Tamara Rojo in Swan Lake. Photo by ASH, Courtesy ENB.

Leading by Example: Dancer-Director Tamara Rojo Gets Resourceful at English National Ballet

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Pointe.

While the 20th century brought a number of high-profile dancing directors, from Rudolf Nureyev in Paris to Mikhail Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre, most today don't juggle the highly demanding tasks of simultaneously performing and managing a company. Tamara Rojo is one prominent exception: The Spanish ballerina left The Royal Ballet to become director of English National Ballet in 2012—and has been leading the company by example ever since.

A dogged multitasker, Rojo wasted no time revamping the company's image. Often seen as the poor cousin of The Royal Ballet, with limited funding and a mandate to tour widely, ENB struggled to make its presence felt under her predecessor, Wayne Eagling. Rojo has since turned ENB into a resourceful enterprise—from lauded premieres to a new partnership with Sadler's Wells and plans for a shiny new home—alive with the same energy and individuality she is known for onstage.


One of The Royal's most recognizable stars in the 2000s, Rojo only realized that she had the desire to direct in her 30s, when Spain's president asked for her thoughts on the possibility of creating a classical company in her home country. "At the time I felt unprepared," she says. "I thought: If this responsibility ever comes upon me, I need to be ready, because you don't always get a second chance."

Tamara Rojo. Photo by Jeff Gilbert, Courtesy ENB.

Then in her prime, she nonetheless set out to prepare herself methodically in her spare time. In addition to earning a degree in performing arts long distance from Spain's King Juan Carlos University, she attended rural retreats for dance directors and shadowed National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain. “She was very generous," says Rojo. “I'd never had access before to all of the departments of an organization, from box-office to stage management, and she opened them all. It helped me understand what consequences artistic decisions have in practice."

Rojo applied to another directorship as a practice run, but she had her heart set on ENB, where she had risen to fame as a ballerina from 1997 to 2000 before joining The Royal Ballet. “I loved this company as a dancer. It had lots of limitations, but there was such a family feel, so much talent development." When the board started contacting potential directors to replace Eagling, she jumped at the chance.

To create the company culture she had in mind, Rojo's first move was to bring in her own artistic team. In addition to Loipa Araújo, her Cuban associate director, she hired several teachers she knew from her Royal Ballet days. “I needed people who had the skills to coach in the manner I believe in, in a very caring and positive way," she explains.

The media-savvy ballerina also set out to rebrand ENB. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood collaborated on a high-end campaign, and while the company's limited budget means few premieres, Rojo has looked for productions that could “define" ENB as a company: “I wanted both new classics and collaborations with choreographers that were making an impact in the British dance landscape." Her first project was a new Le Corsaire staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, the first UK production of the ballet. For Lest We Forget, a triple bill of creations to mark the centenary of World War I, she persuaded choreographers Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Liam Scarlett to make works.

Rojo with Max Westwell in "Petite Mort." Photo by ASH, Courtesy ENB.

Three years into the job, Rojo seems on course to secure the company's future with ambitious moves, including a game-changing partnership with London dance hub Sadler's Wells. As associate company, ENB will perform twice-yearly seasons at the venue, which will also present this season's She Said, a triple bill of premieres by women.

Last May, ENB also announced plans to move to state-of-the-art new headquarters in a developing area of East London. The company's 19th-century Kensington home has only two rehearsal studios. The new building, set to open in 2018, will offer four times more studio space, as well as new training facilities for both ENB and its affiliated school.

While there have been a number of dancer departures since Rojo's arrival (though roughly as many as in previous years), she didn't proactively let go of anyone, and instead relies on a mix of role models and young talent. One of her early coups was to bring in Romanian star Alina Cojocaru, who had just left The Royal Ballet; guests like Ivan Vasiliev and Dutch National Ballet's Isaac Hernández have also brought star power to classical runs. Hernández even joined full-time last April.

With ENB's extensive touring across the UK and internationally, however, Rojo says there is always space to nurture promising dancers. “You can develop talent very quickly. With so much touring, though, it's a company that requires a lot of hard work. You don't find many dancers who think this is a 9-to-5 job—it tends to be a really driven, passionate group." American corps member Precious Adams is one of the dancers thriving in this demanding environment. She says, “ENB has a strong sense of camaraderie and pride in putting on a good show." Though she only joined the company in 2014, after graduating from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, she says that she already feels “like I am a part of the family."

Rojo with James Streeter in Akram Khan's "Dust." Photo by ASH, Courtesy ENB.

While Rojo, 41, has given up some roles, including Aurora and Juliet, she still dances in most productions, and comes in before everyone each morning to do her fitness training. Administrative tasks are scheduled around company class and rehearsals. “After 35, you don't waste time; you understand your body. I also believe that as a principal ballerina, you are already leading. How I behave in the studio is already managing others." For Adams, Rojo is a constant inspiration: “It took me a month to get over the nerves of having my boss dancing next to me. It's rewarding to have a star to look up to every day."

Rojo's biggest challenge as director remains resources, she says. While she has expanded ENB's development department to improve fundraising, state funding has been at a standstill since she took over, and is going down across all arts organizations in the UK. However, the ballerina-director has proved a passionate advocate for the art form and isn't one to take no for an answer. “I'm an impatient person, and I stretch ENB to its maximum, in terms of people, space and finances. The company is a cruiser, a tiny boat—change can happen very fast."

English National Ballet At a Glance

Number of dancers: 66 + 3 character artists

Length of contract: Year-round

Performances per year: 129 in 2014–15

Website: ballet.org.uk

Audition Advice

ENB doesn't typically hold auditions. Instead, after a pre-selection based on CV and photos, Rojo invites interested dancers to take class throughout the year. "We say yes to almost everybody, but the rule is that you can only do a maximum of three classes with us," she says. "A strong technique is important, but I love experience, mature artists who understand their craft."

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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