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; www.sadlerswells.com)

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