child last year, says she has no plans to perform in San Francisco. Her husband, Isaac Hernandez, however, has already joined the San Francisco Ballet as a principal. She’ll replace Helgi Tomasson, who steps down after 37 years.
Rojo spoke with The Globe and Mail about her ties to Canada, her passion for education and why ballet companies should approach their canon more like theatres approach Shakespeare.
What brought your family to Canada?
It was due to the political situation in Spain. My father was very active politically, and it became a little bit problematic. There was obligatory army service. His uncle had already travelled to Montreal, so that’s why he travelled there and started his professional career [as an industrial engineer] in Canada. They stayed for 11 years. Almost as soon as I was born, they decided to move back, because Franco had died.
Have you returned to Canada since?
I visited when I was a child, on holidays. But [in 2009], before I became artistic director of English National Ballet, I shadowed Karen Kain at National Ballet of Canada.
Now you and Hope Muir, who succeeded Kain as artistic director of National Ballet earlier this month, are artistic directors of the largest women-led companies in North America.
I know. Exciting times!
What did you learn from Kain that you took with you to the English National Ballet?
Karen and the whole National Ballet of Canada really were incredibly generous. They opened every aspect of the company. I was allowed to be present at board meetings. The marketing team talked to me, the music director talked to me, the development team, the box office. So I really had an opportunity to get into the business side of how a company runs and how decisions are made. They have a really amazing team, in every department. Everyone in every level, in every department, is really engaged and passionate.
I also had an amazing opportunity: Cirque du Soleil allowed me to visit for a long weekend, because I wanted to understand more commercial work. I had a really wonderful time.
Many former dancers who end up running companies have little formal education. Some never even finished traditional high school. That’s not the case with you; you earned a doctorate from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos de Madrid. Why has education been so important to you?
There are two reasons: One is my mother. She allowed me to become a professional dancer at 16 on the condition that I go to night school. I had classmates who had dropped out of school, who were adults with children. That was really good for me. Sometimes as a young dancer, you can become very insular in your art. I’m also someone who loves to research and study before taking on a new responsibility. Management [of arts organizations] is becoming more and more complicated, aspects of the job that are not artistic and creative are becoming bigger and bigger.
Did you put your name in to replace Kain at National Ballet of Canada?
No. I did not.
Your husband has joined San Francisco as a dancer. At New York City Ballet, all three (male) artistic directors have been married to dancers and faced little scrutiny. You’ve said there will be “checks and balances,” especially when it comes to casting. How will that work?
I’m not sure that I’m comfortable being in the same category as those men. Transparency in leadership is very important to me. Casting will be handled by the whole artistic team. Any external choreographer will have complete freedom. And the whole process will be overseen by the board.
You’ve been credited with moving ballet forward through your leadership at English National Ballet. How will you continue that work in San Francisco?
It’s about opening the conversation. I’ve been admiring how classical theatres look at the classical canon. The Shakespeare canon is open for constant interpretation. You can do a myriad of things with it: Put it in a different historical context and question some of the things that are no longer aligned with our values, like in The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice. Ballet is a more fragile art form. In ballet, there is a lot more fear of losing the tradition, of losing the canon, and that’s where that protectiveness comes from.
Besides your important reinterpretations of new works for English National Ballet, you’ve also become known for poaching high-level dancers from other companies, including Emma Hawes from National Ballet of Canada. Should every company be scared that you are going to poach their dancers for San Francisco?
Dancers’ careers are short. Hopefully they have wanted to come work with me because they are inspired by the repertoire. I never actually approach dancers; I never “poach.” Dancers reach out to me. It’s very natural for dancers to want to work under different leadership, and different points of view.
What else are you looking forward to once you are based in North America?
I’ll be a little bit closer, so hopefully I’ll get to see more work by the National Ballet of Canada, and maybe we can come visit as well.
You carry a Canadian passport, correct?
I do. And I’m working very hard to get one for my son. Who doesn’t want a Canadian passport? It’s like the perfect passport.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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