You’ll Be Reading No Way Home All the Way Home

July 6, 2008

Whether or not you’ve seen the magnificence that is Carlos Acosta onstage, reading his book No Way Home: A Dancer’s Journey From the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World, published in the U.S. by Scribner in May, is eye opening. And heart wrenching. It will open your eyes to the poverty of the streets of Cuba and simultaneously to the fiercely close-knit family life. It is the story of how a kid who dreams only of playing soccer and break dancing eventually finds his language in ballet, and along the way becomes the first black ballet superstar.

    Every page is culturally fascinating and emotionally raw. Acosta’s early life is studded with mishaps like getting caught stealing fruit so he could sell it to have money for the movies, his aunt dividing the family by going to the U.S. and taking only his light colored sister, his mother’s devastating stroke, and his father’s constant threats of violence. At the age of 9 he is forced to go to a ballet school several hours away, and later a school where he has to leave home completely. Of course, both schools are part of the island-wide Ballet Nacional de Cuba system, so he gets excellent training. Of course, he is fabulously talented, so he wins the Prix de Lausanne, which opens doors for him internationally.

    But I kept waiting for the moment when ballet becomes his freedom rather than his chains. It’s hard to recognize in these pages the gloriously joyful, soaring, and magnetic dancer who regularly stops the show. Always there is this simmering resentment, this feeling of being torn. Eventually I realized that his anger, although directed toward his father’s decision to send him away, is really about the loss of his childhood. If he had had a couple more years to hang out on the streets, do some more break dancing and play some more soccer, he wouldn’t have resisted ballet so much.

    Then again, as he says, “Genius needs despair, and despair comes out of cruelty, hunger, and pain.” Certainly in his case it did; they did.

    Racial prejudice plays a role in his life and career, so it’s a poignant moment when Ben Stevenson, the British artistic director who invited Acosta to dance with Houston Ballet, casts him as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Acosta writes, “When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw a man who was born in Los Pinos, with a truck-driver father and a housewife mother.” But Stevenson says to him, “Carlos, to me you are a prince, and that is why I am casting you in this ballet.”

    Having traveled the world as a performer, Acosta doesn’t really feel at home anywhere, until the last three pages, when he choreographs Tocororo: A Cuban Tale and presents it in London. The ballet is the story of a boy who grows up in Havana hearing the laughter of his sisters and smelling the scent of mangos. It is at this performance when his family, bursting with pride, understands that Carlos is still searching for a way to come home.