Carlos Acosta: The world at his feet

Carlos Acosta is a superstar of classical ballet, yet he has returned for inspiration to the Afro-Cuban street rhythms of his Havana childhood
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When he was a boy, breakdancing and loitering in the streets of Havana, Carlos Acosta never considered ballet as a way out of poverty. Ballet was an art for the élite: it was fairyland on tiptoes. Real life was lived in a tiny flat in the neighbourhood of Los Piños, where Coke cans lined the living-room walls in place of pictures. This is why, 20 years after his truck-driver father sent him to ballet school for discipline and free food, Acosta still thinks of what has happened in his life as nothing short of a miracle.

These days, he's regarded as one of the greatest classical dancers, with comparisons often made to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. A vast skyward jump, dizzying pirouettes and a warm and formidable stage presence earned him early principal status at the English National Ballet at the age of 18. He's a regular star attraction for the Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and - as guest principal since 1998 - with the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden. Recently, for the Opera Bastille in Paris, he guest-danced the title role in Nureyev's Don Quixote, widely considered the ultimate technical challenge for a ballet dancer.

Allen Robertson, the editor of Dance Now magazine and dance editor of Time Out, first saw Acosta perform in the ENB, when Acosta was 19. "Even then it was clear that he has an extra dimension to him," Robertson remembers. "His technique is everything that technique should be, but at the same time it is full of his own kind of power and masculine grace. He manages to be both dynamic and correct, and it's obvious, no matter what role you're seeing him dance, that he loves to be on stage. One important thing about the way Acosta performs is that he doesn't ever diminish the choreography he's dancing - he doesn't dance 'I'm the star'. He's certainly one of the shining lights of his generation."

Last year, Acosta turned his hand to choreography with his dance-theatre production, Tocororo - A Cuban Tale, a sassy melange of Afro-Cuban and classical dance exploring the conflicts of leaving home, which gets its second run at Sadler's Wells in London this summer.

Aside from its big-hearted theatricality, Tocororo (which is the name of the national bird of Cuba) is also a reflection of the conflicts that exist in Acosta's life. The visceral flamboyance of Afro-Cuban culture tussles with the linearity and élitism of ballet; a young man leaves behind the familiarity of home for the challenges and glitter of the unknown.

"When I was a child," says Acosta, fresh from a morning rehearsal, drinking coffee in the offices of the Royal Opera House, "I didn't know anything about ballet. We were not educated people in my family, we didn't really have any aspirations. You could say that we lived on the other side of ballet."

Like many performing artists of Acosta's stature, he looks a lot smaller up close than he does on stage. He has bright, candid eyes and a jagged fringe of tight black curls, but these boyish looks are a contrast to the gruff Cuban accent and rigid handshake. Acosta is someone for whom busy-ness is a constant, and he gives off the impression that everything must be done quickly. As well as leading a thriving dance career and a fledgling choreographic one, he is also, at the age of 31, penning his autobiography.

In an age of premature memoir, it may well stand out as one that's actually worth reading, not just as a story of personal achievement but also as an insight into one of the most compelling cultures in the world. "Like many Cubans," Acosta says, "I grew up with Afro-Cuban culture as a big part of my life. Cuba is composed of lots of different races, and you could say that the most dominant of these is African. My father was a follower of the religion of Santeria. He had a sanctuary in the living room, so it was a big part of our lives. Santeria is synonymous with Cuba: those Afro-Cuban rhythms, the rumba, even the salsa - that's where it all comes from."

Santeria evolved in Cuba from the ancient Yoruba worship of the Orishas, the Yoruba gods, transported to the Caribbean through slavery. Incorporating elements of Catholicism (an attempt to disguise the forbidden practice of native worship from slave-masters), the religion permeates Afro-Cuban dance and music. Each Orisha has its own character dance - the ferocious stomp of Shango the god of thunder; the sensuous, watery sway of Oshun, the divinity of love - and Acosta includes some of these dances in Tocororo. "It was important for me to put these elements into my show, because that is where my roots are, even though ballet is the career I pursued.'

The Afro-Cuban form of movement, though, could not be further removed from ballet. "They're totally different techniques and flavours," Acosta says. "Classical dance is very strict, and you need to have a certain kind of body and a certain kind of training. On the contrary, the Afro-Cuban is really a kind of street dance. One of the things I regret is not learning it well enough. But when you are a classical dancer, that's all you do, Tchaikovsky and all those guys."

In a demonstration of the Afro-Cuban style, he starts moving in his chair, throwing arms and legs out and smirking. "It's all about the attitude, you know; you have to project much more of it. Whereas ballet is about poise and beauty."

Taking up the reins of choreography is an ambitious move for a dancer, and it's not always successful. Dancers are accustomed to offering their bodies as the canvas for choreography; it's another thing altogether to become the dance-maker, to deal with all the considerations of space and pace and musicality and theatrical cohesion that make a dance work.

Tocororo, last year, was like a good first novel; promising in style and passion, yet clattering in places over awkward joins and scenes not quite brought to fullness. In a schedule involving some eight hours of dancing a day and frequent gigs abroad, Acosta will have 20 days left in which to make improvements. "I want to create new scenes and try to link it in a way that it flows better," he says.

As we speak, the Tocororo cast are rehearsing in Cuba without him. It includes 17 dancers from the Cuban National Ballet, the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional (which specialises in the Afro-Cuban dances) and Danza Contemporanea, as well as Acosta's 14-year-old nephew Yonah Acosta, who plays the protagonist in his childhood.

Although Acosta is mindful of the fact that there's work to be done, he makes no claims to any exceptional aptitude for choreography. "I don't really see myself as a choreographer. Choreographers, like Balanchine and all those guys who made lots of massive pieces, are geniuses, and I don't try to compete with them. I just want to create a show that people can relate to, to say things that haven't been said before."

There is an inclination in Tocororo towards bridging the gap between élitist art forms and those that emerge on the street, out of particular social and cultural circumstances. Acosta's background gives him a unique perspective on what art should do, and what dance should do, and he is dubious about the concept of "art for art's sake".

"There are a lot of artists doing surreal things with dance, like with computer technology, but it's all very surreal. It doesn't give you a message, it doesn't make you dream, it doesn't tell a story. That's what I'm trying to do. I want to bring Afro-Cuban dance and hip hop and salsa and such arts to the main stage, where you'd usually see the classics - and do it with quality, so that it fits. We live in a world of fusion, and I think we should try to achieve that in ballet as well.'

The Havana flat in which Acosta, the youngest of 11 children, was brought up was a crowded, makeshift place with one bedroom. "There was a very small bathroom with a big tank of water. We had real problems with water. We had to carry it bucket by bucket from the downstairs hallway every day. Most of the time we were about eight people living there, but at some point my mother's family moved in with us because they were in exile and waiting for their papers. They were two aunts, my grandmother and my cousin, and so at that time there were 12 of us."

Acosta's first experiences in dance were as a pint-size breakdancer, competing against rival gangs when he was nine. But this had less to do with any burning desire to be a dancer than with wanting to bunk off to school. "I just liked to go with the flow. I realised that I could skip classes for two months and then just go back to school and it wouldn't matter that much."

He was not a particularly ambitious child. If there was anything he harboured a passion for, it was that universal boyhood dream of becoming a footballer. Acosta's father, though, envisaged the future Carlos as more of a delinquent - the truancy, the stealing from shops - and he heard about some neighbours who had sent their child to ballet school and got him off the streets (and the meals were free, too). Acosta hated * * ballet school, and was kicked out twice for misbehaving. It was not until he saw the Cuban National Ballet perform live, when he was 13, that he began to change his mind. "I saw the professionals doing all those jumps and leaps and I was really impressed. From that point I started to work hard."

This new shift in attitude revealed to Acosta's teachers a particular talent for ballet that had been hidden by sloth and lack of ambition. "They saw my potential and began choreographing for me. It was a good feeling to be wanted like that, to feel important. It was a new feeling for me, you know, and I liked it. I could see then that I could produce something worthwhile when I dance that would have an impact on people."

The whirlwind that Acosta's career turned into gathered pace, and in 1990 the 16-year-old prodigy scooped the gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne, the most significant student ballet award. It was the first of many awards, and Acosta's international credits clocked up rapidly. Travelling the world will only ever be a dream for many ordinary Cubans, who are restricted from crossing their country's borders, but the teenage Acosta was making regular trips to Europe, South America and beyond.

"Sometimes you need a miracle," he says, "and that's what happened to me, because I never expected anything. I never expected to be sitting here talking in another language, travelling the world and all these things. In Cuba, when you're poor, you work hard and you go with the flow; you don't know what the future holds or what to expect, and sometimes talent alone is not enough. There's a fine line between success and failing, and just one event can put you off course and make you lose your focus."

By the time he joined the Royal Ballet as its first black male principal, Acosta was in a position to make a firm stand against any hint of novelty treatment or exoticism. "I've always been conscious that they didn't typecast me, that I had an equal amount of opportunities as everybody else, because I knew I could dance any role out there. At the beginning they were testing me, watching me, because although I already had worldwide recognition, it still doesn't mean anything until they've put you on trial.'

Cuba's strict fostering of ballet has produced some great dancers, including Andres Williams and Fernando Bujones. Tocororo features another rising star, José Oduardo Perez, who takes Acosta's role in six Sadler's Wells shows. Allen Robertson cites a particular fearlessness as the magic that makes Cuban dancers special. "Even though they are perfectly trained and their technique is very honed, they just don't hold back. They go for broke. Carlos goes for broke, and that's what makes him such an exciting dancer."

Ballet training in Cuba is funded by the government and taught in a rigid manner, similar to the Russian style. The outcome is an instantly recognisable national technique, big on physique, athleticism and suspension, and certainly in some ways attributable to Cuba's prevailing atmosphere of austerity.

Lazaro Carreño, a principal teacher at the Houston Ballet, is a former colleague and teacher of Acosta's and a pioneer of dance training in Cuba. "I was hired to teach in Cuba in the 1970s," Carreño says. "I'd studied in Leningrad and around the world, and I selected the best teaching techniques from the world's schools and integrated these into my methods. That first generation I taught produced a male dancing revolution, and every year the dancers improved."

Acosta may feed off a sense of amazement at his good fortune, but this is perhaps not to be mistaken for happiness. Last year, a BBC documentary shadowed him through the making of Tocororo to its premiere in Cuba before an audience including Fidel Castro. The film depicted a brooding character with an eternal frown. He seemed constantly harassed by a feverish schedule, utterly homesick, and isolated by the demands of stardom. It was only in the Cuban scenes, passing time in Havana with friends and family, that Acosta seemed to relax.

The picture was not entirely accurate, he says. "I am not a sad man, but happiness doesn't sell, you know. Who cares about happiness? And it's true, it was a very hard time for me, and it shows the tiredness and moodiness perhaps too much. But I think they were trying to show that dancing is not an easy life. We work extremely hard and we pay a price. People don't often see that side of it."

The central message in Tocororo is simple and, for Acosta, very personal: there's something lost in anything gained. He has good friends in Britain; his north London flat, where he lives alone, is a home from home; and he has work that feels like flying. But he'd give everything up for one thing: "To have my family around me. Family is the centre of life and there is no point in having things if you can't share them with those you love. I'm much happier when I'm in Cuba."

'Tocororo - A Cuban Tale', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020-7863 8000; www.sadlers-wells.com), from 29 June to 24 July

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