"There was a time when people like myself didn't even have a chance," says Carlos Acosta from his office in Birmingham, England. Black, Cuban and the youngest of 11 children raised in poverty, Acosta more than exercised his potential over three decades onstage, with English National Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Houston Ballet, The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
That career is now in its second act as Acosta, also a choreographer, directs two companies on opposite sides of the Atlantic: Birmingham Royal Ballet in England and Acosta Danza in Havana. Acosta is also a member of the Board of Governors of The Royal Ballet School, whose graduates feed top ballet companies worldwide.
These key positions, the dance world's high esteem for Acosta, and his deep well of personal experience position the 47-year-old to effect significant change—and he hasn't shown any timidity in doing so. Acosta Danza's academy leverages Cuba's continued investment in dance toward training a new generation of versatile performers of color, while its company diversifies what's seen on the global dance circuit.
"What we have is distinctive and unlike what everybody else has," says Acosta about his eponymous group, adding that his assignment to every choreographer it commissions is "I need you to help us be different."
At both companies, he's created opportunities for Cuban choreographers, like Rambert's Miguel Altunaga and Acosta Danza's Raúl Reinoso, while reviving repertory by Latinx dancemakers in danger of disappearing from stages entirely, such as the late Vicente Nebrada. BRB must "speak to what a 21st-century ballet company can be, in terms of representation," says Acosta, even though that company is already ahead of the curve, with just two white dancers among its nine principals.
In partnership with fellow arts leader Sean Foley, artistic director of Birmingham Repertory Theatre since 2019, Acosta is hell-bent on proving BRB's relevance to residents of England's second-largest city, roughly 40 percent of whom are under the age of 26; more than 40 percent are not white. Their first co-production, Lazuli Sky, choreographed by Will Tuckett using augmented reality and oversized costumes forcing distance between its dancers, premiered at "The REP" in October before a brief run at Sadler's Wells.
Before publishing his debut novel, Pig's Foot, in 2013, Acosta wrote his memoir, No Way Home, in 2007. (Yuli, the 2018 film adaptation of No Way Home, earned five nominations for Goya Awards—Spain's analog to the Oscars—including Best New Actor for Acosta.)
"There's at least one more book in me," Acosta says confidently. "I have already a story I've outlined."
Join Dance Magazine in celebrating Carlos Acosta at the December 7 virtual Dance Magazine Awards ceremony. Tickets are now available here.