From humble beginnings in Cuba, Carlos Acosta beat extraordinary odds to become one of the world’s greatest classical ballet dancers. As his dance company, which he set up after hanging up his ballet shoes last year, makes its debut at Sadler’s Wells, he tells Neil Norman about his other ventures and his responsibility as a role model
When he was young, Carlos Acosta tried to learn how to ride a bicycle, but he just could not keep it upright. Instead he crashed, again and again, into the lamp posts that lined the street he grew up on. His humiliation, and the fear of his father’s anger, meant he became terrified of cycling.
Yet, that did not stop him. He turned his childhood fear on its head – eventually – by not only learning how to ride but also how to dismantle, repair and restore the machines. The story of his desire to overcome obstacles is salutary and speaks to a wider point about Acosta, who overcame extraordinary deprivations to become the world’s greatest male classical ballet star. His success is a testament to his application as much as his talent.
His backstory – born poor, Cuban, black and with little hope – could have been dreamt up by a biographer as the perfect role model for disadvantaged kids. But the story is real, and his triumphs and endeavours are legion. Acosta changed the face of male ballet dancing. He is a tremendously powerful physical presence who is also capable of great tenderness and emotion, and became a globally renowned name.
Recently retiring from the rigours of the classical idiom, Acosta is heading in new directions, challenging himself in ways beyond the merely physical. As well as an autobiography, he has written a novel, Pig’s Foot, founded an academy for disadvantaged Cuban children and created his own dance company.
Acosta Danza aims to bring together many dance forms – classical, hip hop, flamenco – and amalgamate them into a coherent new dance language. This brings a host of challenges.
“It’s been very difficult,” he says, “because the dancers are all from previous companies and they have a different work ethic. Assimilation has been hard and there has been inertia between the two disciplines – contemporary and classical.”
He adds: “It has been hard to keep everyone calm and keep the project going forward.”
This month, he plans to recruit 15-year-olds from school to offer them their first professional experience to join the dancers who have mainly come from companies like the National Ballet of Cuba.
He wants to challenge his dancers and avoid the trap that sometimes affects those who have reached the highest level and “quit trying. Every day they have to start again from the beginning. I want them never to give up and not to be complacent.”
Born: 1973, Havana, Cuba
Training: Cuban National Ballet School
Landmark productions: Spartacus, London Coliseum (2007); Swan Lake, ROH (2012); La Fille Mal Gardee, ROH (2012); Apollo, Royal Opera House (2013); Le Corsaire, ENB (2013); Romeo and Juliet, ROH (2013); Giselle, ROH (2014)
Awards include: Gold medal, Prix de Lausanne (1990); Osimodanza Prize, Italy (1991); Dance Fellowship, Princess Grace Foundation, US (1995); Olivier award for outstanding achievement in dance (2007); Prix Benois de la Danse (2008); CBE for services to ballet (2014)
Acosta Danza’s first performances will be at Sadler’s Wells this week, before touring the country. He is not participating in the dance-making, but will be guesting as a dancer. Its “unique and distinctive repertoire” has been possible due to the founder’s standing in the ballet world.
“It is with the help of Sadler’s Wells and people in the dance community that I have been able to launch the company,” he says. “I plan to commission choreographic content or point them in the direction of new work. It will be a combination of choreography in pointe shoes and Cuban roots, plus hip hop throughout. It is theatrical and beautiful. It is a long journey to develop this kind of repertoire but we are working towards a new form.”
The company consists of a fairly even balance of men and women. How does he feel about the male-female balance between choreographers? “Maria Rueda has incorporated a couple of pieces which are far easier to travel,” he says carefully. “Marianela Boan has also made one for us. One of my dancers, Ely Regina, is also a young choreographer. Next time around, I hope to incorporate more female presence in the repertoire.”
He is no mean choreographer – his love letter to Havana, Tocororo, has done the rounds successfully and his remodelling of Petipa’s Don Quixote was widely regarded as superb, even if his updated version of Carmen got a hammering from the critics.
Acosta is also aiming to promote his native country as a serious player on the world arts stage. Given that Cuba punches well above its weight artistically, it is important that it continues to develop in different directions.
“It’s essential that Cuba stays connected to the world but also breaks the idea of the picture-postcard Cuba. I want to bring Cuba to the world but I am very eager to bring all this choreography to Cuba,” he says. “It works both ways. The world should be reminded that Cuba is a very big player in the field of art.”
The students at his academy all come from disadvantaged backgrounds in Santiago, Guantanamo and from the hills; most are from outside Havana. “For these people, every minute counts,” Acosta says. “Every hour counts. I realise a lot of people see me as a mirror that they could see themselves in. That is beautiful. How wonderful to give young people a tool to help them fulfil their dreams. It is priceless.”
Following Fidel Castro’s death and the gradual easing of sanctions, it seemed like Cuba was opening up to the US, especially under Barack Obama. But no one reckoned with the Trump factor.
“The signs of prosperity were there in 2014, there have been tremendous advances in four years. Now we are going backwards, fewer people are going and airlines are closing. I think the situation is very, very unfortunate.”
Acosta’s rise from a shoeless urchin on the streets of a Havana suburb to an international superstar of classical ballet is documented in his candid autobiography, No Way Home. The childhood years of poverty and petty crime, breakdancing and football and his entry into the mysterious world of “the dance of the parasol ladies” are described in alluring and alarming detail.
At 15, he got the highest possible score in his end-of-year exams at Cuba’s National Ballet School and was selected to go on a cultural ballet exchange in Turin. The following year, he won the gold medal in the international Prix de Lausanne. By 18, he was principal dancer with the English National Ballet.
He went on to join the Houston Ballet and spent 17 years at the Royal Ballet, where his reputation continued to grow. The first black dancer to reach the highest level, he was much in demand as a guest artist and has danced with every major company around the world.
Following his retirement from classical dancing, I asked him what indulgences – denied him when he was a dancer – he now treats himself to. “The greatest indulgence is time,” he laughs. “Time for reflection, time for my kids, time for the company. It frees up time to choose.”
He adds another significant change in his lifestyle: “I have discovered a plant-based diet – and this is drastic for a Cuban man like myself who grew up on meat. So now I have ceased to eat red meat. I hardly eat any meat at all, mostly plants.
“My body has changed as a result. I am leaner and I go to the gym two to three times a week for an hour. It is not the same as eight hours a day. Also, I have time to let my body heal from the classes. My body is feeling great and I am feeling much better.”
What was your first theatre job? I think it was when I was 16, I was selected to dance in the New Theatre in Turin in Italy. I was still in school and some students were sent to the company.
What was your first non-theatre job I used to steal mangoes and sell them. But I also used to collect Bruce Lee photos and we would trade them or sell them. He was very, very fashionable.
What is your next job? My company Acosta Danza.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? I wish someone had given me a book to read. I would like to have grown up with more books around me.
Who or what is your biggest influence? It’s got to be my father.
What is your best advice for auditions? Prepare very well and just enjoy it.
If you hadn’t been a dancer/choreographer/writer, what would you have been? A musician or a footballer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No. None.
Around the time we speak, Hurricane Irma has laid waste to parts of Cuba, including Havana. Acosta talks of his pain at the suffering in his home country and adds that his thoughts were with his compatriots. “It might be a time of further hardship for many people as so many crops were destroyed. But Cuban people are very good at dealing with hard times.”
He is a national hero and wants to give something back to his home country, and especially to the young, many of whom still live in conditions similar to those he endured during his childhood. How aware is he of his responsibility as a role model?
“Very,” he says without hesitation. “Imagine if I had no role model. Everyone in the world has been influenced by someone else. That is important in my role. And there are a lot of lost young people in the world. They are the ones who are going to be the future.”
Acosta Danza is at Sadler’s Wells from September 27-30, before touring the country