The first lady of Covent Garden

Dance has been looking for a star to succeed Darcey Bussell. With Tamara Rojo it has found her, says Alice Jones

Tamara Rojo clearly remembers the moment she first thought that she might be quite good at ballet.

It was at a parents' evening at her ballet school and her teacher suggested that the class should have a go at a set of 32 fouettés (when the ballerina balances on one foot, kicks her other leg out and spins herself round, 32 times). By the end, there was only girl left standing. "I tried and I did it," Rojo arches a darkly elegant brow. "And I suddenly thought, 'Huh, I'm not that bad'." Ballerinas take years, their whole career even, to master the bravura move. Rojo was just 11 years old.

From that moment on, to borrow from the dramatic plotline of many a classical ballet, Rojo's fate was sealed. She toyed with a couple of other ideas – geologist and antiques restorer, apparently – but aged 16, she had already turned professional and joined the Ballet de la Comunidad de Madrid. "There were other things that interested me, but they didn't... ", she clutches at her neck as if to strangle herself, " ... hold me ransom like ballet did."

She got started quite by chance, aged five, when a teacher took her in to the school gym to shelter from the rain and she joined in with a class. She immediately wanted to be a ballerina though she had no idea what that entailed. "I thought it meant taking ballet classes and then becoming the ballet teacher. I'd never seen a ballet." Her first experience of the real thing, watching a touring Russian company's Swan Lake was not a happy one. "I hated it. I thought it was just awful. What I liked about ballet was the quietness of it, the fact that it was in your own little world." She mimes being inside a box (Rojo likes to act out her words, a charming by-product, no doubt, of all that ballet). "And all you had to do was concentrate on your body and on moving things. Suddenly realising that it meant I had to step on a stage and be watched by thousands, I didn't find that attractive at all. But eventually, as I started performing, I got the hunger for that as well."

A very good thing, too. Rojo, celebrating her tenth year as a principal at the Royal Ballet, is now one of the best ballerinas in the world. She's also one of the most popular thanks to the eye-catching alchemy of technical brilliance, blazing passion and skittish playfulness she brings to the stage. Audiences marvel at her cast-iron control – she balances on pointe and whirls in pirouettes without the merest whisper of a wobble – and thrill to her drama. When she dances Juliet to Cuban firecracker Carlos Acosta's Romeo, or Manon to his Des Grieux, ballet fans throw refinement to the winds and scrap at the box-office window for tickets.

Her 2000 debut at Covent Garden, standing in for an injured Darcey Bussell in Giselle (fate, again), drew star-is-born rapture and comparisons with Margot Fonteyn. And she's only getting better. Indeed, by common consent she has filled the void left by Bussell's retirement. Of her latest outing as Juliet, one critic swooned, "she has only to slam her fists on to her thighs and the whole house dissolves." When the show is a dud, critics find a way to praise Rojo's dancing. When she takes risks, as she did with her recent collaboration with Kim Brandstrup, Goldberg, she wins awards (an Olivier, last month). At 36 years old, she is at the top of her game. Rojo frowns at this, eyebrows making impossible angles. "My dancing is better than it's ever been. I'm not sure if that means it's at its peak and then I'm going down from there. Technically I have to worry about so much less. Certain things just happen." Is there anything she can't do, dance-wise? "I have things that I'm not very happy with but I don't know if I want to pinpoint them. My work is fantasy; I'm supposed to make believe to a certain point."

She has, she says, danced every role in the classical repertoire that she wants to dance. Her favourites are Manon, the Baroness Mary Vetsera in Mayerling and Carmen. And her least favourites? "Those that I don't like, I stopped doing," she says. In other words, don't expect to see her in The Nutcracker come Christmas. "I've done so many of them, I'm really not interested." I wonder if Rojo – lively, witty, intelligent – ever gets bored of putting on a tutu and swooning in the arms of some prince, night after night. "No. Because I never feel like I've achieved what I wanted to. There might be five shows in my life where I think, yeah, this was good enough. The rest was a good try." A good try? Rojo, it turns out, is harder to please than any critic.

The last performance she was truly happy with was a Manon in Washington, nearly a year ago. It was magical, she says. "You don't feel like you're performing, you're just being. The steps roll out of you. Really good things happen and you're not even trying." Usually, as the curtains fall and the bouquets pile up at her aching feet, she's running the show over in her mind. Sometimes she'll go out for dinner with friends, but when she gets home she'll sit up until 3am, thinking through her mistakes.

Her ferocious work ethic took root early on when, aged 9, she enrolled at Victor Ullate's ballet school in Madrid. Every day after normal school she had six hours of lessons, dancing until nearly midnight. "It was hell. Public humiliation, screaming, gratuitous, horrible things... " She has an ambivalent attitude towards Ullate, the man who bullied her to stardom. "I don't think strict is the word, he was cruel," says Rojo. "But he was fantastic, the best teacher I could have landed in Spain. We were his project. He decided that he was going to create a generation of stars – and he did. But we were kids, and we could only evolve so fast."

Today her routine is no less gruelling. She works six days a week and spends most of her summer holiday guesting at ballet companies around the world. If she does take a holiday she only lasts 10 days before she gets twitchy and sneaks in a few stretches in her hotel room. She doesn't drink and has, like many ballerinas, been dangerously obsessed with her weight in the past. "I have questioned myself because I could see that people without ability were doing really well just because they were really skinny. You want to make it so you think, 'I'll just stop eating and then people will give me things'. There's a lot of incentive to go down that route. Gladly, I did see the downfalls very quickly because I had friends who were quite sick and that shocked me into reality. We're not here to be models on pointes. We are supposed to have powerful muscles, and energy and speed."

She dances for anything up to six hours a day, kicking the morning off with an 8am Pilates class and shoehorning in two massages and three physio appointments a week to keep her body running. "There's always something that hurts," she says. "Some ballets are really cruel on your body and you end up dead." Today, on a break between rehearsals, she looks tiny and tired and is dressed for comfort in a curious, baggy boiler suit zipped up over her dancewear, thick legwarmers and, a surprise this, clomping black rubber boots. It's not fashionable, but these near priceless assets need protecting. When she tried to insure her legs a few years ago, only one company was willing to take them on and they asked for £30,000 a month; the rest refused. Sometimes after a performance her feet are so sore, she can't wait to undo her ballet shoes and simply hacks them off her feet with a penknife. Two years ago, she got her foot caught in the stage in Milan and it broke, practically in half. It's now chronically in pain.

Rojo was born in Montreal, where her father, an industrial engineer, was working at the time. Her mother ran the acquisitions department for Burger King in Spain, though Rojo has never, for the record, had a Whopper. Her parents moved back to Madrid when Rojo was a baby and remained unconvinced by their daughter's star potential until she won the Grand Prix and Gold Medal in the Paris International Competition, aged 18. "The doors of Europe opened," says Rojo. From there she landed a job with Scottish Ballet ("I spoke no English but it didn't matter; neither did they... "), then English National Ballet, where she leapt from soloist to principal in seven months before being headhunted by the Royal Ballet.

She's been there ever since and is one of nine female principal dancers. She bats away the suggestion of tussles over the best tutus. "I'm more in competition with myself than anyone else. The competition between my ideal and the reality is big enough. I don't need another person." Now 36, she has perhaps five more years of dancing in her. "No matter how technically able I am, eventually my body won't do what I want it to do."

She's not planning marriage and children. She has been linked to dancers in the past – Daniel Jones at the Coliseum and José Martin when she arrived at Covent Garden. She's currently in a relationship with a non-dancer, which she prefers to the intensity of company romances. "You're on top of each other all the time, you can't get away from the relationship, you can't even flirt in the rehearsal room!" she laughs. "It's kind of uncomfortable. I'm an only child, I'm quite used to being by myself and I like it. I'm quite independent."

Instead, she's set her heart on becoming the artistic director of a ballet company. She's been working towards it for some time, gaining a Masters in performing arts from Madrid University and shadowing the National Ballet of Canada's Karen Kain. Her vision is simple. "Striving towards excellence. Ballet has to be not just good, it has to be excellent." She thinks that the Royal Ballet is a good model but "could do a bit more" when it comes to new work. "When you have the facilities that this company has and the peace of mind that comes from having such a big part of your budget guaranteed from the government, I think you do have more of a responsibility to be outrageous and to take risks." Is £100 too much to pay to see Swan Lake? "I would think so if people were not willing to pay it. But they are. It's not the only option," she says. "I don't think people of certain backgrounds don't come because of what it costs. They pay thousands of pounds for tickets to the football. So it's not really the money – it's a different problem that maybe we should do something about."

She's already eyeing up the company she'd like to run and in the meantime, she's the number one choice to run a Spanish national company, should one ever emerge. "I'm not sure there ever will be one. I don't think there is the political will to make it happen. A ballet company cannot survive without backing from the government. It's as sad and as simple as that. Ballet companies cannot just scrub 60 tutus out of the gutter." She is, she adds unnecessarily, "not a great believer in being patriotic," having lived in London for the last 13 years. That said, this month she'll dance with Ballet Nacional de España – remarkably, her first try at flamenco.

With her retirement all planned out, does she think she'll miss dancing? "I'm ready to do other things. I've been very, very lucky in my career and I've danced a hell of a lot. I don't feel that I'm going to miss it so much that I'm not going to be able to live without it. When it comes, it will be fine, I don't think it will be a trauma." Not for Rojo, maybe. Her fans may beg to differ.

Tamara Rojo performs with Ballet Nacional de España from 27 April, London Coliseum (0871 911 0200; Eno.org) and in Electric Counterpoint/New Scarlett/Carmen, 5 to 15 May, Royal Opera House, London (020 7304 4000; Roh.org.uk)

For further reading: The Royal Ballet: 75 Years by Zoë Anderson

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