What Is Carlos Acosta Up To?

January 23, 2011

During intermission at ABT’s opening night in Havana, Carlos Acosta asked me about President Obama. This was last November, just after the election that gave the Republicans the majority in the House. He was concerned, and sooooo interested in the man and his ideas. I’m sure he appreciates Obama’s loosening of the regulations that constrict Cuban and American exchanges—and may also identify with his mixed background. (Like Obama, Acosta’s mother was light-skinned and his father very dark.)


Now there’s an excellent new biography out called
Carlos Acosta: The Reluctant Dancer.
The author is Margaret Willis, the Dance Magazine writer who introduced me to Carlos that night in Havana. From these pages, you get the idea of a man constantly in turmoil, torn between his yearning to be with his family and friends and his dedication to ballet. (It’s published by Arcadia Books.) 


As a child growing up, he just wanted to hang with his friends on the street, break-dancing (Michael Jackson was a big influence) and playing soccer. But his father forced him to leave Havana to go to ballet school. For years he was miserable and played hooky whenever he could get away with it. But one day he saw a performance by Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and watching the male star’s bounding leap, he decided to work hard to attain that mastery. And he did—and then some.


When I saw him rehearse a solo in Havana last fall, he looked at the top of his form. There were no big leaps in this solo (
by Russell Maliphant), but his charisma, his full emotional sense of the movement, even when doing the smallest, most subtle moves, was stunning. The Reluctant Dancer tells us he’s thinking of slowing down, or of replacing his former bravura with more forgiving, modern, choices.


Though I loved his 2008 autobiography,
No Way Home
(read my blog on it here), this book brings me up to date on what he’s thinking now. Fittingly, one of the quotes that’s on the dedication page is by Obama. (“Your destiny is in your hands—you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. It also means pushing our children to set their sights a little bit higher.”) 


What struck me toward the end of this book is Acosta’s modesty. He acknowledges that audiences are drawn to his bravura technique and astounding leaps. “But I also believe that it is because of my unusual background—and maybe the colour of my skin—have also helped to put me in the spotlight,” he says. “Remember that audiences here in London had never seen a black Romeo before me!” However, he doesn’t seem to be aware of his powerful presence onstage no matter what he is doing. His physical aliveness, his athletic power, his sensuality, and openness to feeling—all of this combines to create a totally unique, unforgettable dancer.


There really should be a movie on him—now, while he can still play himself and his beautiful nephew, Jonah Acosta, can play his younger self. It would be as momentous and as moving as
Mao’s Last Dancer.