Dance in Pop Culture

6 Reasons You Should See the Carlos Acosta Biopic Yuli

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

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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