Rojo and Lopez sieze the chance to call the tune

With this week’s appointment of Tamara Rojo, 37, as the new artistic director of English National Ballet, and Lourdes Lopez’s appointment earlier this month as artistic director of Miami City Ballet, two more women have at last reached the pinnacles of major ballet companies.

But these appointments come at the same time as two others are leaving – the Royal Ballet’s Monica Mason is about to take her last reverence and Kathryn Bennetts is quitting the Royal Ballet of Flanders following a war with government officials over funding and management of the company.

The appointment of Rojo, now a principal of the Royal Ballet, is a coup for English National Ballet, a company under the hammer for months, if not years, most recently due to the ongoing war between the current artistic director, Wayne Eagling and the former managing director, Craig Hassall, as well as its fragile financial situation.

Rojo has been preparing for this role for some time and she has the innate intelligence for the job as well as the commitment to learning.

On the shortlist to replace Mason at the Royal Ballet, she has studied for a degree in the performing arts and shadowed Karen Kain, the director of the National Ballet of Canada,.

Her intelligence and grit was clear to me as long ago as 2002 when I interviewed her before the Royal Ballet’s 2002 tour of Australia. She told me in detail how she had been studying in preparation for Mats Ek’s Carmen and why she had refused to play Kitri in Don Quixote in the clichéd way.

“I had to be honest with my performance”, she said. “The perception of Kitri is like a caricature of a Spanish woman, and I was not prepared to do that. My Kitri was not a spoiled little brat. Kitri has a sense of honour. A spoiled little brat has no honour. I have to do what I think is right”.

(In the end, Rojo didn’t dance in the Australian season of the Royal Ballet, due to a foot injury made worse by the long plane journey.)

Her one season in Australia came during the English National Ballet’s 1999 tour of Derek Deane’s arena production of Swan Lake.

Deane, then artistic director of ENB, was immensely proud of Rojo, taking her by the hand as they walked around the cavernous Sydney Entertainment Centre and introducing her to visitors and staff as his new(ish) treasure.

By then, Rojo had been a principal dancer with ENB for two years, having left the Scottish Ballet. So she knows the company from the inside.

Her appointment as ENB’s artistic director-designate was leaked before the formal announcement, scheduled for today, due to overexcited tweets, including one writer who tweeted that April 13 would be “Tamara’s Day”.

Rojo will succeed Wayne Eagling next September. She plans to continue dancing, but how long she can maintain her dancing career is difficult to gauge. Both Ethan Stiefel and Angel Corella have found that artistic directorships and dance careers are hard to run in tandem.

The events that led to the appointments of Rojo and Lourdes follow a familiar scenario for those who have followed the history of many dance companies, in particular, the Australian Ballet.

In 1994, the AB board decided that Maina Gielgud’s time was up as artistic director. She was given two years to exit and finally left in 1996 after her directorship of 13 years. Gielgud is now guest repetiteur/artistic adviser at ENB.

At English National Ballet, the board, led by chairman John Talbot, made the decision last year that Eagling had to go after his seven years as artistic director. The decision was brewing all year and an announcement was imminent but the board backed off at the last minute. Finally, the announcement was made last February.

Like the chairman of the Australian Ballet in the mid 1990s, Talbot is a businessman. A donor to ENB, he is chief executive and executive chairman of Johnson Service Group PLC, a company that provides “textile rental, dry cleaning, and facilities management services to consumers and businesses in the UK”. His salary is £250,000 a year.

The bottom line is clearly important to Talbot, who is also a director of Limited, Alex Reid Limited, Berwyn Hydro Limited, Crouchmann UK Limited, Crouch Talbot UK Limited, Jeeves of Belgravia Limited, Johnson Cleaners UK Limited, Johnson Group Properties PLC, Johnsons Apparelmaster Limited, JSG Capital (Jersey) Limited, Semara Estates Limited and SGP Property & Facilities Management Limited.

When a board led by men and women with personal wealth (and who hold positions of power in the professions, in the finance industry or in property), has made its decision, there is no going back, no matter how many petitions are signed, how many letters are published from anonymous supporters of the outgoing artistic director and how many leaks to the media occur.

At Miami, the board decided last year that the current artistic director, Edward Villella, 75, had to walk the plank.

Local media reported that a group of board members and donors forced Villella to retire “earlier than he had planned” and had in mind as his replacement, Lopez, 53, a former principal with New York City Ballet and co-founder of Morphoses with Christopher Wheeldon.

Jordan Levin, a journalist at The Miami Herald, reported on 3 April that Toby Lerner Ansin, a long time donor and board member, who was Villella’s partner in founding Miami City Ballet, has been at odds with him in recent years.

In a gem of clichéd comment, Ansin was reported as saying: “It’s time to pull together and move forward…change isn’t easy but it’s been done….”

Ansin helps fund the Miami City Ballet through various fundraisers, is an adviser to the company and likes to take her place on stage as well. She is in rehearsal for a walk-on part as a gypsy in Don Quixote.

“I am living out a lifelong dream to be onstage”, Ansin has said.

She was formerly married to Edmund Ansin, a billionaire media proprietor and property owner whose net worth was estimated last month by US business magazines as $US1.3 billion.

The chair of the Miami City Ballet board, Ana-Maria Codina Barlick, who spoke out strongly in favour of Lopez, is a sponsor of the dance company and the daughter of the wealthy Miami property developer, Armando Codina.

Many artistic directors must yearn for a position in Germany where governments provide the bulk of financial support for arts companies.

As the old saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

In the case of ENB and Miami, however, the new women at the helm show signs of being pipers who might just call the tune themselves. Let’s hope so.

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