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Leaving the barre: ballet in crisis over lack of women, says Carlos Acosta

If you can’t find the stars here, import them, the Cuban dance legend tells Adam Sherwin

It’s time for Billy Elliot to leave the stage. A dearth of female ballerinas is causing a crisis in the dance world, Carlos Acosta, acclaimed as the greatest performer of his generation, has warned.

Although young girls still line up to test their satin pointe shoes at ballet classes, too few are making the leap to a career as top-level professional dancers.

Acosta, 40, the Cuban dancer acclaimed for the physicality and artistic prowess of his performances, said the lack of female dancers of a sufficient stature for him to perform opposite has become a crisis.

“We need more girls,” Acosta told The Independent. “Girls are non-existent. Maybe it’s because their parents don’t know how to educate them in this world?”

Many young girls dream of dancing Cinderella or Swan Lake but find that the reality is different, with female dancers under constant pressure to stay thin, yet meet the physical challenges required.

Acosta said:  “Physically, it’s tough for girls. And it’s tough because the competition is always greater. They have issues with their metabolism and their hormones. Maybe their physique goes off in a different direction.”

The success of Billy Elliot, the story of a miner’s 11 year-old son who becomes a ballet dancer, has contributed to the imbalance. The Royal Ballet school in London, which spawned Dame Margot Fonteyn and Darcey Bussell, confirmed Acosta’s observation. A spokeswoman said: “Our directors have found it more of a challenge to find really talented girls in the past few years. The wave of talented boys has continued as the myth that ballet is for girls is even more widely dispelled.”

While girls are the overwhelming majority of applicants to the Royal Ballet School’s junior years, there are currently more boys than girls among the intake by the age of 16.

The School added that the recent gender imbalance was “not a comment on the quality of our current students as they are all at the very top of their game and would not have been admitted to the school at all if they were not achieving at the highest possible standard.”

Acosta, an Olivier Award winner for Outstanding Achievement in Dance, suffered a blow when the great dancer Alina Cojocaru quit the Royal Ballet last week to join its rival, the English National Ballet (ENB). Acosta will star in and choreograph Don Quixote at the Royal Opera House this Autumn and Cojocaru was one of the very few ballerinas capable of delivering the female lead role.

Tamara Rojo, the Spanish dancer and ENB artistic director, who will perform Romeo And Juliet with Acosta at the Royal Albert Hall this year, said ballet needed to fight the perception that is “a girl’s thing, a fluffy thing, a child’s thing.”

Acosta, who this month marks his 40th birthday by performing a Classical Selection featuring highlights of his career for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, admits that pain and aching joints are the by-product of a career devoted to dance.

“It is a challenge of physicality to perform the same moves that I did before I had to take pain-killers and put ice on my joints,” he said. “I want to give first-time audiences the best of each ballet within a three-hour show.”

Acosta, who was first sent to a dance class aged nine by his Cuban father to stop him becoming a delinquent, believes the Government should play an active role in encouraging more female dancers. “For parents who need to pay for ballet shoes and dance classes it’s a big squeeze. Government should subsidise the arts instead of constantly cutting.”

“If you find talented young dancers, then give them a scholarship – not just one or two people but all the talented dancers. That way we have more chance to deliver to the world the next Darcey Bussell or Tamara Rojo.”

If the UK can’t produce female stars, we will have to import them. “If you don’t have talent in your own backyard, you must go and find it. Whether it comes from Italy, Nigeria or South America it doesn’t matter. We should do more to look elsewhere and give people a chance to flourish.”

This week Rojo caused a stir when she called for more female choreographers, comparing the attitude of male choreographers with that of makers of pornography. But Acosta does not believe that this male directorial dominance is deterring ballerinas. “You can’t have female choreographers just for the sake of it. Ultimately, it’s not about gender or nationality- it has to be about talent.”

However the lack of homegrown black ballet stars is also a cause for concern. “I refuse to believe that there aren’t talented black dancers out there,” Acosta said.

Acosta, currently principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet, is making plans for his retirement. His debut novel, Pig’s Foot, is published in October. Set in Cuba and charting the island’s history from the 19th century to the present, it has already made Waterstones' list of most promising debuts.

“It’s very cinematic,” the author said. “It’s an epic telling Cuba’s story from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to the arrival of the gangsters like Meyer Lansky who wanted to turn Havana into the Monte Carlo of America. We have been approached about the film rights and it would be wonderful if Martin Scorsese directed the movie.”

Carlos Acosta performs his Classical Selection at the London Coliseum for a limited run from Tuesday 30 July – Sunday 4 August 2013