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Frida Kahlo's brush with ballet: Tamara Rojo dances the artist's life
The great Mexican painter is the subject of one of three new works choreographed by women for She Said at Sadlers Wells. Its creators explain their impressionistic approach to the artists pain and passion
Frida Kahlo
An unlikely candidate for a dance heroine Frida Kahlo. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Judith Mackrell
Judith Mackrell
Tuesday 22 March 2016 13.30 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 22 March 2016 16.30 GMT
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It came as a shocking realisation to Tamara Rojo that, during her long career as a ballerina, shed never once performed in a work created by a woman. Even in the 21st century, most of the worlds ballet repertory is choreographed by men. Now that Rojo is artistic director of English National Ballet, shes determined to change the landscape. Her latest commission, She Said, is a programme of new one-act ballets all choreographed by women.

The Tamara Rojo revolution: bringing ballet into the 21st century
Read more
The suppression of womens voices throughout history was a theme uppermost in Rojos mind when she met to discuss the programme with her three contributing choreographers, Aszure Barton, Yabin Wang and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The theme struck a special chord for Lopez Ochoa because for years she had been looking for an opportunity to make a ballet about Frida Kahlo, the extraordinary Mexican painter whose talent was only recognised internationally after her death.

I was partly drawn to Frida by the Latin connection, says Lopez Ochoa, who is part Colombian, part Belgian. But she was an amazing woman. For a long time Id been fascinated by these strange portraits that she painted of herself but I hadnt really understood them. Then about 10 years ago I saw a movie about her life and it made me appreciate how shed been able to transform her sorrows and her pain into art. It was inspiring: I wanted to be like Frida and use my own experience more directly in my work, and I wanted to be able to share her story with an audience.

Tamara Rojo and dancers in rehearsal for Broken Wings, part of She Said at Sadlers Wells.
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Tamara Rojo and dancers in rehearsal for Broken Wings, part of She Said at Sadlers Wells. Photograph: Laurent Liotardo
On paper, its a story that might seem better left to film. Kahlos embrace of Mexican culture, her involvement with revolutionary politics and her emotional and professional quarrels with her swaggeringly entitled husband, Diego Rivera, are complicated issues for a wordless art form such as dance to navigate. The fact that Kahlo was disabled, after sustaining injuries in a bus accident when she was 18, makes her an even more unlikely candidate for a ballet heroine.

Lopez Ochoa, however, was clear that she only wanted to tell the basic facts of Kahlos life before letting her choreography loose into a more abstract, surreal treatment. She also knew that she wanted the input of Nancy Meckler formerly joint director of the theatre group Shared Experience with whom she had previously, and very successfully, collaborated on a dance adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire.

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Watch an interview with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
When I talk to the two women at ENBs base in west London, its clear how well they operate as a team. Meckler tends to measure her words, Lopez Ochoa to spill them out; often they complete each others sentences and theres a lot of laughter in between. It was Ashley Page, then director of Scottish Ballet, who brought them together for the Streetcar project. Hed always wanted to experiment with a theatre director leading the creation of a new ballet, says Meckler. Annabelle and I were really thrown together, but we discovered that we shared a very similar aesthetic, we both like to tell stories in an impressionistic rather than a naturalistic way.

Jeanette Kakareka in rehearsal for She Said.
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Jeanette Kakareka in rehearsal for She Said. Photograph: Perry Curties
Reunited for the Kahlo ballet, entitled Broken Wings, the two women read widely around their subject, brainstormed ideas and constructed a meticulously detailed scenario from which composer Peter Salem could begin writing the score. It was a rigorous process: With every element we made ourselves think: Do we need this, what part does it actually play? says Meckler. We knew that we needed to see Frida starting to paint, but we didnt need to see her father actually give her a paintbrush. We needed to show the accident, but we didnt need the bus.

They also had to consider how they would deal with Kahlos physical restrictions. Lopez Ochoa had a clear visual idea of transforming Kahlos bed where she spent months after the accident into a cube in which the dance character could be enclosed yet free to move. For her, the essence of Kahlos character was the power and joy that the painter gained from transcending her life through her art.

Casting the ballet proved interesting. Lopez Ochoa had not expected that Rojo, as ENBs director, would be available to perform, but during a discussion about who might play Frida she found herself saying: I need a petite, Hispanic dancer and I keep looking at you, Tamara. Rojo agreed instantly (its since proved disconcerting to them how much Rojo actually knows about Kahlo). And it was Rojo who also came up with the idea of casting Irek Mukhamedov, former star of the Bolshoi and the Royal Ballet, in the role of Rivera.

English National Ballet in rehearsal for Broken Wings.
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English National Ballet in rehearsal for Broken Wings. Photograph: Laurent Liotardo
At 56, hes perfect for Lopez Ochoas choreography old enough to inspire her to a movement vocabulary appropriate to the ageing, bulky Rivera, but fit enough to hold his own with a stageful of younger dancers.

While the choreography is created in the studio, Mecklers role is to provide an outside eye on the material and to work on character and motivation with members of the cast. Ever since her first experience of ballet dancers with Streetcar, shes has nothing but respect for them. Because of the way they work, some ballet dancers may not have been exposed to a lot of culture, but they have so much emotional depth, perhaps because so many of them have had quite a hard life. And their concentration! I can give an actor a note 10 times and theyll still forget it. Dancers never forget a thing that you tell them.

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Watch a trailer for A Streetcar Named Desire
Both women have been impressed by the dancers beautiful openness of attitude, their keenness to experiment with a different style of movement, both in Broken Wings and in the two other works that complete the programme. Theyre equally impressed by Rojos boldness in initiating the experiment of She Said. Shes fearless, says Lopez Ochoa, and other companies are becoming very interested in what shes doing. Im proud of being part of this. I dont really feel I have to make a political statement about my own career, I like the way it has gone. But I have seen so many opportunities go to men who are younger and less experienced than me. And I know a lot of women suffer from the feeling that they arent good enough. If I can open things up for younger female choreographers, if I can inspire a dancer to believe she can start choreographing, then Im really glad to take on that role.

English National Ballets She Said is at Sadlers Wells, London, 13-16 April. Box office: 020-7863 8000.



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New Principal Dancer Cesar Corallis



Meet Lead Principal Jurgita Dronina | English National Ballet



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Finalists of English National Ballets Emerging Dancer competition at the London Coliseum in June



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With English National Ballet mired in allegations of unacceptable workplace practices, Ballet Position goes behind the scenes to find out more

Over the past five years English National Ballet (ENB) has burnished its public image to a peak of gloss and glamour. The company is dancing with verve and assurance, and the visionary and bold programming developed by its Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, has won her a loyal following, plaudits and honours, including a CBE for Services to Dance.

The public success of the company is a given, something that its staff recognise and appreciate. It comes at what price, though?

Scratch the surface and a very different image begins to take shape. Its not pretty, glossy or glamourous. The word that best describes the climate inside ENB today is toxic.

Fear and Intimidation
In an article published on 27 January The Times lifted a small corner of the veil to expose an alleged culture of fear and intimidation at the company.

Rumours of bad human relations and plummeting morale had been circulating for years, seemingly validated by a staggeringly high turnover of staff year after year. I have never seen brand new people come into a company and within two years leaving at the rate they are now, a seasoned observer told Ballet Position.

Fifteen dancers left the company last summer alone.

And yet the The Times report was the first time allegations of unacceptable managerial conduct in the company came out into the open.

Ballet Position wondered why. Why have people with compelling stories to tell not spoken out before? Or sought redress in-house?

We talked to twelve ENB dancers past and present, as well as support staff, and had sight of relevant documents. And the answer we consistently got was fear.

Ive been wanting to talk about this for so long, but was so afraid, said one.

It is hard to comprehend, let alone describe, the palpable sense of fear common to the sources we approached on a strictly confidential basis.

Think about it: fear, all-pervasive and paralysing in a publicly subsidised company in 21st century Britain

Equally striking was the eagerness with which accounts that had been churning inside came pouring out once people had been assured of absolute confidentiality. Striking too, that as they spoke to Ballet Position and relived their time at ENB, many of those who are no longer there still broke down and cried.

I was so depressed, I still cry remembering it, said one former dancer.

I am so glad its all coming out at last, said another, a sentiment echoed by most of those we spoke to.

Destabilising Behaviour
The stories we heard were remarkably consistent. They told of a style of management that relies on bullying, psychological pressure, rudeness, public humiliation and an absolute lack of empathy.

These allegations are laid firmly at the door of the Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo described as someone with no people management skills and the Assistant Artistic Director, Loipa Araújo.

Their behaviour is described as entirely destabilising.

Tamara comes into the studio and the atmosphere immediately changes: you dont know whether shes going to start screaming or give us the absolute silent treatment.

Surely it cant be right to stop a rehearsal, or class, single out one person and tear that person apart in front of everybody else.

To a dancer mid-class: Look at you! What the f*ck have you been doing?

Displease the AD or ADD and you become a non-person, totally ignored in class and rehearsal.

I dont think Loipa ever addressed a single word to me; no corrections in class nothing.

The psychological effect of this kind of treatment is profound: traumatised is the word used by more than one of our sources.

Then there is the pressure to dance even if injured. Told by the Artistic Director that asking for more recovery time after a serious and extremely painful illness revealed lack of commitment to the company one dancer told us I felt I had to hide my condition I danced out of fear.

And there are consistent reports that the advice provided by in-house medical staff has been simply ignored or overridden.

If someone falls out of favour, were told, their life is made so miserable they end up leaving; some
abandoning the profession altogether.

I didnt finish my career the way I would have liked, a former ENB dancer, who resigned when the psychological pressure became unbearable, told us. I knew I had to stop dancing some day, but I felt I had another three or four years of dancing in me.

Decisions that affect the lives of dancers are described as capricious and arbitrary. One older dancer was granted a restricted amount of unpaid leave to pursue interests that would help him develop a post-dancing career; only to be told at the last minute it wasnt possible after all.

He, too, resigned; but because he fought his corner all the way, now hes not even allowed in the building.

Roles are given and then taken away with no explanation. One day youre told youll be doing a solo, only to hear the next day you are second cast corps after all.

Feedback is non-existent or entirely negative, sometimes given mid-performance.

The result is that dancers confidence is totally shattered. I was constantly told I wasnt good enough, but had no feedback to improve. I ended up on anti-depressants.

And this from another dancer who used to enjoy performing: I dont want to be on stage terrified that something is going to go wrong.

Conflict of Interests
Then there is the personal relationship between Ms Rojo and one of her subordinates, Lead Principal Isaac Hernández.

Tamara Rojo and Isaac HernándezTamara Rojo and Isaac Hernández
Personal relationships between managers and their direct subordinates are problematic at the best of times, bordering on the unprofessional and unethical.

This is so when they are conducted discreetly; its even more so when they are flaunted, as is the case with the Rojo/Hernández liaison. We have reason to believe Ms Rojo is fully aware of the conflict of interests involved; and yet were told Mr Hernándezs has become cocky, and shows off his special status by, for example, rolling in late for class and leaving early; or sitting in to observe the womens class for no apparent reason.

It makes people feel very uncomfortable, we were told. And his presence stops dancers talking freely among themselves.

Hes like a second pair of eyes ready to report back to the AD.

That Mr Hernández is brought into the Spanish language huddle of Tamara Rojo and Cubas Loipa Araújo, in which non-Spanish speaking dancers naturally have no part, contributes to the sense of exclusion and mistrust, which now seems to afflict a considerable section of the company.

I Felt Completely Alone
Tamara Rojo and Loipa Araújo are not working in a vacuum, though. English National Ballet has an Executive Director, currently Patrick Harrison, and a Board of Trustees, currently headed by Justin Bickle. It is recognised by the stage trades union Equity, under whose rules it should operate. It is also a recipient of considerable public subsidy in the form of annual Arts Council grants.

Oh, and there is an in-house Human Resources (HR) department

Were none of them aware of these problems? Were told the dancers fill in annual anonymous employment satisfaction forms and certainly last year many used them to make their grievances abundantly clear. To no avail, it seems.

The view among some of our sources is that Equity is ineffectual. So, having been unable to get the Ballet Rep to answer our repeated phone calls, we emailed Equitys Press Office a series of detailed questions. We received the following statement:

We are currently working with our members to resolve a number of issues at the ENB, but those discussions are confidential. We have not got any further comment to make at this time.

Good enough?

As for the Arts Council, which subsidises ENB to the tune of £6.2 million per year, a spokesperson told us it was not aware of any allegations of improper behaviour in relation to ENB, prior to The Times article, but added:

ensuring that staff, audiences and participants are able to work and experience arts and culture in a safe and secure environment must be of paramount importance to arts and cultural organisations.

However, having been prompted by the report in The Times to seek a meeting between senior Arts Council and ENB members, the statement goes on, we are satisfied that ENB has appropriate policies and processes in place to handle grievances, complaints and conflicts of interest, and that it takes its responsibilities in this regard very seriously and have not asked them to investigate beyond the actions it is already taking.

ENB What Now?
So, back to ENB.

Ballet Position sent two lists of detailed questions to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Justin Bickle, and the Executive Director, Patrick Harrison, via the ENB Head of Press.

Among our questions: were they were aware of the allegations of a climate of fear and intimidation at the company as a direct result of the AD and ADDs style of management; and what action did they propose to take to deal with these serious problems?

We received a statement that does not directly answer any of our questions. After stressing the companys artistic success over the past five years, the ENB statement notes the introduction of

significantly increased medical provisions and clearer and more generous reporting lines for
dancers and more training for their managers.

We are unclear as to the meaning of clearer and more generous reporting lines. Furthermore, all our sources are unaware of any improvements in management as a result of more training.

The statement goes on to say, We are committed to providing a safe environment, free of harassment and bullying of any sort, and we respond to any specific concerns that are raised.

We have well-established staff policies addressing whistleblowing, safeguarding, grievance, bullying and harassment, and conflict of interest.

Ballet Position remains unclear as to what those policies are; and wonders why they appear not to have been implemented.

The statement concludes: we will continue to work with our recognised unions, board and staff to ensure feedback is listened to and any concerns are addressed.

We are open-minded about finding the most effective ways for staff to raise concerns, and a series of meetings are planned with all staff and dancers now the company is back from its mid-season break.

A Cry For Help
Heres the thing, though: staff have raised concerns anonymously in the employment satisfaction forms and told us they saw no results, no improvements.

In the present climate of fear, for an individual to follow the company grievance procedure is seen as career suicide. You will find yourself before the AD, stating a grievance against her

Our sources told us they do not trust the company to hear their grievances in good faith and act on them. Nobody trusts HR to act as an impartial arbiter between management and staff.

Talking to the press, then, is a last resort, a cry for help because theres only so long you can go on dancing on the edge of fear.

by Teresa Guerreiro


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