Tamara Rojo, the charismatic Spanish ballerina who leads the English National Ballet, will become the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet when its longtime director, Helgi Tomasson, steps down at the end of 2022, the company announced on Tuesday.
Rojo will be the first woman and only the fifth director to lead the troupe, the oldest professional ballet company in the United States, founded in 1933. Her appointment comes after a yearlong search for a successor to Tomasson, who has led San Francisco Ballet for 37 years.
“I think it is the most creative company in North America,” Rojo, 47, said in a video interview, adding that her vision for it incorporates her interest in keeping “our art form relevant to a younger audience that sometimes has new values and principles.”
Rojo has transformed the image of English National Ballet in London since becoming its artistic director in 2012. Founded in 1950 (as London Festival Ballet) with the aim of taking ballet to the provinces, the company has long struggled in the shadow of the Royal Ballet and its opera house home.
Rojo, who had been a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet and remained a marquee ballerina for English National Ballet for most of her tenure, gave English National Ballet a new, international allure through innovative programming and risk-taking commissions, like Akram Khan’s “Giselle.” Her own production of “Raymonda,” which retains the traditional 19th-century choreography but sets the story during the Crimean War, is to open on Jan. 18.
She also spearheaded a $49 million fund-raising campaign to build extensive headquarters for the company — the new building opened in east London in 2019 — and established a partnership with Sadler’s Wells Theater that gave English National Ballet a regular London performance home.
“She basically turned that ship around,” said Alistair Spalding, the artistic director and chief executive of Sadler’s Wells. “She has led from the front, as a dancer and a director, been bold about programming, taken risks and made very good choices.
“Most important,” Spalding added, “she had a vision, said, ‘This is what I want,’ and found ways to make it happen.”
Rojo’s appointment is a sea change for the San Francisco Ballet, which was founded in 1933 as part of the San Francisco Opera, becoming an independent company in 1942. First directed by Willam Christensen, it was later run by his brother Lew Christensen, who shared the job with Michael Smuin from 1973 to 1984. Since Tomasson’s arrival in 1985, the company has commissioned around 195 new ballets, and established an international reputation for stylistic versatility and technical aplomb.
“Helgi brought exquisite taste, an adventurous spirit, a willingness to take risks and an ability to solve problems of all kinds, to San Francisco Ballet,” said Sunnie Evers, the co-chair with Fran Streets of the search committee, and the co-chair of the company’s board. “Finding someone to fill his shoes was a daunting prospect.”
Evers said that the committee had been committed to a global search that was “inclusive in terms of ethnicity and gender, and people who weren’t necessarily standard candidates.” Over 200 candidates were contacted when they began the process in February, she said, with the list narrowed to eight by July. “We had three people of color and three women in that round,” she said. “There is a lot of talk about ballet being dominated by white men, so I am thrilled we were not.”
In a video interview, Tomasson said he had no voice in the selection of his successor but had hoped that the person would continue “building a major company and trying new things.” Rojo, he said, “has been able to elevate English National Ballet to a much higher level internationally, which was what I was asked to do when I came to San Francisco. She has acquired new choreography and respected the classics. So there is a little bit of a comparison.”
Rojo was circumspect about her repertory plans for San Francisco Ballet, saying that it was too early to commit to specifics, and that she would spend the next year learning more about the company and its workings. (Tomasson will program the 2022-23 season, including a festival of new choreography.)
“I am close to Europe and will bring some of the flavor of the 25 years I have spent in London,” she said. “And I will continue to focus on female choreographers and to bringing new voices to interpret the classics.” She added, “I love how theater in the U.K. works with the traditional canon, like Shakespeare, and turns it upside down. That inspired me to invite Akram Khan to do ‘Giselle’ and I want to do more works like that.”
Rojo noted that a consequence of Covid-19 had been the explosion of digital dance. “I think San Francisco Ballet has a real opportunity to lead in this area,” she said. “San Francisco is close to Los Angeles, to a huge number of filmmakers and media companies. So far, we’ve just been reacting to a situation, but I think the possibilities are huge.”
Rojo’s husband, Isaac Hernandez, a principal at English National Ballet, recently rejoined San Francisco Ballet, where he danced earlier in his career.
Rojo said she would bring a “system of checks and balances” developed at English National — involving the wider artistic team in casting and dancer evaluations — to San Francisco Ballet. She added, “I like transparency in leadership. I think it’s important for dancers to understand how decisions are made.” (She also said that apart from a few commitments this year, she was retiring from the stage.)
Evers said that the search committee had asked Rojo difficult questions about how she would handle casting Hernandez and also about articles in the British press in 2018 that described complaints about management at English National Ballet.
“Tamara was not afraid to admit mistakes and find solutions,” Evers said.
For her part, Rojo said she didn’t “come from an established, traditional ballet school with a legacy to protect or preserve.”
“I am an outsider,” she continued, “and I am interested in inviting outsiders into the art form, and creating the future with them — whatever it may be.”