“I start small – just a three-act narrative ballet that everybody knows!” Tamara Rojo erupts into laughter as she considers the daunting task of putting on her first work as a choreographer. The artistic director of English National Ballet is speaking in her small office at the company’s London City Island headquarters, between rehearsals of Nutcracker and her new ballet, Raymonda, but she seems to be enjoying the process. “I really have loved being in the studio as a choreographer and have enjoyed it very much, far more than I thought I would.”

Tamara Rojo rehearsing Raymonda
© Laurent Liotardo

Why Raymonda? “First and foremost because of Alexander Glazunov’s music,” Rojo explains. “The melodies are just so rich. I’ve always tried to bring repertoire that is identifiable to ENB, that is unique to the company and, despite this incredible music, no company in the UK performs the ballet in its entirety. I felt this was an opportunity that I needed to explore.” 

Raymonda was one of Marius Petipa’s late ballets, premiered in 1898, so it came after creating The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker and the 1895 revisions he and Lev Ivanov made that revived the fortunes of Swan Lake. As such, it was more about grand spectacle than actual plot – Raymonda awaits the return of her fiancé, Jean de Brienne, from the Crusades, but the Saracen knight Abdurakhman arrives unannounced and declares his love. De Brienne slays him in single combat and Act 3 sees Raymonda’s wedding. It’s only that Wedding Divertissement that is presented by UK companies. Rojo danced it both with ENB and The Royal Ballet, but she never danced the full role, created for the legendary ballerina Pierina Legnani.

Pierina Legnani in Raymonda, Act 1 (1898)
© Public domain

“Petipa was the greatest classical choreographer. He was our Mozart. The role of Raymonda is one of the biggest roles any ballerina can face,” Rojo tells me. “It has seven solos. It never ends. You have to use all of your technical abilities – you have to jump on pointe, you have to turn, to do a balance, to do an adagio, to do staccato – it contains the whole ballerina vocabulary. Pierina Legnani was an extraordinary dancer for her time in terms of technique. We have looked at the original Stepanov notations – although these were done in 1903, so not from the ballet’s premiere, but a few years later. I think it’s the nearest we can get to the original legacy of the ballet.” 

One of the most remarkable moments comes in Raymonda’s Act 2 variation, where Petipa demands thirty entrechats-quatre sur la pointe, which caused a sensation at the premiere. “I think one thing that has changed is the jumping on pointe, which I think was far more of a feature than today and that’s partially because the shape of ballerinas has changed. We expect ballerinas today to have more range of movement in terms of flexibility. If you have a very big instep, very flexible ankles, very flexible hips, it’s far more difficult to jump on pointe, though not impossible.”

Olesya Novikova dances Raymonda's Act 2 variation at La Scala

And how are her dancers taking to its demands? “To be fair, they are really enjoying embracing the challenge. It’s not often that you do something new that isn’t contemporary, so to do a new role in the classical canon is so rare. If you ask me, they’re looking fabulous!” 

Rojo calls her version an adaptation rather than her own choreography. “I am by no means Petipa, but what I’m trying to do with Raymonda is what I’ve seen done in England with the traditional theatrical canon of Shakespeare, which is to try and make the original work fit into a different context, preserving as much as possible but do whatever scenes I have to do myself to do the narrative justice.” 

English National Ballet dancers in rehearsal for Raymonda
© Laurent Liotardo

And that narrative, Rojo explains, is going to be rather different. As dramaturg Lucinda Coxon says in one of ENB’s introductory videos, the representation of Abdurakhman is “extremely problematic and racist”, depicting him as “a sex predator”, so the narrative has been reframed from the Crusades to the Crimean War, where British, French and Ottoman forces were allied against the Russians. 

Rojo’s other problem is the lack of agency in the title character. “Raymonda is somebody who doesn’t stop dancing but we never understand who she is, what her motivation is, why she chooses to marry Jean, why she dislikes Abdur! There is really very little insight, things seem to happen to her.

Fernando Carratalá Coloma in rehearsal for Raymonda
© Laurent Liotardo

“I wanted Raymonda to make her own decisions, and for that I needed an historic context in which the Turk was not the enemy and a context where the women were actively involved in the conflict – and the Crimean War was the perfect match. Once I made Jean an English gentleman of the Light Brigade (John de Bryan), Abdur became a man of the Ottoman Empire who had come to Britain to brief the government and the press about how to help. Abdur is based on real people from the Ottoman Empire, who were educated at Oxford and Cambridge and had networks of influence, but who also had the money to bribe the press to drive the narrative about why the British should not partner their natural ally, Christian Russia, but to become allies of the Turks. It’s geo-politics – the same we’re briefed on today! – but it allowed me to have that context of John and Abdur being colleagues and allies rather than enemies.

Erina Takahashi in Raymonda's nurse costume designed by Antony McDonald
© Laurent Liotardo

“And Raymonda becomes one of those women at the front – in this case I was inspired by Florence Nightingale and the nurses in the Crimea – but there were many other women there, women accompanying their husbands, women washing clothes, there were prostitutes. That was the other side of the Crimean War, hence all these waltzes and social engagements. There were horse races, gambling and lots of parties.” 

I point out that the Crimean War was also the first conflict to be documented in press reports and photographs. “Actually the whole production is designed by Antony McDonald as if we are looking through a camera lens and we have the photographer there throughout, so we do see that evident in the ballet.”

Maria Kochetkova and ENB dancers in rehearsals for Raymonda
© Laurent Liotardo

And how does Rojo square the Hungarian influences in Act 3, where the wedding traditionally takes place at the court of King Andrew II of Hungary (who led the 1217-18 Crusade)? “I couldn’t fight that music,” she smiles. “I couldn’t remove it, so I had to justify it. This was actually another Antony McDonald find. Even then, European immigrants helped pick the harvests in Britain. So Raymonda, being a landowner like Florence Nightingale’s family were, has Hungarian workers and they celebrate the lady of the manor’s wedding by dancing for her and inviting her to their own celebrations. It does look very different. Instead of a grand royal occasion full of gold and tutus, it’s a workers’ party and so it looks more.. down to earth.” Gavin Sutherland, ENB’s music director, has even rescored parts of Act 3 to introduce traditional Hungarian instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and the cimbalom – the latter clearly Glazunov’s inspiration when you listen to the usual piano solo that begins Raymonda’s famous Act 3 variation.  

There has been some reordering of numbers, with an expanded Act 1 to give space for the narrative to develop. “The second waltz was a very joyful affair, but it didn’t fit the narrative of the loss of men and women in the war,” Rojo reveals, so Sutherland has composed a “valse triste”, a waltz of the fallen soldiers as it were, loosely based on music from the Act 1 “Dream” Adagio, a beautiful 12/8 sequence in D flat. 

If Raymonda is problematic, are there other works that Rojo would have difficulties staging in today’s climate? “Bayadère is the obvious one but, as a Spanish person, Don Quixote has always been a challenge – not for any political issues or any offence people may take but from the sheer lack of representation of the actual book itself. We study Don Quixote in school, it’s the first major novel, it’s the revolution in literature, yet what ends up being on the stage, the role of Don Q himself is…” She rolls her eyes in despair. “If I park that, the ballet is fine, you can watch it and enjoy it, but as a Spaniard who has read Cervantes… 

“Sometimes I struggle with Carmen, with how she can be depicted as a teaser rather than a woman that wants to have her own mind and her own destiny and to choose and behave like a man. I’ve only ever seen one version that depicts her as I consider her to be and that’s Mats Ek’s Carmen, which is the only one that shows that character, that will.”

Tamara Rojo and Francesco Gabriele Frola in rehearsals
© Laurent Liotardo

Rojo shares that sense of will. She is a dynamic leader, just as she was a dynamo on the stage. She is fiercely proud of her company and its achievements and has always led from the front. During lockdown, fans could tune into her daily class streamed live from her kitchen (and experience serious espresso envy over her Sage Barista machine!) and she was appointed by the government to the Cultural Renewal Taskforce to develop a blueprint for how companies could safely resume activity again. “I think ENB did incredibly well in the pandemic,” she tells me. “We reacted very fast, we showed that we were adaptable, innovative and generous – we shared everything we had in our archives and our classes for free for a long period of time. We also created works for digital consumption and as soon as theatres were reopening, we did the programmes Reunion and Solstice in the summer even though financially it didn’t make any sense to do so. ENB can hold its head high.”

Tamara Rojo
© Karolina Kuras

While the company’s digital work was hugely important, Rojo cites that the high costs of creating digital content against a financial return which is not guaranteed (or very low). “A year ago, I would definitely have said that digital would be very much part of our vision, but I would say now that I need to think about it because, for me, the most important thing is that we are a live performing arts organisation with live performers on the stage and in the pit. I need to secure my ability to continue to be a live performance organisation, so I can only take so many risks.” 

Rojo is quick to cite the importance of the government’s rescue package and furlough scheme, as well as the gifts of generous individuals in helping keep the company afloat. “The messages of gratitude reminded all of us about the importance of what we do, of not taking it for granted, and how people need the arts especially at the most difficult times when they’re alone or afraid.” But she also sounds a note of caution. “Funnily enough, now are the riskiest months. We have survived – but only just – and are back in full working mode, with all that means in terms of costs and investment and with so much insecurity still about the future. Box offices are struggling and it’s going to take a while for international touring to resume (which is a financially positive thing to do for us) so it’s the next two or three years that are looking like the riskier ones.” 

Raymonda opens on 13th January.