Cuban superstar Carlos Acosta on life, family and dancing

Carlos Acosta chooses his challenges with care. For a dancer, it’s a guiding principle that clearly makes sense, increasingly so as time passes.

The Acosta Dance Company in action at the Royal Albert Hall. (Credit: Alastair Muir).

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The selection of repertoire is key. “Obviously, that’s why I wanted to move away from the classics,” he says. “I thought that the classics at this point in time didn’t stretch me, didn’t take me to somewhere new, so I needed to change. I needed to broaden my horizons.”

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Acosta at 46 is looking for new vehicles, new ballets and choreographers who understand artists at whatever stage they are in life. A dancer’s career is an evolution. “They always compare you with your young self, but it shouldn’t be a source of comparison because every age has its own beauty and its own merit,” he says. “The struggle with the body and keeping up, that also is a source of inspiration.”

Carlos Acosta is bringing his company to Bradford next week. (Johan Persson).

Contemporary dance is freer and more open and any subject can inspire it. Acosta likes that. “It’s how I can find new ways to connect with an audience that carries the artistry. It doesn’t have to be always the prince and the Romeo.”

Ah, Romeo. Having been hailed in 1998 as the Royal Ballet’s first black principal, Cuban-born Acosta danced the role to classic Kenneth MacMillan choreography with Tamara Rojo beginning in 2006 (it’s available on DVD), reprised in 2011 at the O2 Arena to an audience of 13,500 people. He is proud he helped create a new ballet experience.

“I loved the roles that were not so obvious for me, like Romeo,” he says. “I managed to reposition myself in a way that I could still convince.”

The ballet world has changed, and Acosta must take credit for much of that. He told his own remarkable dance story in his autobiography No Way Home, the basis for the 2019 film Yuli, dramatising the early conflict between his love for his Cuban home and the prodigious talent that was certain to carry him away from it.

Born in 1973, the 11th child of a poor family in Havana, young Carlos at first preferred football, but his father, a lorry driver, recognised this talent and the life it could bring, and persuaded him to train at the National Ballet School of Cuba. At 16 he won the Gold Medal at the Prix De Lausanne and at 18 became the English National Ballet’s youngest ever principal, until injury forced a return to Cuba.

He recovered and joined the National Ballet of Cuba, was talent spotted again and joined the Houston Ballet as a principal for five years. Then came the Royal Ballet in London, where he danced pretty much all the major roles and travelled the world as an international guest principal for all the major companies.

Carlos was awarded the CBE in 2014, a year which saw him stage his production of Don Quixote at the Royal Opera House, and choreograph a new production of Guys and Dolls for the West End. In the National Dance Awards 2015, he was awarded the De Valois Award for Lifetime Achievement.

He retired from the Royal Ballet stage in 2015 and closed his classical career the following year with sell-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall.

Four years ago, he formed his own company, Acosta Danza, in Cuba, to showcase Cuban performers and culture. It comes to the Alhambra Theatre Bradford in March with Evolution, bringing “a piece of Cuba”, he promises. “What you are going to see is something authentic, varied, an evening taking you to different places.”

The programme includes two new works and two contemporary dance classics: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun, and Rooster, Christopher Bruce’s celebration of the 60s and 70s set to music by the Rolling Stones, in which Acosta also dances.

“It’s all about joy and big smiles and they give you their heart,” he says. “Cuba is an island and it’s been isolated for a while, so these dancers, when they come out, they really want to connect with audiences.

“When you select a dancer, you need to understand that they are not fully formed – it’s up to us then to form them. It’s an extension of me in many ways because I train them, I teach them, I speak to them, I work with them, I nurture them.”

Acosta goes back to Cuba as much as he can, especially to see new productions, but fears it might be a little less now because of his new job. He has just taken over as artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, where he aims to bring in wider audiences, taking ballet out into the community and promising more than 20,000 tickets available for £20 or less.

It’s about a two-hour journey from his home in Somerset, where he lives with his wife, Charlotte, a writer, and their three daughters, Alia, eight, and three-year-old twins. He likes just “being silly with my kids”. Regarding dance, Alia shows talent and clearly likes an audience, he says. “I would not force them, obviously, but I encourage them. She has a passion and perseverance and it’s great to see but whatever she does in the future is up to her.”

Dance at the highest level trains the mind in ways that bring focus, determination and discipline, he says, so professional dancers tend to be successful at anything they do. But for everyone, dance is life-enriching.

“It’s something very natural that I think should be embraced and at the heart of the community. It should not be just for professionals – just the fact that you use dance as a way of connecting and to be in tune with your own body, that’s wonderful. Ballet is the most complete exercise you can have.”

For boys, ballet has a more positive image than it did for his generation. “There is more of an appetite and more acceptance and more encouragement. I think the fact that ballet and dance is very popular, on TV with Strictly Come Dancing,” he says. “Little by little, we are being able to break that scepticism that used to follow ballet and there are really great role models to prove it.

“It’s not perfect. We still have to be aware and give opportunities, and educate parents, and encourage more and more to bring their kinds. And have more free bursaries, perhaps, for people who cannot afford it, but I think we are heading in the right direction.”

As he mentioned Strictly, might he ever consider being a judge? “Well, I can tell you at the moment I have so much on my plate I cannot even consider it.”

For the young dancers he nurtures, the Havana of today is very different from the home of his childhood. “I used to reflect on that a lot but I don’t dwell on the past any more,” he says. “I am looking into the future. I have my family, three wonderful daughters and a wife, all my projects.

“It obviously has changed dramatically from the Havana of the 80s. It is no longer that place but everything changes. London is no longer the place of 30 or 30 years ago. That’s life.”

Acosta Danza – Evolution is at the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, March 13 and 14. Tickets: 01274 432000 / www.bradford-theatres.co.uk