Sir Norman Rosenthal on ballet dancer, Tamara Rojo
GB Why have you chosen Tamara as your object of beauty?
NR Because she is beautiful and an incredible dancer and helped me to rediscover the indeed beautiful world of ballet. The first time I saw her dance was in Ondine, a ballet by Ashton with music by the great German composer whom I knew well, who recently died – Hans Werner Henze, who was also deeply concerned with the meaning of beauty. She is a dancer of extraordinary ability. In a human being, beauty has to be worked at and in a great ballet dancer the amount of work and dedication is so extraordinary. She is a very intelligent being and ambitious not just for herself, but for the world of ballet. There are three levels of activity that feed into one another – to be truly great in this art you have to be a great musician, a great actress as well as a great dancer. To express oneself through dance is very complicated and even to watch it is a bit like learning to read music. Last week I watched her rehearse which was such a privilege. I was allowed to sit with the ballet mistress at the piano on the corner of the stage and felt just like Enrico Cecchetti . It was a transforming experience of what one can only describe as intense beauty.
GB Can you describe this beauty?
NR I’ve been looking at the art dealer, Michael Werner’s extraordinary catalogue of his collection which is currently on show in Paris, which quotes as its motto Rimbaud: “I sat beauty on my knees…and I reviled her.”
When one watches Tamara one also watches a kind of essential agony. I’ve seen her bare feet in the dressing room. Beauty involves sacrifice and for me she epitomizes the necessity of sacrifice in order to make beauty. The uselessness and also the agony inherent to beauty are things I’ve been thinking about. The reason governments don’t like the arts is because they can’t gauge their usefulness and yet the uselessness of art is what makes it valuable.
GB Is it a different sensation, finding beauty in ballet from the experience of beauty in other arts?
NR No, of course each person or thing we find beautiful is different; sexual attraction of course can play a role in a book or a painting. It’s all a question of this mysterious thing called quality. Now we’re all transfixed by the internet the virtual has become the new reality. But for me the reality of living ballet is another level. And there’s this level of uselessness, which is higher than the level of usefulness.
GB Does her choice of repertoire inform your view of her beauty?
NR She dances classical ballet. The question in all arts is how can these classical arts survive? How do we get out of the clichés of modern dance and keep the language of ballet alive? Tamara’s great challenge as the new director of the English National Ballet, is to make ballet into a living art form again. The last person who really kept it going was Balanchine, maybe also Ashton, MacMillan, and Cranko.
GB Do you think the arts can embrace beauty again?
NR I think we can’t help it. If it’s good it always becomes beautiful over time. The search for beauty is a kind of game you play with yourself.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
NR With a painting it would be never wanting to leave it. The greatest painting makes you feel as though that one painting is enough. With music, opera or ballet it’s that ambivalence between permanence and the ephemeral: the illusion of eternity and the fleetingness of it. It will never be the same from one performance to the next. Kissing is beautiful – and what’s more ephemeral than a kiss?