November should have seen English National Ballet back on stage at Sadler’s Wells for their much-anticipated reunion show. Then came the second lockdown.
It was “a shock and a big disappointment” to artistic director Tamara Rojo. “I’m a complete optimist, so I was really convinced the show was going to happen,” she admits. But she feared the worst when rumours started to spread on Friday night, ahead of the Government’s official announcement.
“We understand the lockdown needs to happen. But it did hurt, after we put in so much work and effort.”
That includes commissioning and rehearsing five world premieres, from prestigious choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Yuri Possokhov, Arielle Smith, Russell Maliphant and Stina Quagebeur – some based abroad. Which, Rojo points out, “is in itself a remarkable feat”.
In fact, this was originally meant to be digital work. Then the restrictions eased, and given “the calibre of choreographers and the positive experience the dancers had during creation, we really wanted to share it with a live audience too.”
But now, it’s back to digital. The reunion of dancers and spectators will have to wait. Rojo does believe they can create content “of equal value” online, and that ballet is best suited, “because it’s so interesting visually”. Yet it’s “painful” to lose out on “gathering together in one space – that emotional, physical and soul connection”.
Careful preparations had been made for this socially distanced show. “We put a lot of time and investment into making our building safe for rehearsals, creating bubbles within the company, working with the venue. No one likes to see that go to waste.”
But Rojo feels fortunate that they can still rehearse during lockdown – and she’s still hoping to bring us a Nutcracker this Christmas. “English National Ballet has done more than any other company to establish it in the UK. We’ve done one every year since 1950 – we don’t want to break that tradition.”
The plan is to present a condensed, greatest-hits version, Nutcracker Delights, at the London Coliseum: favourite scenes, plus an animated film that tells the story. “If you come for the first time, you’ll still know what’s going on and get a proper Nutcracker experience.”
Doing a 75-minute show means no need for an interval – complicated to arrange with safety measures – and this is “the length we thought a child could sit through”. In fact, notes Rojo, though Nutcracker is always popular with families, “this might be the most family-friendly Nutcracker ever!”
The production was scheduled for December 3 to January 3, but they’re now looking at December 17 as a viable start date. That, says, Rojo is the latest they could begin the run “and still break even. We won’t make a profit, because of reduced audience capacity. But there will be a point of no return, if lockdown isn’t lifted, where we’d make a big loss – and we can’t justify that financially, when we’re planning how to survive.”
Still, it’s quite a shift from the usual model of five years of planning for a production to more like five weeks. “No one wants this uncertainty,” states Rojo.
But the performing arts “are necessary. They will be at the centre of reactivating the economy and other businesses. So we feel compelled to return.”
It wouldn’t be possible without two “life-saving” government initiatives, says Rojo: a £3 million grant from the Cultural Recovery Fund and the furlough scheme. “We furloughed 85 per cent of our workforce during the first lockdown. Only a third of our normal funding comes from public subsidy – the rest is touring and corporate support, but that requires activity.
There is a certain irony, she notes, that “success has made us more vulnerable. Because we created a self-reliant financial model, we’re now in a tough situation.” Without government support, “we wouldn’t be able to keep the artists and the talent we’ve built over decades, or do online work”.
Their digital engagement was hugely successful in lockdown, with four million from all over the world joining Rojo’s ballet classes, taught from her kitchen, and a million watching archive performances. “We’d never reach so many people with a live show,” she observes. That’s inspired the launch of a video on demand platform, ENB at Home, with shows available to rent via Ballet on Demand, and classes – including yoga and fitness – via BalletActive.
Online work won’t be “the centre of our activity, since we’re still committed to live performance, but it’s given us a new perspective. Digital shouldn’t be ignored or just used as a marketing device. Our vision is bringing ballet to the widest possible audience, and this is the most democratic medium.”
Will people pay for digital work? “Some aren’t accustomed to paying, but our prices are really very little – £4.95 for a show. This is an experiment: if it’s successful, it could be part of our long-term business model.”
Rojo is particularly proud about commissioning digital premieres, which means hiring freelancers. “It’s our responsibility to support the wider network of professionals who depend on us.”
She’s also returning to her own project, an adaptation of Petipa’s Raymonda, which “was literally left on the shelf, in my office”. Inspired by Florence Nightingale, it was meant to tour from October, celebrating 100 years of nursing regulation. But, notes Rojo, it will probably be even more resonant when it does premiere, since “we so appreciate the healthcare workers who’ve protected us”.
Thanks to their 2019 inheritance of a 93,000 square foot, state-of-the-art building on London City Island, the whole company can be accommodated for rehearsals – carefully bubbled into seven different studios.
“It’s organisational choreography,” quips Rojo. “We would never have managed in our old headquarters. But because we can’t cross bubbles, we can’t completely connect – I’ve been waving to people through the window. As a touring company, we travel together and share so many experiences beyond performances, so we’re especially tight-knit. I miss the camaraderie.”
The big question is: when they can tour again? That means not just making one theatre Covid-secure, but dealing with the regulations of numerous different towns or countries.
Rojo reveals that about 90 per cent of their tours have been postponed, rather than cancelled, demonstrating “faith in our brand, and the demand internationally. We still have tours planned for summer 2021 in the Far East, which we hope to honour.”
Could our government be doing more? Rojo, a member of the Cultural Renewal Taskforce, says there’s good flow of information from the sector to politicians – “they’ve never had a better understanding of what the arts need. Planning is difficult for everyone, because the situation is so volatile.”
But, in order to encourage investors, “the government should underwrite insurance. They must also prolong VAT cuts for at least two years, because that’s how long it will be until the sector is back to normal, and review and expand theatre tax relief, which doesn’t cover things like digital performances.”
The arts sector has “shown how willing we are to adapt, and think quickly and creatively,” Rojo believes. If the government can follow suit, we might yet see the Sugar Plum Fairy this Christmas.