Bridging Cultures via Ballet: Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director, SF Ballet

Tamara Rojo

Tamara Rojo, former artistic director of the English National Ballet, shares her vision for the “British Icons” production by San Francisco Ballet, strengthening transatlantic connections in the world of dance.

What inspired you to choose British Icons as a program for SF Ballet’s 2024 season, and how do you envision it resonating with audiences?

I chose to bring these two pieces – ‘Song of the Earth’ by Sir Kenneth MacMillan and ‘Marguerite and Armand’ by Sir Frederick Ashton – to San Francisco Ballet, mainly to give the artists of the company the experience of performing these great choreographers, who had been so instrumental in my own career in the United Kingdom. 

My role as artistic director is to bring works that help the artists of the company grow and develop. These two pieces marked my own career, my own development as an artist, and so were gifts that I wanted to offer to the dancers. Each work has a particular style; a style that is very difficult to achieve. 

Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Song of the Earth’ is one of the best pieces the British choreographer ever created. The performance is both subtle and intense, which enriches and develops the artists performing. The choreography is so inventive.

MacMillan’s piece bridged the gap between the UK and San Francisco in many ways. To me, it’s closer to the American tradition of abstract and poetic ballet, rather than having a straight narrative. MacMillan based the piece on Chinese poetry, and of course San Francisco has a very strong Chinese population. The addition of live opera singers on the stage, I thought, would also interest our city’s opera lovers. 

Sir Frederick Ashton’s ‘Marguerite and Armand’ was created for famous ballet stars, Margot Fontaine and Rudolf Nureyev, who famously came and performed in San Francisco. So I thought that both pieces had links to the culture and the traditions and the history of San Francisco.


Could you elaborate on how the British cultural landscape influenced the selection of repertoire and choreographers for this season?  

I spent almost three decades in the United Kingdom as artistic director of the English National Ballet, so it’s inevitable that I will bring British culture with me – knowingly and subconsciously – to San Francisco Ballet. 

I was very influenced by the arts and cultures of the UK, and London specifically. During the ‘90s and the early 2000s, London was the cultural capital of the world. No other city could rival it. In my time there, I had the immense luck to get to know many artists; not only the British icons – Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton – but other choreographers, dancers and composers.

‘Mere Mortals,’ a new work that launched in January 2024 had music by British composer Sam Shepherd (known professionally as Floating Points). London-based, Olivier award-winning choreographer, Arielle Smith, is tackling the story of Carmen in this year’s program. 

As Artistic Director, my role is twofold: to preserve the works of the past, but also to bring new additions. It is only natural that I bring what I love and what I know from the UK, to enrich the repertoire of San Francisco Ballet. This stands in harmony with the traditional works that this ballet company has presented, like Swan Lake and the Nutcracker and a Midsummer Night’s Dream

For most of its history, San Francisco Ballet has been created and directed by Europeans. Indeed, from 1985 to 2022, Icelandic Helgi Tomasson led San Francisco Ballet, as Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer. I’ve felt the city of San Francisco too, even though it’s in the west of America, is very aware of and influenced by European culture. In the architecture of the Legion of Honor and the exhibits of the Design Museum, in the partnerships between SF opera and other European opera houses, I see a strong European connection.


In what ways do you see the SF Ballet’s interpretation of British Icons contributing to the broader cultural dialogue between the UK and the US? 

San Francisco Ballet has a long history of having British choreographers like Wayne McGregor CBE and Cathy Marston, to name a few. We’ve also had British designers create some of the sets. Britain has, for a long time, had a vibrant cultural landscape.

I’m hoping that in the near future we will be able to tour with San Francisco Ballet to the United Kingdom, as we have done in the past, to London. This will allow us to continue bridging continents and captivating audiences worldwide.

This trans-Atlantic cultural exchange is not a new relationship, though it is perhaps being strengthened by my prior involvement in the British cultural landscape and my new position, as artistic director here at San Francisco Ballet.


Words by Chiara Benn