Arts & Books: From Havana, trailing sparks

Carlos Acosta once thought ballet was for sissies. Not any more. Just watch him fly.

Winter in London seems colder when you were raised in Cuba and have spent the last five years of your career in the soupy bayou climate of Houston, Texas. In fact, Carlos Acosta seems to be having difficulty adjusting, not only to our weather, but also to the Royal Ballet. Still, he knows it is early days. He will probably feel better once he plants his feet on the Royal Festival Hall stage and takes on his first major role, as Colas in Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee.

To an outsider, he looks the antithesis of British drizzle. He evokes sunshine and pleasure with his grammatically relaxed, consonant-slurring Hispanic English, his sudden gleeful laughter as he describes an enthralled visit to the V&A, his warm brown skin. He is that rarity: a black ballet dancer, one of only two (with Jerry Douglas) in the Royal Ballet. Where modern dance has both attracted and accepted all human shades, ballet - middle-class and rarefied - has deterred black children, and ballet companies have failed to welcome black dancers.

New ballet is tentatively trying to become colour-blind; and in an art form where talent - especially male talent - is scarce, directors can discover the advantage of enlarging their pool of choices. Acosta, who joined this season, is a real star for a company that has become more a collection of black holes than a galaxy of heavenly bodies.

We wait to see how well he will suit the gentle filigree of Ashton's Fille, although he has briefly dipped into Ashton before, with a secondary part in English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. But, during the Royal Ballet's October-November programmes at Sadler's Wells, he astonished audiences in Raymonda Act III, partnering the exquisite Miyako Yoshjida.

They saw a dancer who slashes across space faster than anyone else, who lacerates the air with shapes so clear and sharp they seem to throw off sparks. He is no mere step-trickster, either: his Russian-derived Cuban training has given him elegance and subtlety.

In a country other than Cuba, where the population is racially mixed and vocational dance training is free, all the odds would have been against him. Born 25 years ago in a poor district of Havana, he was the youngest of 11 children, a kid with excess energy who played football, break-danced on the street, and stole fruit. But his father, a truck driver, had a neighbour whose two sons were at ballet school. He realised that such an establishment would not only curb his nine-year-old son's hyperactivity, but would also educate and feed him.

"So he enrolled me," Acosta says. "And, of course, I started to have problems because I thought ballet was sissy. I skipped the classes and exams, and when I was 13 they fired me." His persevering father found another ballet school, where he could become a boarder this time and the teachers could keep a closer watch on him. And soon afterwards, Acosta had his first sight of the superlative National Ballet of Cuba. Proud of his own physicality, he was awe-struck by the dancers' honed athleticism and determined to be like them.

At the National Ballet School of Cuba he won four competitions, including the prestigious Lausanne and Paris contests. He joined English National Ballet for the 1991-2 season, but his stint was cut short by a bone spur in his ankle. After an operation, he became a member of the Cuban Ballet, guested with the Houston Ballet and eventually transferred there permanently.

Houston, one of the US's leading companies, gave him widely varied roles. American audiences and critics went wild about him; Houston's director, the choreographer Ben Stevenson, encouraged and fine-tuned him.

Dancers may be grateful disciples, but they are also greedy prowlers, scanning the horizon for fresh challenges. Acosta's eyes alighted on the Royal Ballet. In Houston, talking in a buzzy sushi bar, he had been full of excitement about his move, which included his girlfriend Tiekka Schofield, another Houston principal, who has opted for a freelance career. In London, at the Royal Ballet School, sitting in a maths classroom grimly crammed with empty desks, he seems anxious - as well he may be. Since arriving, he has been glad to learn new roles; it is what he came for. But just three - Raymonda, Fille and a supporting part in Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated - a total of 11 performances in three months, is hardly a crushing schedule. "I didn't expect the special treatment I had in Houston," he says. "But I came to London to dance, and I've not had much so far."

He realises things may improve and is impressed by the company's large selection of teachers, each with a different input. But he misses Ben Stevenson's unifying presence. Stevenson is the Houston Ballet, a father guiding and driving his close-knit family, while the Royal Ballet is a looser, more international and grown-up ensemble. "In Houston everybody had to be in class every day and Ben would show you how he wanted things, how to improve. Here you are on your own. If you want to work, it's fine; if you don't, it's up to you.

"It's OK for me; I know how to get on with things. But it could be difficult sometimes, because if you do something wrong, it's much more hard for you to realise than for other people watching. I still have a lot to learn - I don't want to be the same dancer five years from now. I would like to have different tools and to find nourishment through as many roles as possible."

Like all dancers, he is preternaturally aware of the clock ticking. He has - what? - 10 or 12 years left? He has arrived at the Royal Ballet in turbulent times. Perhaps the company's recent flamboyant male defections will bring him more performances. If the Royal Ballet, in this New Labour era, are to be a People's Ballet, they would be crazy not to capitalise on the politically and artistically impeccable presence they now have in their midst.

`La Fille mal gardee' opens at the Royal Festival Hall on 29 Jan.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living