On the 70th anniversary of the English National Ballet, its visionary artistic director Tamara Rojo and the choreographer Akram Khan have collaborated on a bold original work

Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan are leaning on a ballet barre, engaged in a tête-à-tête. It says a lot about their work ethic that a photo-shoot with Bazaardoubles as an opportunity to discuss their upcoming produc-tion Creature, inspired by Woyzeck, an expressionist drama by the German playwright Georg Büchner, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. They’re about to start rehearsing in earnest at the English National Ballet’s new east-London headquarters, and there’s a frisson of expectatiom around the reuniting of these two creative visionaries.

This will be the second time that the artistic director of the ENB and the choreographer have collaborated on a full-length piece; the first was Giselle in 2016, a triumph of dynamic reinter-pretation that broke classical rules by weaving in multifarious influences and giving focus to the recent migration crises. Rojo had wanted to bring Khan on board from the moment she joined the company eight years ago. ‘Akram tells stories that are both British and relevant on a wider cultural level,’ she tells me. ‘I genuinely believe that his language was appropriate for a ballet company for today, and we could find a new language together.’ Her decision was not without risk: Khan, whose background is in classical Indian and contemporary dance, was entering the rarefied world of ballet, while Rojo, against a backdrop of budget cuts and scrutiny, had ‘decided to ask a Bangladeshi choreographer to break this untouchable masterwork apart’. ‘The whole process was about understanding tradition, but removing the layers of dust,’ she says. ‘In understanding the original Giselle, we created something completely different.’ Khan agrees: ‘It was about stretching and pushing the boundaries of the art form. We have very different cultural perspectives, but we share similar aesthetics, principles and value systems.

For their next project, Rojo felt strongly that they should tackle a new story. Set in a military facility in the Arctic, where the ice is melting, the Creature will address two urgent issues that are shaping our world: climate change and artificial intelligence. ‘We need to have conversations about the morality behind technological advances,’ says Rojo. ‘The beauty of dance is that it’s about emotions. The issues around the creation of life or artificial intelligence are not just about facts, but about asking how we feel about this. It’s a perfect subject to express in movement.’

Creature will form part of the ENB’s 70th-anniversary pro-gramme, which also features Rojo’s first foray into choreography with Raymonda and beloved classics such as The Nutcracker. Now that the company is operating from a purpose-built space in City Island with state-of-the-art facilities including a costume atelier supported by Chanel, the possibilities are boundless. ‘The building is the physical affirmation of our ethos – conceived as a transparent home for dance, so that it can reach the widest possible audience,’ says Rojo. Here, apprentices can gain skills in every aspect of the backstage process, from stage manage-ment to production, a s pa r t of an on g oi n g outreach programme. ‘I am the caretaker of a legacy – a culmination of many people’s sacrifices to bring the company to where we are now,’ Rojo says of her vision. ‘At the same time, it’s my duty to create the legacy of the future.’

devout followers of the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church, imbuing in their son a strong reli-gious conviction that he never entirely lost, despite his liberal outlook and queer identity. (The theme of faith recurs in much of his art, from his depictions of the Christian cross to his portrait of Marilyn Monroe against a circular golden backdrop, in the style of a Renaissance devotional painting.)

Warhol and his mother were extremely close: the pair would while away the hours in Pittsburgh doing arts and crafts together, and some of his earliest commissions as an illustrator were produced in collaboration with Julia, whose beautiful looping handwriting he used in books such as 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy (Warhol rather charmingly chose not to correct her grammatical error). She even came to live with him in New York after he bought his first home there in 1959, using the money made from his burgeoning artistic career. The rapidity of Warhol’s ascent from abject poverty to affluence owes much to the attitude of sheer persistence he learnt from his family: just as Julia once went from door to door selling painted Easter eggs in Pittsburgh, he was not afraid to hustle for work at glossy magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, for whose pages he created vibrant illustrations of shoes, perfumes and cars.

I just happen to like ordinary things,’ Andy Warhol once said. ‘When I paint them, I don’t try to make them extraordinary. I just try to paint them ordinary-ordinary.’

‘Ordinary’ is hardly a term most of us associate with an artist who has acquired a semi-mythical status in our collective cultural imagination, as a chronicler of celebrity life and a pioneer of the 1950s pop art phenom-enon. Yet Warhol was sceptical about the terminology used to describe the movement, preferring to brand his work as a form of ‘communism’, in reference to its humble subject matter and democratic purpose. He was fascinated by the levelling power of mass consumerism, arguing that ‘what’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest’.

Warhol was something of a sphinx-like figure, prone to cryptic statements and con-tradictions. But for Gregor Muir, the curator of Tate Modern’s new exhibition dedicated to his art, understanding the ‘real’ Warhol begins with delving into his prehistory. As part of his research, Muir travelled to the Eastern Carpathians, a region of what is now northern Slovakia, where the artist’s mother Julia Warhola lived before she emigrated to America. ‘I was struck by how remote it is, and by the overwhelming religious presence – even today, there’s almost no vantage point from which you can’t see a cross,’ he says. ‘When Julia came to America, she’d have brought the culture and beliefs of her home country with her.’ Once in Pittsburgh, where Warhol was born in 1928, the family remained devout followers of the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church, imbuing in their son a strong reli-gious conviction that he never entirely lost, despite his liberal outlook and queer identity. (The theme of faith recurs in much of his art, from his depictions of the Christian cross to his portrait of Marilyn Monroe against a circular golden backdrop, in the style of a Renaissance devotional painting.)

Warhol and his mother were extremely close: the pair would while away the hours in Pittsburgh doing arts and crafts together, and some of his earliest commissions as an illustrator were produced in collaboration with Julia, whose beautiful looping handwriting he used in books such as 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy (Warhol rather charmingly chose not to correct her grammatical error). She even came to live with him in New York after he bought his first home there in 1959, using the money made from his burgeoning artistic career. The rapidity of Warhol’s ascent from abject poverty to affluence owes much to the attitude of sheer persistence he learnt from his family: just as Julia once went from door to door selling painted Easter eggs in Pittsburgh, he was not afraid to hustle for work at glossy magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, for whose pages he created vibrant illustrations of shoes, perfumes and cars.

Although Warhol inherited Julia’s courageous spirit, he also appears to have retained from his youth a certain melancholy awareness of mort ality, having witnessed his father’s untimely death in 1942 and his mother’s battle with colon cancer in 1944. This mani-fested itself in a sense of urgency throughout his career, from his move away from illustration and towards silk-screen portraiture in the 1960s, to his experimental film-making and his triumphant return to painting fol-lowing the trauma of his attempted assassination in 1968. The exhibition will end with Warhol’s 1986 opus Sixty Last Suppers, a monumental work inspired by the themes of religion and loss in Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. This might seem an unexpected note on which to conclude a show about an artist commonly considered in the context of colour, life and hedonism, but perhaps the reappraisal is overdue. As Warhol said: ‘They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.’

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