Carlos Acosta: The King of Hearts

July 31, 2007
The London afternoon is dark and dank, but he swaggers into the cozy backstage room at the Royal Opera House as if strutting down the Malecon, Havana’s famous sea-front. His friendly manner and broad smile fill the room like Cuban sunshine. He’s wearing a soft beige leather jacket and a back-to-front brown cap, under which his dark curls peek. “Hi Margaret,” he greets in heavily accented English. “Nice to see ya again. How ya doin’?” My knees knock.
Carlos Acosta is one of today’s most stunning dancers, admired the world over for his firecracker, yet refined technique, for his riveting acting, and his careful, confident partnering. Yet, away from the glamour of the stage, he remains “the boy next door,” outgoing, caring, warm, and—above all—humble, despite being a national treasure in his own country and a matinée idol to many dance-goers. He is a beloved principal in The Royal Ballet and returns this month as a guest artist with American Ballet Theatre for its spring season. His life-story reads like a fairy tale: from pauper to prince, from ne’er-do-well to dance deity.
The youngest of 11 children, he grew up knowing poverty and hardship, break-dancing to a boom box, and petty thieving on the streets of a shantytown in Fidel Castro’s politically isolated Cuba. The imprisonment of his truck-driving father for a traffic violation and the serious illness of his mother fostered the boy’s lack of discipline and led him quickly into serious misbehavior. Hearing that Cuba’s National School of Ballet offered education and food along with the dance lessons, Acosta’s father packed him off there, hoping to quell his son’s wild ways. But the boy didn’t want to dance and took every opportunity to skip classes. He was expelled twice, but undeterred, his father sent him away to the south of the island, to a ballet school in Pinar del Rio. “It was too far away and too expensive to run home so I had to settle,” Acosta explains. “I didn’t see my family for two years but I saw the Ballet Nacional de Cuba for the first time when they came to the town and I thought, ‘Wow! How cool.’ Man, was I impressed by what they did. They inspired me and I suddenly recognized that dance could change my life. I had to make a choice: to stay on the streets or work hard to achieve that style.”
So he began to study with dedication, inspired by his favorite Cuban dancer, Alberto Terrero, and by Mikhail Barishnikov, Peter Schaufuss, and Fernando Bujones. “There was always someone who could find a video machine and we’d watch them, perplexed by all the steps they did. You’d see a double cabriole and next day you’d go into the studio and think, if Baryshnikov could do this then I’ll try!” On a serious note, Acosta adds, “Most difficult to take in was that princely roles were only danced by the blue-eyed, blond males and not dark-skinned ones—even in Cuba.” Little did he know that he would eventually change that prejudice through his own magnetic presence onstage.
Acosta progressed quickly and was accepted back into BNC’s school, where he soon discovered his own brand of bravura—though he readily admits that at 15, you really don’t know what ballet is all about. “You learn later that it’s not just about technique, jumps, and turns. There’s a lot more to it than that.” And he set about to learn. At 16, he was sent over to Europe, where he won the gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne, followed by the gold medal at the Fourth Annual Competition of Ballet in Paris. For a poor country boy who often had only sugar-water for breakfast, he was suddenly the toast of the town. With success came prize money, and he was bewildered by the commercialism of the western world. “I just wanted everything I saw—toys that I’d never had as a child. I even collected the bathroom samples from hotels to take back to friends in Cuba. Some of the packets burst, making a terrible mess in my bag, but I didn’t care—I still took them back!”
At 18 he joined English National Ballet and was getting rave reviews when an ankle injury forced him to return to Cuba for a year. But not before he had been noticed by Ben Stevenson, who was staging some of his works for ENB. Later when Acosta was back dancing again, Stevenson invited him to join Houston Ballet as a principal.
The 20-year-old took the Texas city by storm, his amazing technique blasting skyward like one of NASA’s rockets, while his charisma charmed all. He quickly became a popular icon. Everywhere people would stop him to say hi and were rewarded by his courtesy and interest. He was with the company for five years before joining The Royal Ballet in 1998 as the company’s first black principal. Now he was just one of several renowned principal guest artists and had to compete for both top roles and opening night casting. But it wasn’t long before Londoners took him to their hearts. He scored, and continues to score, plaudits for his noble bearing, convincing characterizations, and, when required, speedy and fabulous technical fireworks.
Yet despite the continuous acclaim, he craves reassurance and asks my thoughts of his Rudolf in
(mesmerizing and scary, but so powerful), and Prodigal Son which he danced for the first time with Sylvie Guillem (a convincing performance and a wonderful pairing), and Des Grieux in Manon (technically superb and articulate in his emotions).
He is sad that he never got to work with MacMillan, whose choreography he admires tremendously. His latest role is in
La Fille mal gardée
, which he’d been rehearsing all afternoon. He enthuses on the wonders of Ashton’s choreography. “It’s so musical, so good all the way through—from the chickens, to the ribbon dance, to the characters, to the solos. That man was a real genius.” In May, he will be dancing the title role of Jimi Hendrix in a new work for The Royal Ballet created by Christopher Bruce, another choreographer he admires.
Acosta recently guested with the Paris Opéra Ballet in Nureyev’s
Don Quixote
. “It felt so chic and aristocratic there and they all seemed so ‘educated.’ It was a big pressure but I thought, ‘I just have to show them what I can do.’ ” He did, and the Parisians went wild! He’d like to be invited to La Scala and Vienna one day and to dance Spartacus with the Bolshoi (an injury prevented an earlier invitation). Meanwhile, he was looking forward to his season with ABT. “Man, they have such great people dancing there. It’s very competitive and it’s great to be with them. I’m dancing both Siegfried and Rothbart in McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake. This is new to me. Also there’s Fokine’s Polovtsian Dances, which I danced with ENB many years ago so I am looking forward to doing it again.”
Acosta’s popularity has recently earned him the title of Dancer of the Year from the readers of the British magazine
Dance Europe
. But his fame extends beyond the dance field. Recently he appeared on “Desert Island Discs,” a popular British radio show where celebrity “castaways” are invited to tell their life-story interspersed by their favorite records. Acosta’s choice ranged from Cuban folk music, a Mozart piano concerto, the grand pas solo from Don Quixote, to film music. His answer to the question “What luxury would you want if you were stuck on a desert island?” was a case of Cuban rum.
Acosta spends his time off back in Cuba with friends and family; he has not yet found his sense of home elsewhere and admits to leading a lonely life. He wants to share his love and pride for his homeland, and his first (and so far only) foray into choreography focuses on this.
, premiered in Havana in 2003 in front of a beaming Castro, has had two sell-out seasons in London, and goes to Austria and Italy this summer. It’s a “feel good” production whose plot hangs lightly on Acosta’s own experiences. (“Did you know I’ve also written a book on my life?” he asks. “It’s only in Spanish and needs a publisher, but I think people will enjoy reading about this Cuban boy.”) In telling his theatrical tale, he fuses classical ballet with Cuban street dances, adding a little voodoo (his father once took him to see a local woman versed in santeria to exorcise his youthful “evil” spirits). The action is fast and energetic, and its infectious atmosphere has the audience dancing in their seats. His nephew Yonah Acosta portrayed the young Carlos. A long-limbed dancer, he displays fine technique, musicality, and fluid movement. But, at 15, he has grown too tall to be in the show. “But you watch out for him in the future. He’s amazing,” says the proud uncle.
As to his
future, the Cuban missile says that when his dancing days are over, he wants to return home to give back something of what he has learned, and to settle down and bring up a family there. He craves the simple life once more. In the meantime, he says, “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished—from being a bad boy on the streets, to this. Life is really beautiful.” 
Margaret Willis lives in London and writes for the British magazines
Dancing Times, Dance Europe, and Dance Now, as well as contributing to Dance Magazine.