Carlos Acosta: interview with ballet's retiring hero
Catching up with Carlos Acosta: retirement from Covent Garden and his future Cuban mission
Carlos Acosta: Ballet's popular star
The weight of his celebrity, rare and huge for ballet star, seems a little heavier today. Four interviews down, sleepy eyed amid the smell of strong coffee (there was much cause for celebration last night after all), the twinkling warmth he normally exudes (both on and off stage) has been wrung a little dry. At the mercy of the wheel of journalists who want a piece of that farewell nostalgia, the consummate performer seems rather vulnerable.
But I must make my 15 minutes with The Carlos Acosta count, and he rises smilingly to my questions. His achievements have been many. From stealing and truanting on the backstreets of Havana to becoming the first black principal of the Royal Ballet, the first black Romeo and, perhaps most impressively, the first foreign star invited to guest at the Bolshoi, his story captured hearts beyond ballet.
Carlos Acosta final performance: farewell to the main stage
Goodbye to the Royal Ballet: Carlos Acosta's ballet family
The Royal Ballet, he said, has become his family; his departure may mark the end of a career, but not necessarily sever the familial bond. “Well, they are saying they want to keep me around! Coaching youngsters, showing the roles I used to perform, inspiring them.” There’ll be a public sigh of relief, given his future plans in Cuba, that this is not goodbye to his British following. “No, no, no, no way. My wife is British, my daughter was born here. We will spend the winter in Cuba, I’m sure you don’t blame me, but [London] will be our main base.”
He flies to Cuba the following day, but it’s no holiday. Two nights after his grand finale it’s straight to business, meeting investors and collaborators in his next project. He has plans to found a contemporary dance company, based in Cuba and associated with London’s Sadler’s Wells. Made up entirely of Cuban dancers, his vision for this company is of something with real national identity. “I think there is a lot in Cuba to explore that will set us apart. The challenge for me is trying to develop a very personal trait, a unique trait, based on the Cuban rhythms and Cuban dancers.”
He’s brought some of that flavour to the Royal in his own shows, a Don Quixote for the repertoire as well as the semi-autobiographical Tocororo, and its sequel, Cubanía; and his own company could be a platform to push his own choreography. But he’s dismissive, “perhaps I will have another idea for choreographing, fine, but I’m trying to bring different choreographers to collaborate. Any choreographers who engage with Cuban exploration. Something personal and authentic and Cuban.”
A new mission for Carlos Acosta: Cuba and his dance legacy
Getting more Cuban isn’t a navel-gazing exercise, but part of his plan to bring Cuba into the world. More and more Cuban dancers have made their way to the UK - Acosta himself invited the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba for the first time, and the new Cuban star Osiel Gouneo headlines English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire in 2016. But Acosta remains anxious: “Ballet in Cuba is still stuck in the 60s; the way they move is very old, the repertoire is very old, the productions are very old. And the country in general –(..), there are 70-year-old cars running around the streets of Havana and you think wow, it’s another galaxy. Dance and ballet are no exception.”
Carlos Acosta: dancer
Which is why his plans are far bigger than his own company. There’s a site in Havana, a national monument and expansive ruin that was intended as a world-class centre of arts in Cuba. Conceived by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, it fell victim to Cuba’s messy Cold War politics and has lain dormant ever since.
Acosta proposed to the Cuban government to rescue it, “I proposed to them let me found this wonderful centre in there and they say yes fine, and that’s what happened.” There’ll be an academy for dance pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and countries, “so we will bring them from Africa, from all over the world, to Cuba to give them schooling in the Cuban method, for free. That is the most noble aspect of what I’m trying to do in Cuba with my Foundation.”
It will be a performance space as well as the base for Acosta’s own company. “It’s going to be an artistic landmark, always things happening, 8 shows a week; and then maybe I could bring the Royal Ballet, with the BBC we could do stuff...” he trails off, excited. “And so try to connect Cuba to the world.” The passion in that still heavily-accented voice is convincing, and combined with the site’s unusual history it makes for quite a story. Does that history play any part? He is momentarily monosyllabic. “No political element, no agenda. Art. I’m going to dedicate my life to my art form and other art forms that have given me so much pleasure. I think it’s relevant and I think it’s necessary.”
History, however, has a way of impinging – and Acosta’s project for the Arts Centre has come under attack from one of the original architects, the Italian Vittorio Garatti. Fearful that the association of modernist architect Norman Foster with Acosta’s project will result in a betrayal of the original vision, Garatti has written to Fidel Castro to protest. Watch this space.
Acosta acknowledges that the ruin and the vision that once lived there are representative of the ambition of his plan. “Like anything I set myself to do, it’s always huge, but that’s what motivates me.” His model is straightforward - try hard, work hard and so deserve the success when it comes to you.
At 16: Carlos Acosta, dancer and winner Prix de Lausanne
The ballet star began his life in dance by outshining his neighbours’ moves in the street and winning local breakdance competitions, but he left that style and his deprived start behind on his comet-like rise in ballet. As he returns to Cuba, and in some ways to those roots, could a meeting between breakdance and ballet ever be? “It could be, it could be! I mean nobody has ever done it but I think… you know there are so many possibilities; it just needs somebody to come up with it. I’m looking forward to exploring that connection, there is a need for it. Because all these things are separated, but ultimately,” he says, demonstratively meshing his hands, “art is all part of one thing. I don’t see why not.”
And why not? We’ve learnt not to expect too little of Carlos Acosta. Now is certainly not the time to change.