By Lyndsey Winship
12 October 2020
Tamara Rojo may be a great tragic dancer on stage, but in person she is far from the voice of doom. “The performing arts and dance have survived millennia,” she says, sitting in her office looking out onto a floor of empty desks. “They’ve survived pandemics and hundred-year wars and all kind of disasters. Getting together to share stories is intrinsic to humanity. People will gather, live performance will continue to exist.” Just maybe not quite in the way we’re used to, yet.
Ballet is finally putting its pointe shoes back on for a live audience. This month there are performances by the Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet – and English National Ballet, where Rojo is artistic director, has just announced two live shows. In November, a live version of their upcoming digital season will feature five new short ballets at Sadler’s Wells, and in December there’s a slimmed-down version of The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum. Christmas isn’t quite cancelled after all.
There will be some drastic differences to pre-Covid shows, with less than half the usual audience (423 at Sadler’s instead of 1,400, and 1,100 at the Coliseum, where ENB usually sell out 2,300 seats). Will it be worth their while financially? “We are trying to find a way to not lose money, that’s all we want to do at this point,” says Rojo. “I passionately believe we need to restart the sector and rehire choreographers and technicians and lighting designers and composers and film-makers so that the engine starts moving, even if it doesn’t make financial sense.”
Making sure there’s still an industry on the other side of this pandemic is Rojo’s main concern. ENB had to furlough 85% of its workforce and many of the staff took pay cuts (20%-25% for most, more for Rojo herself). They haven’t replaced nine dancers who left this year, so the company is reduced in size. But on the upside, ENB’s swanky new Docklands building has seven studios, so there is plenty of room for distancing, and the biggest doubles as a stage, so they can broadcast from there. She thinks the UK’s larger and more established dance companies will be OK in the long term, but it’s the independent artists and freelancers and those working backstage who are in trouble.
“The situation cannot be sustained much longer. The loss of talent and skill breaks my heart,” she says. “The UK’s creative industries are the best in the world, consistently reinventing themselves and at the forefront of everything, it’s the reason for so many of us to be here.” She’s also worried about the ballet world internationally. Talking to directors and dancers in the US, she fears the lack of public subsidy there could mean even big institutions disappearing. “Nobody wants a smaller, less diverse, less interesting ballet world,” says Rojo.
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