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Carlos Acosta
Mike Dixon with an in depth appreciation and interview with the dancer who won the Best Male dancer award in 2003, November 2004

He looks like a magnificent barbarian who has learned perfect manners. The bearing is princely, the demeanour gently courteous, but there is also a heady whiff of something dangerous in the air when he enters. Dressed anonymously in black trousers and roll-neck, Carlos Acosta sits awkwardly in a red armchair in the interview room of the Royal Opera House. As we shake hands he winks, not confidently, but shyly. It is difficult at first to correlate this almost diffident young man with the super-confident stage performer who sometimes exudes the air of a tiger just released from its cage. On stage he looks tall and heavily muscled. Ironically, here in the small room he looks somehow diminished. But that impression of a quietly smouldering fire does not go away. When he starts to speak, although he talks softly, the aura of power seems to grow…

Carlos Acosta was born in Cuba in 1973. After an incident-filled childhood featuring brushes with crime he reluctantly took up dancing, at his father’s insistence, at the age of ten. His early years were full of ambivalence towards dance as he trained at the National Ballet School of Cuba. Unusually, for a great male dancer, his teacher was a woman, Ramona de Saa, who persevered with him. Her training bore fruit and in January 1990 Acosta won the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne. Until then, his only experience of dancing outside Cuba had been 15 days in Mexico and a few months in Italy. In November 1990 he won the Grand Prix and Gold Medal at the Paris ballet competition. They were to be the first of many competitions and prizes where Acosta attained the highest honours.

Asked about which award meant most to him he answers unhesitatingly that it was the Prix de Lausanne, his first competition. “I was the 127th competitor, the last one, entered at the last moment. My greatest hope was to reach the final. I never dreamed of winning. There were a lot of talented people in the competition whom I admired.” This was the first time that Acosta realised just how talented he was in world terms. “I knew that I had something special because in Cuba I would skip class for two months and I was still at the same level as everyone else when I returned, something my teacher commented on many times.” The Lausanne win was tinged with sadness because he couldn’t share it with his parents. They were in Cuba and his only means of communication was by letter. “My family is not of the art world. I tried to explain the importance of the Prix de Lausanne. They were pleased but they didn’t really understand.”

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Carlos in rehearsal for Macmillan's Gloria (Royal Ballet)
Photo: © Angela Taylor

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It is a poignant irony that Acosta’s greatest triumphs as a dancer have still been unwitnessed by his mother and father. Without his father’s influence the young Carlos might have might have been lost to the world of ballet, and might even have been killed in the dangerous milieu of street gangs. “At the age of ten I was mixing with people who were stealing, and the chances were that I would become a delinquent. My father thought that I might end up shooting somebody. With his eyes on the future he realised that there would be trouble. We lived in a suburb of Havana where it could be pretty rough. I wasn’t in a gang. We didn’t do drugs. But we didn’t go to school either.” Astonishingly, Carlos’ father decided to enrol him in the National Ballet School.

“My father had always liked ballet but in his youth, as a black man, he could not practise it. He thought it would be good for me as a career. It would have been nice of him to ask me what I wanted to do”…(he pulls a comic face)…“but thank God he made the right decision. My father was always a strong hand. When the school threw me out he went there to speak for me. He could have said that he was tired of running around after me and just given up. He could have taken me out of the ballet and put me in a regular school but he just kept pushing me. I did not like the idea of ballet. At the beginning I didn’t even know what it was! Then there was what my friends would say, because there was prejudice that ballet was not for boys. It was embarrassing. I would always rejoin the school with black eyes after fist- fights with boys who teased me. I became treated like the neighbourhood clown. But I was curious about dancing. I was always very physical and did a lot of sport, especially football. But we are all born to do one thing and you can’t go against destiny.”

Cuba has a deserved reputation for producing outstanding male dancers, boxers and athletes; but Acosta points out that ballet is not seen as an escape route from poverty to a good standard of living, as it is in Russia. During his training he saw that the ballet schools were reluctant to release promising boys because they were scarce. “One of the things that Fidel Castro and the Revolution introduced was that talent, not money, was important. Everybody had the right to be educated. Cuba has only twelve million people but the dancers, sportsmen and musicians it has produced is extraordinary. At the 1992 Olympic Games Cuba won the fifth greatest number of gold medals. This tiny island! It shows how letting talent develop can be wonderful. Cuba produces many good male dancers and I would not attribute it to one factor. It is many things. Yes, the teaching is good but there are other factors. Cuba is a big family and it is the same in the ballet school. It is a healthy family feeling and they are good at dishing the discipline. In this profession discipline is very important. The warm climate is also very important. Dance is in the air, people are relaxed.”

Acosta spent one year in Turin after his Lausanne victory then joined English National Ballet where he danced the Prince in Ben Stevenson’s productions of Nutcracker and Cinderella. In 1992 he rejoined the National Ballet of Cuba before being invited by Ben Stevenson to become a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet. In this period he added the leading male roles in Swan Lake, Giselle, Don Quixote, and Etudes to his repertoire.

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Carlos in Manon, Royal Ballet
Photo: © Angela Taylor

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Houston was a good experience. “It is not a company of the first rank but it is like a family to me. The audiences appreciate my talent and the whole experience of being there is wonderful. Ben Stevenson taught me how to be a prince on stage and how to relate to the audience. Most of all he taught me how to be myself as a performer.” The sojourn in Houston was important to Carlos Acosta because he was recovering from injury and making his first foray back into the limelight after a year. His public in Houston is faithful and his relationship with the company remains close. When the Houston Ballet arrives at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre in April Acosta will dance in the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux. It can be seen with hindsight that he was extremely fortunate in having Ben Stevenson as his mentor but Acosta realised that to raise his international profile he needed to also work with a larger company.

In 1998 he made his debut with the Royal Ballet in London in Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. He seized the opportunity to extend his dramatic range and dance the leading roles in some of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets: Manon; Gloria; and My Brother, My Sisters. He also showed an unexpected aptitude for comedy as Franz in Coppelia and Colas in Ashton’s La Fille mal gardee. The male solos in La Fille mal gardee have defeated many talented dancers, as the Ashton choreography requires bravura technique allied to light ballon and fast footwork. Acosta, on the face of it, seemed physically unsuited to this role, being sculpted by nature for the muscular display of Corsaire or Diana and Actaeon. In the event he was a revelation, meticulously observing every tricky detail of the choreography. He has versatility as a stage artist and continues to surprise audiences with his unusual insights in familiar parts. “ I believe ballet technique is only a tool to express something. I am an all-round artist. I bring something special to everything I do. I enjoy literally every show and the enjoyment is contagious for the audience.”

He has just returned from performing Don Quixote with the Kirov at the Maryinsky Theatre and dancing in the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux in a gala. He created a sensation in both roles. The experience was special for him because this was the spiritual home of both Nijinsky and Nureyev. He is clearly moved when speaking of the reception he received in Russia. He enjoyed a similar experience when he was invited to dance with the Bolshoi. There is a very definite sense that he does not take the public’s ovations for granted and that he is both grateful and delighted when he receives public approval.

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Diane and Acteon: Carlos in St Petersburg with the Kirov Ballet
Photo: © Angela Taylor

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Currently he is preparing his role in Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth. I am invited to watch a rehearsal in the white, cathedral-like vastness of one of the new ballet studios on the top of the Royal Opera House. The section being rehearsed is a trio, featuring Acosta and Royal Ballet principals Tamara Rojo and Jonathan Cope. As I enter the studio with press officer Simon Magill, the first surprise is to see MacMillan’s stunningly attractive daughter, Charlotte, recording the proceedings with her video camera. We smile in silent greeting. Rojo and Cope are discussing a detail with assistant director Monica Mason and with Donald Macleary. Acosta is part of the group but seems semi-detached. His mind seems somewhere else. The warrior-chief look is augmented today by a shiny black beard and gold earring, emphasising his exotic otherness. He begins to work diligently with his two colleagues and the lyrical beauty of the choreography, unseen for many years, stirs many memories. The three dancers entwine in exquisite shapes, sometimes to the piano and sometimes to Mason’s quiet singing. Acosta still seems aloof, almost sad. The others confer on spacing for a few minutes while he and Rojo practise a section on their own, talking all the while in Spanish. Suddenly his face breaks into a beaming smile and they giggle. A few minutes later Cope and Acosta have a jokey exchange. The whole mood of the room lifts. Suddenly the three dancers seem to move into a higher gear of concentration and the movements become grander and more eloquent. The sudden change of atmosphere has something almost magical. The transformation of the Cuban’s demeanour from introspection to extroversion is astonishing to witness. It is as if he has suddenly been released from chains of worldly care.

I asked myself the question: What makes this man such a strong performer? In front of an audience he is feral, daemonic and utterly confident. Yet for some of the time off-stage he seems to exude an air of unutterable melancholy. He is not a depressive personality, in fact quite the contrary. But he has the unmistakable aura of an exile. The solution to this paradox suddenly manifested itself when talking with him about his family relationships.

“I was a very happy child. I have a great family. But for fame you have to pay a price. One of the prices I had to pay was not to see my family during my career. I wish they were by my side. I have had great success but it can feel empty. My father is 83 years old and could not really adapt to a lifestyle outside Cuba. It is another world out here. It’s OK if you are young and open minded. Now Cuba itself is changing. I bought my parents a nice house and I send them money. They are fine because they are in their own world. In Cuba everybody knows everybody else. I have been living in London for three years and I don’t know who my next door neighbours are! My father came and spent three months with me in London, although he didn’t see me dance. I am planning to dance in Cuba in July where I hope they can come and watch me.”

Asked where he considered his own home to be he responds “In my heart my home is always Cuba. London isn’t home but ideally I would very much like to maintain my links with the Royal Ballet. It has been a beautiful experience. I have a loyal public here. It would be excellent to keep coming back here as a guest artist. There have been periods when I have been low. I was injured and I spent one year without dancing. I had surgery four times on my right ankle. Suddenly certain individuals lost interest in me. My friends from that bad period are my friends now. When you are on top everybody wants a piece of you. Many people here treat me like a star but to my friends in Cuba I am just a friend. It isn’t important that I am famous.

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Carlos with his father in Covent Garden Piazza
Photo: © Angela Taylor

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“My mother is a peacemaker, the mother to everybody. She is a housewife. I speak a lot about my father because of his influence on my life but I love my mother very much.” When questioned about his childhood and exactly why he suddenly went off the rails he explains: “When I was young my mother developed a brain tumour and went into hospital. In the same period my father had to go to prison for two years. It wasn’t his fault. There was a fatal traffic accident involving my father’s truck and some drunken motorcyclists who jumped a red light. My father’s lawyer wasn’t very good, unfortunately. My elder sister, who was fifteen, cooked for us. Our neighbours looked after me. That is how people are in Havana. But because I did not have my parents to guide me I got into trouble.”

The father of the Royal Ballet’s Cuban star is clearly a very wise man, displaying uncanny insight to intuit that Carlos would become a successful dancer. On impulse, I tell Acosta that of all the performers I have seen, the one whom he resembles most is Rudolf Nureyev; sharing the same pantherine quality and the ability to ignite an audience. Suddenly, the proud eyes flash, he uncoils upwards in his chair and makes an overwhelmingly imperious gesture with his arms. “I know how to command the stage!” he declares. It is an electric moment, as Acosta transmutes within a nanosecond from modest-mannered dancer into a star. For a moment the Royal Ballet’s interview room is flooded with grandeur. It is the defining moment in our conversation, the sudden epiphany that offers the key to Acosta’s personality. The transition from dutiful son to grandee of the ballet, within the twinkling of an eye, is revelatory. One senses that the original uncomplicated Cuban boy is still unviolated by experience, that in essence Acosta is unchanged by the bruising demands of fame. He has developed the exile’s thick carapace of caution to protect himself. His sensors are finely attuned to detect criticism or lack of respect and to deflect those people who are only attracted by his fame. But as he talks about his family one is drawn to the inescapable conclusion that this tiger is a predator only by necessity. He is a warm, friendly individual who has learned to survive in a competitive jungle with values alien to his own. Not merely to survive, but to triumph.

Mike Dixon
This article was first published in 2002
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Carlos Acosta
Photo: © Angela Taylor