Carlos Acosta: 'I hammer my body every day'

It's been a long journey for Carlos Acosta, from a tough Cuban childhood to the Royal Ballet – and now his hips are killing him

Carlos Acosta stretches out on the sofa and yawns. Not the most promising start to an interview, perhaps – or indeed the most flattering response from the man sometimes called the Cuban Sex Missile – but I can see why he's tired. He's been up with the lark, or at least with Carol Kirkwood from BBC Breakfast, talking about his new show at the London Coliseum, and then he's been for a costume fitting for a film he's shooting in August, and now – well, now, there's this. Me, in a tiny room at the Royal Opera House, so tiny that our knees are almost touching. Lulled by his yawns, I've kicked off my shoes. Startled by his surprise, I've grabbed them back.

I have been up half the night, I tell him – wanting to cheer him up, wanting to wake him up – reading his memoir, No Way Home. I ran, I add ingratiatingly, from Green Park tube to Waterstone's, Piccadilly, to get it before it closed. "And did you," he asks, clearly baffled by my idea of physical effort, "like it?" "I couldn't," I tell him, "put it down". And I couldn't, I really couldn't. The facts of Carlos Acosta's life are astonishing enough: the childhood, in a "hovel without running water" in Havana, shared by 11 siblings, a truck driver father and a much younger mother, who divorced when Carlos was three, but had nowhere else to live; the poverty that had the children living in rags and Carlos's mother cooking his pet rabbits; the break-dancing, the truancy, the petty thieving and the moment that changed it all, the moment when Pedro Acosta, hearing from a neighbour that it could get his son fed and clothed, sent him off to audition for ballet school.

A documentary made about Acosta a few years ago was called The Reluctant Ballet Dancer, and there's no doubt, from the book, that he was. "What's everyone in the neighbourhood going to think?" said the nine-year-old Carlos, whose only dream was to be a football player. "If anyone calls you gay," replied his father, "just smash his face in". Pedro was a man who practised what he preached. When Carlos was expelled from his first ballet school, for truancy, he beat him "within an inch of his life". But when the Ministry of Education approved a possible transfer, he killed two roosters and sprinkled their blood over the iron objects in his shrine. He was determined that his son – with help from the Santeria gods he worshipped, if necessary – would escape from the poverty that had wrecked his life.

It was at the Vocational Arts School of Pinar del Rio that Acosta finally knuckled down. At 15, he got the highest possible score in his end-of-year exams and was selected to take part in a year-long cultural exchange in Turin. At 16, he won the gold medal in the international Prix de Lausanne. At 18, he was principal dancer with the English National Ballet. He went on to the National Ballet of Cuba, the Houston Ballet and, since 1998, the Royal Ballet, where for the past six years he has danced as principal guest. He has danced Romeo, Spartacus – all the big roles – and been compared to Baryshnikov and Nureyev. He is, in other words, a ballet superstar, someone, according to The Daily Telegraph "to tell your children and grandchildren that you actually saw".

All of this is in the book (or most of it, since it ends in 2004, with the launch of his sell-out, semi-autobiographical show, Tocororo, a family reunion and a confession from his father that made me cry) but what the facts alone can't convey is the zest, charm, cheek and also sadness of this extraordinary man, a man who spent much of his life – robbed of his family, robbed of his childhood – feeling like a "caged animal", a "caged animal" who has managed to dance himself "free".

Published two years ago and now, to rave reviews, in America, No Way Home took him 10 years to write. And now the boy who didn't read a book till he was 25 – "maybe Catcher in the Rye, maybe The Great Gatsby" – is writing a novel. "It's about this generation of slaves," he tells me, "and the most notorious events of Cuban history. I have a lot of fun," he says with another huge yawn. "Hopefully, it will be worth publishing. I still have to work a lot, and just now especially, I can't find any time."

Well, I'm not surprised. There's the film, there are his regular performances with the Royal Ballet, there's his contract with Decca and there's his show, Carlos Acosta and Guest Artists, a smorgasbord of classical and contemporary work, performed by Acosta and some of the best ballet dancers in the world. "I try basically to reach out and to bring an enjoyable evening for every taste and for every age," he explains. Building on a formula he developed in his Olivier Award-winning last show, he aims to introduce people to works rarely performed in the UK, showing "much more" of what goes on behind the scenes. "You need to conceive it, you need to plan it, you need to talk to people – the conductor, the designer – plus rehearse every show. The whole programme," he says proudly, "is conceived in my imagination."

This, clearly, is a man who likes a challenge. Clearly, too, a man who isn't just going to stick with the classical roles. Does he get bored with them? Acosta's features harden, for a moment, into the expression of one whose honour has been impugned – but then he relaxes. "Well," he says, "writing my autobiography or doing these projects has given me an incentive and definitely helped me do whatever I do much better. If I only had to look forward to another Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, it's like you say, it can be very, very boring. Ultimately, the classic technique is what keeps you in shape, so you do need to do the classics for sure if you want to look your best, or challenge your body."

Ah, yes, the body. More than half-way through, and I've managed not to mention it. Let's just say that even in jeans and a blue cotton shirt, he looks a bit like Michelangelo's David. A living sculpture. A living sacrifice, in fact, because anyone who knows anything at all about ballet knows that it's unbelievably hard work. "We're very strong-minded people," says Acosta. "We learn to control the struggle. You wake up every single day to hammer your body, and you do it, and it does something to you." I didn't know, until I interviewed Agnes Oaks a few months ago, that pain, for a ballet dancer, is a way of life. Is it for him? "My hips are killing me," he says, "I'm worried now. I worry because it's constant. When I do the splits, oh man..."

As someone who pops a pill at the first flicker of a headache, and who gave up on a "spinning" class at the gym on Sunday after 10 minutes, I find it impossible to understand how anyone could voluntarily put themselves through this agony, and stick with it, day after day. "Is it worth it?" I ask him, and again he looks affronted. "Yes," he says firmly, "because we know inside how unique we are, and you put your own health at risk to give people pleasure, and make people cry. This art is beautiful, and someone has to do it. There's no alternative. So do we go, 'let's just erase dance because it's so painful?'" I'm tempted to say yes, because I can't bear to think of this lovely creature crucified by pain – and anyway it doesn't seem to be improving his temper. Instead, I ask if this super-self-discipline, and the obstacles that he has overcome, ever makes him feel like a member of a breed apart.

"I don't think about it," he says. "I mean, you can't take it for granted. In fact, every time I go on stage and see the light I know that one day this is going to stop; and it will be very sad, because ballet is the only companion I ever had. People who do take themselves seriously, I think they are fools." He is passionate, he adds, about promoting ballet, particularly to young boys, letting them know that ballet dancers are "athletes just like footballers" and that it's not going to "change his sexuality".

Indeed not. Carlos Acosta's sexuality, I think it's fair to say, has been pretty evident from the moment he first burst out of a leotard. His book is peppered with accounts of passionate encounters, and love affairs. In one ballet company, apparently, not a single ballerina was able to look him in the eye. Isn't it, I ask, a bit tedious being treated as a sex god? Acosta takes a bite of his tuna sandwich. "Oh man," he says. "What can you do? They don't tell me that, I read it, or I hear it. It's not like they relate to me like that. I don't feel a difference. In my case, it's like you say, ballet is very erotic – the way we dress, it's very suggestive."

Well, yes, I say, pointing at his shirt undone to his waist, "I mean, frankly, the way you're dressed now... " For the first time, Acosta laughs. "I'm fine with that," he says, hastily buttoning it up. "If you want to know about Carlos, you want to know about Carlos and Carlos's talent, so every time I have a photo shoot where they want me to strip off and jump in a car, then I'm sorry, I can't help you."

Anyway, Carlos Acosta has a girlfriend. Her name is Charlotte and he's been with her for four years. Is it true love? He nods. "Yeah. You know, I was so lonely, and it was just great, my life changed when I met her. She is," he says, and I feel a childish stab of envy, "just fantastic." When he retires – which, since he's 36 is probably only a few years off – he will move back to Cuba with Charlotte, back to the big house he's bought with a swimming pool, back to run his own company, and do his charity work, and write his books and act in movies and have a family. "Everyone knows Charlotte in Cuba now," he says, "and there are a lot of things that bind us together. It's a good match because I can be very complicated, you know, every time my mood swing goes up and down. I can be quite – how you say? – insufferable."

And then he grins and I want to hug him. Instead, I shake his hand, and he kisses me. Oh my God. Carlos Acosta has kissed me.

'Carlos Acosta and Guest Artists' is at the London Coliseum from 22 to 25 July (0844 412 4300;

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • 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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions