Old Spanish customs, old English ways

Image of Peter Aspden

There are a number of British institutions, the very mention of which are guaranteed to provoke laughter, hostility or outright contempt. It must have been difficult to reveal, over cocktails, that you worked for the traffic cones hotline. No one really thinks that the MCC does anything worthwhile. I cannot suppress a smirk whenever I hear of the Women’s Institute, ever since learning, as a trainee reporter in Hertfordshire, that a local branch of this fearsome society should never, ever be called the Ugley Women’s Institute, but the Women’s Institute, Ugley.

Culture has its own object of ridicule: the Arts Council. It has become, in many quarters, a byword for dodgy judgment, inefficiency and flaccid debate. Whenever it makes a mistake – and we all make mistakes – it incurs the wrath of some of the most charismatic and articulate antagonists around: actors, directors, writers. Parsimonious politicians look at it and fall into an ecstatic reverie: it’s an extra layer of bureaucracy! That doesn’t really do anything! That no one would miss! It is a wonder the Arts Council still exists at all.

But perhaps we should all think again. Sometimes it takes an outsider to look at something that is unloved, and persuade its detractors to cherish it. Tamara Rojo, the Spanish principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, is barely an outsider: she has lived in Britain for the best part of 15 years, and audiences at Covent Garden consider her as part of the velvety red furniture.

She regularly receives glowing reviews for her work – our own critic Clement Crisp recently praised her “ravishing outlines ... curling and flowering within the musical phrase” – and she is known for her enthusiasm for new projects such as last year’s Goldberg, Kim Brandstrup’s love triangle based on Bach’s Variations.

Now here’s the thing: Rojo loves the Arts Council. She told me so as we talked earlier this week about her forthcoming performances in Liam Scarlett’s as yet untitled new dance for the House. She is diminutive in stature, talks quickly and expressively, and carries around a roll of sponge-like material which is, presumably, something to do with a class she is about to take. She is an advertisement for the hard work that makes the glamour of her profession possible. And just to crank up the unglamorous nature of our conversation, she can’t stop praising the Arts Council.

“It is so important. The whole idea of the arm’s-length principle. If you do not have it, then everything is attached to the political parties. A new party comes into power, and it is all change. The project you have been working on is gone. The arts cannot go ahead like that. It is dictatorship!”

She is talking, none too subtly, of her native Spain. “It is very much in trouble,” she says of the state of dance there. The recently announced departure of Nacho Duato, the artistic director of the Compañia Nacional de Danza, has prompted a government rethink of how to run the company. As one of her country’s most distinguished cultural exports, Rojo was consulted.

But, she says, her views were regarded as if from imported from outer space. “I told them: you have to appoint an artistic director from open competition. People apply for the job from all over the world. And then the best person gets the job. They said, ‘What do you mean?’ They couldn’t believe it. They like the fact that they have the power to choose whoever they want.”

Rojo takes more than a casual interest in artistic policy. She says she wants, at some stage in the future, to be an artistic director. “But my career doesn’t have to be in Spain, and I am not sure it ever will be. That’s why I left when I was 18. I was a teenager in Spain, I became a woman here. My ethics and my views on what the arts can be are very British.”

Do we take for granted organisations such as – gulp – the Arts Council? “Yes, I think so. But that is natural. What I love here is that the individual has a lot of freedoms, and how important it is for people to defend them: their personal rights, their privacy. All these things are natural to the English psyche.” And now hers, too? She nods. “The government is here to serve us, not to control us,” she reminds me sternly. “I like that!”

Rojo immediately sympathises when I say you couldn’t bribe me to watch a Nutcracker: “I have not danced one for 10 years.” She is visibly more animated when discussing the company’s new work than when pondering its classics. She describes Scarlett as “the most talented choreographer working on the London stage”.

Yet she understands the dynamics of her art form. It is only by dancing the classics, she says, that you become “a master of your art. That’s how you become a dancer. You are not a dancer when you are 18. Picasso was Picasso because he could paint like Velázquez. Then, he could do anything.”

She also realises that it is the Nutcrackers and Swan Lakes that enable new choreographers to work in the House. “The truth is, they sponsor the new Christopher Wheeldons, the Wayne McGregors, the Liam Scarletts.” The woman understands her cultural politics. Now if I were the Arts Council ...

The Royal Ballet triple bill, featuring the new Liam Scarlett ballet, opens on May 5


More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.