It’s no small leap from being a tough Havana street kid to dancing Albrecht in Giselle, but Carlos Acosta is not someone known for small leaps. He has been executing double-figure pirouettes across international date lines for two decades, frequently alighting in his native city and then leaping away again. In the process he has become, in all likelihood, the world’s second most famous living Cuban. In England, where he has been a permanent member of The Royal Ballet since 1998, Acosta gets recognised in the street by people who’ve never seen a classical dance performance. The Economist described him as “the Cuban ‘Billy Elliot’, a poor kid who triumphed over prejudice and humble origins.”
Acosta has a house in North London, which he shares with his girlfriend Charlotte (“a non-dancer”). “We lead an ordinary life — shopping, going to movies, getting my hair cut at the Israeli hairdresser in Islington,” Acosta told the Sunday Times last November. “People stop me on the bus or Tube; they can’t believe I take public transport.” Still, he has never made a secret of his desire to be back in Havana, and he comes back here as often as he can, seeing friends and family, sometimes performing, sometimes teaching at the National Ballet School, mostly just taking a break from his hectic performing Schedule back in England. When a writer for the Guardian asked him which place he considers to be his home, he replied (“despairingly”), “in the airports.”
During one of his recent stopovers in the Cuban capital, filmmaker Pavel Giroud caught up with Acosta and spoke to him for Havana Cultura.
Carlos Acosta’s penchant for astonishing leaps, it turns out, is not what made him a ballet dancer. That was his father’s idea. Carlos was born in 1973, the youngest of 11 children. By the time he was nine Carlos was spending more time breakdancing and getting into trouble than going to school. His nickname: Junior el Desastre. So his father, Pedro, decided to ship him off to ballet boot camp, the National Ballet School of Cuba in 1982. Junior wasn’t given a choice.
Ballet isn’t something Cuban boys typically think of as a punishment. Being a good ballet dancer can mean money, TV appearances, travelling to other parts of the island or even seeing the world. But Carlos Acosta wanted to play football. He struggled against the rigours of ballet training and wanted to be back home. “I begged my father to take me out of there," he recalls. “I got into fights.” Before things got better for him, though, they got a lot worse. His mother suffered a stroke, his father was jailed after a traffic accident, and Carlos finally broke the National Ballet School’s patience. He was sent away to a boarding school in Pinar del Rio.
Acosta’s ballet awakening happened one night when he was 13, at a performance of the National Ballet of Cuba. (He would go on to become principal dancer under the company’s legendary artistic director, Alicia Alonso, in 1994.) "I watched all these amazing dancers doing these jumps and I realised: ’Wow, that’s me in a few years.’"
His school attendance improved. He was a prodigy. He won a scholarship with the Turin Ballet, the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne, the Grand Prix at the 4th biennial Concours International de Danse de Paris, the Vignale Danza Prize, and the Frédéric Chopin Prize — and that was all in the same year, 1990, when he was 16.
Acosta recounts his lifelong battle with homesickness in his autobiography, No Way Home (2007), and the theme comes up again in his own ballet, Tocororo: A Cuban Tale, which premiered in Havana in 2002. Last summer, however, Acosta took the idea of “homecoming” to a whole new level. He came back to Havana for a massive, week-long tour with 80 fellow dancers from the Royal Ballet. He performed the Royal Ballet’s signature piece, Manon, first choreographed in London by Sir Kenneth MacMillan in 1974.
He had come full circle, he had brought London to Havana, and he calls it “one of my biggest accomplishments.” But knowing Carlos Acosta, we can expect plenty of more big accomplishments to come.