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Tamara Rojo leads San Francisco Ballet

On January 19th, San Francisco Ballet opens its 90th season—its first under new artistic director, Tamara Rojo. Rojo is new to many San Francisco dance viewers but a near-household name to ballet fans in Europe, where she began her dancing career with the English National Ballet, ascended to stardom at the Royal Ballet, and then returned to ENB in 2012 to serve as both artistic director and principal dancer, raising the company’s profile from a regional touring troupe to an international newsmaker, particularly by prioritizing women’s choreographic voices and by commissioning Akram Khan to radically reinvent the Romantic era staple “Giselle.”

Tamara Rojo. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

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In late October, in Paris, Rojo gave her final performance. By December she was fully on the job at San Francisco Ballet, the oldest professional ballet company in the U.S., and the country’s second-largest, with a roster of 79 dancers. Her husband Isaac Hernandez, who began his career with San Francisco before joining ENB, is also back, as a principal dancer. The two have a nearly two-year old son.

SF Ballet will announce its 2024 season, the first Rojo will program, in March. The current season, which continues through April at the War Memorial Opera House, was programmed by Rojo’s predecessor, Helgi Tomasson, and launches with the next@90 Festival—nine world premieres by nine diverse international choreographers, including Bridget Breiner, Yuka Oishi, Robert Garland, and Jamar Roberts.

Although Rojo’s programming choices won’t be known until March, her presence is felt at the company’s Chris Hellman Center for Dance, across the street from the opera house, where in December she was teaching company class, watching rehearsals and performances, and coaching principals preparing to dance Tomasson’s production of “Giselle.” In the middle of such a busy day, she took time in her mostly empty new office for an interview, discussing her thinking about the right repertory mix for SF Ballet’s future; the role of new associate artistic director Kerry Nicholls; and her eagerness to connect with San Francisco’s other top arts leaders. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How are you settling in? I think it was just about a month ago that you gave your last performances in Paris and officially you've been here 16 days?

Not even that—I came on Saturday. So 10 days.

Wow. Are you moved into your home?

I said, ‘Let's rent something until we know what we want to do and where we want to live.’ So for now, we're fine. This first year is all about focusing on San Francisco Ballet.

And you also have your baby at home. What is your day-to-day routine like?

Oh, working parents, you know. I get up early, you get ready, you get the child ready, and you take the child to nursery in our case.

And when do you finish each day?

Yesterday, 9:30 in the evening. Because I watched the shows, I don't watch every Nutcracker, but I'm trying to watch every cast. So I think I will watch just over half of the Nutcrackers. And I'm also starting to think about the next few years are starting to have conversations with choreographers, some of them are in Europe. So that also makes it challenging.

The season announcement will probably come in March or so? To line all that up, you really need to have been investigating who's available since summer.

Which is a little bit late. Still, I think we're going to be able to present an exciting program.

Is there anything you can share about who you're interested in working with, even if it's not naming names—just broad strokes of the kind of work you want to do next year?

I think it's too early. I want to, of course, to bring my own view. And some of that will be European, because my career has been mainly in Europe. But I also want to understand what the company is at its core, San Francisco Ballet. And also to recognize, you know, it's an American company, and there is an American dance tradition. So also, I'm interested in discovering American choreographers, and it's a mixture of both bring in my own experience, but also continuing to develop the identity of the company.

Tamara Rojo, Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Caley in “Song of the Earth” by Kenneth MacMillan. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

That’s so interesting. I guess this is my bias, but I feel like the innovation isn't mainly coming from choreographers based in the US at the moment.

I don't know yet if I agree with you, because I don't know enough. But that happens sometimes in waves. You know, there’s no doubt that it was the American choreographers and the American female dancers that influenced all of contemporary dance in Europe. So, you know, America can take a lot of credit for that. But it also happens sometimes I think when there is a massive choreographer, someone like Balanchine, it takes decades for that impact to evolve. Because right now, there are a lot of choreographers that have been so deeply shaped by his legacy, that what we see is a lot of Balanchine-derivative work, a lot of choreographers that are highly influenced by his language and vocabulary. And I think that's where America is a little bit now, that a lot of classical choreographers have a style that is following Balanchine. And that's natural when a choreographer is so important.

Here at San Francisco Ballet, Helgi was coming from the Balanchine tradition, even though he wasn't trained by Balanchine and was one of those many European male dancers that Balanchine brought over. But there's always been some Balanchine in the mix here at San Francisco Ballet. And then Helgi had a strong connection to Jerome Robbins. Do you think those threads will continue?

That's what I mean by me understanding what the right balance and the right mixture for San Francisco Ballet, what the scope should be, because on the West Coast, you know, geographically we could also be looking to the East. And I feel that hasn't been done much. And yet there are a lot of interesting things happening in Taiwan. We do have that interesting cultural mix where there is migration into the city from Europe. A lot of artistic influences from Europe, even [the architecture of] the opera house itself. Then we have the American choreographers, Balanchine and Robbins, that are part of San Francisco Ballet DNA. And then there is all that potential on the other side of the world that we can also explore. So it's, I think, a very interesting geographical place. I need to swirl a little bit into it until I am confident of the right mix.

Fabian Reimair and Tamara Rojo in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's “Broken Wings,” part of ENB's 70th Anniversary Gala. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

You had so much success at English National Ballet. And I think what you did commissioning women choreographers is amazing—thank you for establishing that as a norm. You know, I can't believe it's only over the last 10 to 15 years, that this is the new norm, that there should be that many women choreographers in a season. Given all your success and the resources you built at ENB, why even come to San Francisco?

It was time, I always said that. It's only fair, especially if you're running a publicly subsidized organization, it cannot become a private company. I consider it a ministerial position when you are working with public money. So I had a vision, and I delivered that vision. And then it was my duty to allow somebody else to come in. Because it's not my personal company. And I felt like, once I had deliver, you know, the building the repertory, the international touring and the financial solidity, those are one of the things that I set out to do. Then all I could do was repeat myself. And that wasn't fair on the dancers. And that was unfair on the organization. So it just felt like the right time. I’ve always said that I don't think anybody should lead a publicly funded organization for more than 10 years. And I want it to be true to my word.

How do you feel that applies here? Is it different because the American funding system is so different? You know, an NEA grant here is only only about $150,000, sometimes or $200,000, which is a tiny pittance within a huge budget.

I think here, we do have a still have a duty to the public, because at the end of the day, whether it's through taxation, or whether it is through tickets, it is the audience that we're here to serve, as well as the funders. But I think it is different in that you do have to develop personal relationships with individuals that want to subsidize and give and that takes time. And then also, that sometimes means that an organization can be very reliant on that [funder] as an individual and the relationships that you fought to establish. So I will say that the way that they have worked here to transition between Helgi and me has been so helpful, and so collaborative, and that’s very important, I think, in an American context.

Do you feel like you'll go through the same process that you did with ENB? Where you'll kind of recognize a point where you made your mark here and you feel like it's time for someone else to take over? Helgi was here 37 years.

Yes, but he did a lot.

Over the previous nine months, coming and going and just watching the company to see how SF Ballet does things, what do you notice that stands out? What's unusual to you?

I think what is specific to San Francisco Ballet is the way the season is divided. I would like to hope that in the long term, we can find a more collaborative way of sharing the Opera House. Because I think when you look at all the great opera houses that have opera and ballet companies, they're far more intertwined. And that allows the audience to enjoy both art forms in a more organic rhythm, reflect on one for a while, reflect on a work of opera before they come back to the ballet.

Tamara Rojo (centre) with English National Ballet in “Giselle” by Akram Khan. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

How were your final performances in Paris? Was it emotional?

It was lovely. I was so ready. My body has been ready for a while to stop dancing. So it was more of a sense of joy and relief than anything else. And I feel so lucky that I had such an amazing career.

Was your extended family there? Your father?

Yes, yes. My parents were there. And yes, it was a real family fiesta and a really joyous occasion. There was really no sorrow. I've achieved more than I could have ever wished as a little girl. So it was just really a wonderful moment because most dancers, most artistic directors, we're always looking forward. Personally, I take very little time to look back and celebrate. So it was nice that I have that one night to look back and go, ‘Wow, I was lucky.’

[Rojo takes a few hasty bites of her lunch and then sits up straight as though remembering something.]

I think, going back to your question before, the other thing I really am looking forward to is getting to know the rest of the leaders of the arts organizations. San Francisco has some amazing, fantastic cultural organizations. And of course, I lived in London for 26 years. So I knew everybody. And I felt that we could we were really tight unit, that we could work together. Especially during the pandemic, we became even tighter in working together to make the case for the arts. You know, just speaking as one voice and collaborating and helping each other. And I am sure that's the case here, I just don't know everybody yet. So over the next few months, I'm really looking forward to meeting all the leaders of the of the arts organizations in San Francisco.

Since I learned that you were going to be the new artistic director, I started reading about your life, and I just cannot believe this story about your foot. I want to make sure I have this right. So you had been told for a while that you needed a surgery, but told if you had the surgery you might not dance again?

No, it was very sudden. So I had I gone to a podiatrist, to remove some corns, and they got infected. And then I jumped on a plane to Australia for a tour with the Royal Ballet, and on that flight, my foot swelled so much that couldn't walk off the plane, they had to carry me in a wheelchair. And I went from there straight to hospital. They treated it with antibiotics, but because of the infection, there was no blood flow, so the infection was eating the cartilage. And they couldn't, the antibiotics could not deal with it. So that's what the doctor said, ‘I actually have to operate to clean the infection, take the infection out. And I don't know if you’re going to be able to dance again.’ So I was on my own on the other side of the world, and I had to make a potential career-ending decision. And after the surgery my foot had changed shape completely. So I had to learn again to dance.

Right. And your father helped you build a special machine to stretch your shoe to accommodate your bunion?

To be fair, the shoe makers were willing to make shoes that were different sizes. But it wasn't working because the rest of the foot had not changed. My foot wasn't bigger. It was just one area. So my dad made this tool. And then I found more dancers that had issues with bunions, so they kept sharing the tool. So eventually, I said, Let's just make them and sell it for no profit. Just because I know so many ballerinas have issues with their bunions. So that's what we did. People can buy them online, and they do, from all over the world.

Wow. And I think there’s another story about you being in a performance and your appendix bursting while you danced. Did you keep dancing?

I thought it was a tummy ache. So you know, you don't want to let the company down.

You were obviously were born with a driven nature, and I don't know, also a high pain threshold?

[Laughs] Yes, I think that’s true.

Francesco Gabriele Frola and Tamara Rojo in Roland Petit's “Carmen” part of English National Ballet's 70th Anniversary Gala. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

And you push through. You handle that much stress. I wonder if it's hard, having that nature, to balance wanting to push people to be their best and also needing to help them stay healthy. It seems like there's a tension inherent in that in ballet. Is that something that you have to think about, in terms of how much to push dancers?

I don't feel like I need to push them to be their best, I think, is inherent in almost all dancers, that they themselves, push themselves, they, very few dancers become professionals, if they don't have an inner drive. [Part of] my job is to make sure their careers have meaning and their legacy. Because I think one of the things that dances, the struggle is that you know, other than a very few dancers, the career is short. You give so much to it, and one day it is over. And I never wanted a dancer to retire without a feeling of achievement and pride, and realizing that everything they did had a meaning and a purpose. That they left a legacy in the world. Whether you know, they were in the corps de ballet, whether they were doing every “Nutcracker” with it—everything you do can change someone's life and can inspire people. And that's what I think my role is, to make sure that everyone can achieve their own potential. In a healthy and creative and positive way. I'm not here to push anybody. I think that would be like when a parent tries to make a son or a daughter be a doctor, unless they want to. There's no purpose then, right? I don't think anybody can be pushed into being a professional dancer, it just takes too much already. So by the time they're professionals, my job is not to push them, but to give them as much information, support, influences collaborative voices—interesting food so that they can become the best artists that they want.

That's interesting. I feel it's such a gray area, because even from dancers who have worked with the same director, or the same famous choreographer, some will testify, ‘This is absolutely what I wanted to do with my life and this person helped me do it.’ And then inevitably there are stories from other people who say, ‘Oh, no, that that person pushed me to the brink. It was all his or her fault that I went that far with what I was doing.’ It's really hard to know where the truth lies. Or is it not?

I think times have changed. And I think perhaps what we consider acceptable practice today is different from what it was 50 or 30 years ago. I will say that for sure. I mean, ballet is not a perfect world. And so I think we need to continue to question traditions and ways of working, and not say ‘That's how it's always been done.’ It doesn't necessarily have to be. But certainly I don't see myself my role as pushing anybody.

Kerry Nicholls, Tamara Rojo, Jürgen Kirner, and Bridget Breiner during rehearsal for Breiner's “The Queen's Daughter.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

Related to that, I'm curious about Kerry Nicholls’ role [as SF Ballet’s new associate artistic director]. She was so generous to talk to me for about 45 minutes about what she does. How did you decide to have Kerry become your associate director also at English National Ballet? At what point did you realize you needed someone in that role, and you wanted her to do it?

I think we started working together in my first year, in 2013. It was more, like I said, to enable dancers to achieve their dreams, their aspirations. And one area of that was that there were dancers that wanted to choreograph, but we didn't really have a process, a structure to help with that. And there were sporadic choreographic workshops and, and so she started to mentor those that wanted to choreograph and help them with finding the right mentors for their process and the right collaborators. And she was a person who intermittently came through the creative process to be a sounding board. Because choreographing can be very lonely. So if you're a young dancer in the company, and you're starting, you need to be mentored, you need to be taught like every other skill. And so we started working with that, and I, as a director, slowly found more and more areas that I wanted the dancers and the artistic teams to have support.

For example?

For the artistic team, what is your role when you're supporting an external choreographer, but you have to maintain the principles and the code of conduct of the organization? How do you find the balance—that is a real tension. Collaborators that come with their own expectations with their own stress, their own ambition, and we have to work in a way that actually aligns with the principles and code of conduct. And how do we then give the skill to the rehearsal directors, many of whom have one day been up dancer and the next day a rehearsal director? How do we give them the skills to give feedback in a healthy manner to understand when there are problems that are not for the rehearsal director to manage?

[Also], how do we help the next generation of artistic directors? Again, so often people almost fall into the role. One day they’re dancers, the next day, they're directors, and there were so many skills I had to learn. So that's why we started to develop all these programs at English National Ballet, like the emerging dancer competition. We also had a mentoring program for dancers joining the company. And we helped dancers find the right path after retirement. For all that, I needed a partner, and I could not think of a better partner than Kerry.

For both of us, we feel it is essential in the modern running of an arts organization to have those kinds of supports.

Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.



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