Carlos Acosta has risen from the slums of Cuba to become one of the world’s leading ballet performers. Matthew McCreary finds out how the Havana native managed to carve out such an unlikely career path
Hailing from a Caribbean island where music and movement are a way of life might seem the obvious background for a young man seeking his fame and fortune as a dancer. But while many Cubans revel in the delights of the colourful world of Latin music and dance, it is a relative few who seek to branch out into the more esoteric world of ballet.
For Carlos Acosta, the path to becoming one of the world’s biggest ballet stars was far from assured. Born the youngest of 11 children in a rundown suburb of the Cuban capital Havana in the 1970s, the prospects for the young man were pretty bleak to say the least. But his truck driver father was determined his son should do everything he could to escape the confines of poverty and social oppression.
“My parents didn’t know about art or ballet,” says Acosta.
“I was born into a family which was very simple — no books and no intention to do anything extraordinary. But at the same time they gave me a knowledge of humility and the fact that it is always good to work hard for what you want.”
With the support of teachers who also believed in him, Carlos managed to stay on the straight and narrow and graduated from his dance school with such aplomb that he was able to leave his Caribbean home and forge a career with some of the world’s greatest companies, including the English National Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre.
It might sound like a fairytale of sorts — or even close to the hit 2000 film Billy Elliott, in which a working class Northern lad defies convention and makes it as a ballet dancer. But there will be few fairytales when Carlos brings his latest production to the stage of the Grand Opera House for one of the closing shows of this year’s programme. His new production, Premieres Plus, enters rather more darker performing territory than he is used to.
“The show is an attempt to create a hidden narrative, with existing pieces that have been previously choreographed,” he says. “I team up with [fellow Royal Ballet dancer] Zenaida Yanowsky and what you will see are two classical dances evolving into a contemporary dance form.” The show also includes Belfast’s Cappella Caeciliana choir, who will be providing a dramatic musical element to the whole show.
“It resembles powerful forces, such as death, which are always present in every day of our lives,” explains Carlos of the choir’s contribution.
“The show has a bit of a ‘down’ spirit to it. I created it at around the time when I lost my mother and my sister, so it has a spiritual aspect to it. But at the same time it’s sad in a way.”
It’s a long way from the style of dancing normally associated with Acosta, which is often infused with the sunnier rhythms of his Caribbean heritage.
“This is where I lived and, in a way, what I bring to my dancing — the essence of people who are by nature very happy because of the Caribbean sunshine and the fact that there is always blue sky. It’s what the critics comment on when I am dancing. But this show has no trace of Caribbean sunshine.
“Quite the opposite. It is gloomy and thoughtful but at same time hopefully enjoyable as well.”
This will not be the first time Carlos has visited Belfast, having previously come here in the late 90s with the Royal Ballet. And in spite of the countless stages he has graced in the past, it is still a visit which holds many positive memories for him.
“I remember people being very friendly, taking time to point you in the right direction or they would grab you by the hand and take you there,” he says. “I was struck by how friendly they were and it has always stuck in my mind.”
Although he is largely based in London, the 38-year-old still holds that love in his heart for his home country. “I am trying to create a dance centre in Cuba,” he says. “I want to help my country in any way I can.”
- Carlos Acosta, October 27-29, 7.30pm, Grand Opera House