Carlos Acosta in a still from Yuli. Photo by Denise Guerra, Courtesy Janet Stapleton

6 Reasons You Should See the Carlos Acosta Biopic Yuli

Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.


The film finally had its New York premiere earlier this week at the closing night of the 20th Havana Film Festival New York. In addition to raising funds for The International Performing Arts Foundation, which works closely with Acosta on his philanthropic efforts, the event also gave us a chance to finally catch the film. (We're still awaiting word on a wider U.S. release.)

Spoiler alert: You're going to want to see it. Here's why.

1: The actor playing Acosta as a boy is adorable.

Edlison Manuel Olbera N\u00fa\u00f1ez, playing a young Carlos Acosta in Yuli, grins as he hitches a ride on the side of a moving bus.

Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez plays a young Carlos Acosta in Yuli.

Denise Guerra, Courtesy Janet Stapleton

Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez almost runs away with the entire film. His resemblance to Acosta is uncanny, sure, but it's his puckish delight in imitating moves from music videos and his hilariously obstinate quips about why he doesn't want to go to ballet class that charm. The young actor's sparkling performance as Yuli (Acosta's boyhood nickname) is worth the price of admission on its own.

2: Acosta's archival performance footage is breathtaking.

Instead of getting Keyvin Martínez (the wonderful dancer who plays teenage Acosta) to re-create Acosta's gold medal–winning performance at Prix de Lausanne, the filmmakers used actual footage of his variation and the moment his award was announced. Watching on a small television at home in Havana, Acosta's family explodes into celebrations, with his father running outside to call to their neighbors, "Yuli's won the World Cup!"

And later, to represent Acosta's watershed casting as the first black man to dance Romeo in the history of The Royal Ballet, we see selections from a performance of the balcony pas de deux with Tamara Rojo. (The footage comes from the performance recorded and aired on the BBC in 2007.)

3: It offers a rare glimpse of the versatile dancers of Acosta Danza.

Nine male and female dancers, all dressed in black, move through a deep second pli\u00e9, arms flung wide.

Acosta Danza in Goyo Montero's Imponderable

Johan Persson, Courtesy Sadler's Wells

The superstar's troupe was launched in 2016 and made its U.S. debut as a full company in New York City last April, but we don't often get to see these Havana-based artists stateside. Mario Sergio Elías, who dances the Yuli/Acosta character in the fictional dance work Acosta is seen rehearsing throughout the film, stands out for his exceptional technique and versatility.

4: There are loads of long-form dance sequences.

There's original choreography by Acosta, classical pas de deux and (of course) high-flying men's variations, and more often than not we get good, extended shots that really show the dancing. The music is sometimes misaligned with the movement on screen—that two or four count difference might not stand out to a film editor adding the score in post-production, but we couldn't help but find it jarring. Nevertheless, Yuli is remarkable in that it trusts the capable dancers who appear in it to do what they do best, and actually steps back enough to let them.

5: It's more than just a dance movie.

Edlison Manuel Olbera N\u00fa\u00f1ez, portraying a young Carlos Acosta in Yuli, does a handstand in sneakers and a baseball cap in the middle of an ornate studio. Two ballet teachers, an older pianist and his father look on with bemusement.

In the film, a young Acosta finishes his audition for the Cuban National Ballet School by pulling on a baseball cap and imitating moves from music videos.

Denise Guerra, Courtesy Janet Stapleton

Impressive dance sequences aside, the film has a rock-solid emotional core, largely thanks to former Cuban ballet star Santiago Alfonso's performance as Pedro Acosta, Carlos' father. (Fun fact: Alfonso was Acosta's fourth grade teacher!) That the film manages to get at wider themes—about Cuba, about race, about filial responsibility—while digging deep into the interpersonal conflicts and choices that shape the central characters is a hallmark of screenwriter Paul Laverty's work, and it makes this "dance film" far more relatable to a general audience.

6: Acosta is as riveting to watch now as he ever was.

In a still from Yuli, Carlos Acosta, wearing jeans and a button down, looks over his shoulder to the camera from a forced-arch lunge. Sunlight drenches the abandoned building from a circular skylight.

Carlos Acosta in Yuli

Denise Guerra, Courtesy Janet Stapleton

It's no secret that Acosta is an incredible performer—would we be talking about him, otherwise? But even as he cedes the technical pyrotechnics to the youthful members of his company, that same can't-quite-look-away quality is still present, whether he's giving notes to a dancer or quietly sitting with his thoughts. He dances a final solo at the close of the film, in jeans and ballet slippers, alone in a massive theater: A simple port de bras from Acosta is still somehow more affecting than any other dancing in the film.

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Paul Liu, Courtesy Pilobolus

Could Augmented Reality Change How We Watch Dance?

Imagine being able to digitally project the world's greatest dancers into your home, and observe them performing virtually, in three dimensions, atop a living room table. Such is the potential of a new class of augmented reality (AR) technologies like the "Magic Leap," a headset that allows users to superimpose digital media atop their seen reality, innovatively combining recorded dance with real space.

Director and founder of the MAP Design Lab Melissa Painter recently collaborated with Pilobolus to produce a bonkers AR choreography called "YouDanceWeDance." This project, which began its life on the Magic Leap, allows viewers to use their smartphones to observe (from any angle, and anywhere) Pilobolus dancers moving according to selectable emotional themes.

What is your dance background?

Creative—not competitive—movement practices have always been where I lived. When I was little (in Northern California, back in the hippie days) my dance classes had provocations like, "Stand tall, like a tree" or, "Imagine that you're a frog, and folk dancing."

Today, my movement practice is yoga, and I feel like I'm still hearing the "stand like a tree" part. I also studied Graham technique, improvisation and Alexander techniques. While I was never a strong performer, I am a strong enthusiast.

Tell us about your collaboration with Pilobolus.

Pilobolus and MAP started playing together, doing motion capture and dreaming up augmented and virtual reality interpretations of their work over a year ago. I love their creative process, the emotional accessibility of their work, and how adventurous the artistic directors Matt Kent and Renee Jaworski are.

Youdancewedance.org (now also available for smartphones) is a good thing for people during this weird moment where everyone is stuck at home. We have a vision that it will foster a different kind of relationship between audiences and theater performance over time.

Next up, it will be part of the "Art Safari" they are staging in their (safely socially distanced) Five Senses Festival this summer (July 31-Aug 2) in Washington Depot, Connecticut. We really made this with kids and families in mind, and I hope people enjoy it. It basically reminds you to move your own body!

How has augmented reality and motion capture changed your view on what choreography is?

For me, augmented and virtual reality have honed my eye, and given me an opportunity to spend additional time with phrases in the context of motion capture. It's similar to how a dancer might live with movement in their body. It provides an opportunity to revisit live movements spatially, instead of through a flat YouTube video or even on a proscenium stage. It's about being able to look at it giant, and then look at it tiny, and from all angles. I adore it. I've always wanted people to view dance with the feeling of exhilaration and joy I've had as a watcher in the rehearsal studio.

Movement, to me, is the most beautiful, direct and instinctual form of human communication. I believe motion capture gets at the essence of who we are in a way that is elegant, accessible and impactful. Especially in this moment when so many people forget that their body is a beautiful, creative tool.

If COVID keeps theaters closed for the foreseeable future, might AR maintain a sense of dancerly liveness in performance?

Currently, live performance spaces being shuttered, it's important to think of ways that spatial computing, three-dimensional capture and immersive presentations can support the work of creators who work with bodies. We can explore potential new audiences and performance opportunities right now.

Once upon a time, there was less of a distinct line between dancers and watchers. I still believe that can be the case, and that it's good for non-experts to have as many chances to be inspired by experts as to move their own bodies.

Are there things that folks can do at home to explore in this new, virtual choreographic horizon?

Dance is one of the most loved, watched and shared forms of social media content that there is. So, share dance! I'm always up for more making and doing and moving, whether it's captured or not. There are emergent forms of dimensional capture and there are also off-the-shelf ways to turn flat videos spatial. They're not perfect, but they're getting better and better.

Who are some other people working in this space that you think Dance Magazine’s readers should know about?

There is a world of immersive makers out there. The media is ripe for it, and as creative technologists, we know that it is dancers and choreographers who are the collaborators we need as we create experiences and technologies of the future that honor embodiment. Some who come to mind are Heidi Bosivert, Michelle Ellsworth, Christine Marie and Gilles Jobin.

How can dancers prepare for this sort of work in the future?

Having inventive improvisational and collaborative skills is a good start. That's part of why Pilobolus translates so beautifully to virtual space. Motion capture can be used in as many ways as there are movers. There's no prescribed form. We have had lots of situations when people are doing complex partnerings, but someone's data for their head ends up attached to someone else's knee. You learn to work through!