Carlos Acosta, Sadler's Wells, London

In Acosta, we have a noble performer with nothing left to prove

When George Balanchine asserted that "ballet is woman", he was looking at a small window of time, at most 50 years. Before the early 19th century, men were the stars, and since the early 20th century, helped in no small degree by Balanchine's first muscular masterpieces Apollo and Prodigal Son, they've been powering their way back. No one who managed to land a ticket to Carlos Acosta's five-night showcase event can have been left in any doubt that the reinstatement of the manly in dance is now complete.

The curtain rises on a sight calculated to reduce Sadler's Wells's largely female audience to a puddle: Acosta, stripped to the waist, lying flat on the floor in a sunny, open-to-the-sky studio that looks to be by the Aegean. The piece is Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, and it's both about male beauty and sensual absorption, and the inherent narcissism of ballet. As Debussy's languorous flute slithers into consciousness, the man stirs, lifts a leg, points a foot, and rotates it slowly. As the orchestral texture builds, the man rises to his feet and tries faunlike poses in front of an invisible mirror (the famous fourth wall which is of course us, the audience). This pointed scrutiny of an imagined reflection is a simple theatrical trick. Yet it never fails to trigger a private frisson as each spectator feels that they, and they alone, are being played to.

The seductive spell sustains even when Begona Cao arrives on the scene, as Acosta subtly registers her presence while continuing to regard himself. She, too, is interested mainly in admiring her lovely, leggy line as she runs through her practice pliés and stretches. Even when the pair come face to face, their eyes slide away to check how good they look together, and as the plucked harp notes bring the great heady swell of the music to a close, the man returns to his afternoon nap. Unlike Nijinky's onanist faun, who so offended Edwardian society with his horrid little judder over the maiden's dropped scarf, Robbins's is too in love with himself to bother.

Acosta has danced this brilliant piece of minimalism many times for the Royal Ballet, though not always with such sublime assurance. While in the past he has sometimes pointed up the comedy in the situation, now he coolly lets it speak for itself: the mark of a performer with nothing to prove. At 36, Acosta is probably at the peak of his dancing career, which is to say that, though his knees may be hurting and his jumps beginning to lose their height, his artistry makes up any deficit – no, more than makes it up. So it's not surprising to find him pursuing, or preparing to pursue, the career path of Mikhail Baryshnikov, an earlier virtuoso who refused to say die, and instead set about finding new choreography to suit a mature artist.

Step up, once again, Jerome Robbins, whose Suite of Dances – a duet for a man and a cello (here the excellent Natalie Clein, playing solo Bach in the romantic spirit of Brahms) – gently pokes fun at the performer who feels happier going at a jog than a sprint. As the on-stage cellist romps through fast arpeggios, the dancer repeatedly flags, only to be spurred – or shamed – by the music into more energetic action. It's a neat device, not least because in the end, after much mugging and pouting and pretend exhaustion, the dancer pulls off some stunning fast travelling pirouettes and a few big jumps. My major gripe was with Acosta's mismatched red top'n'slacks combo, which left him looking like a badly painted postbox.

By contrast, the white one-shouldered Lycra job that is required wear for Apollo – and which makes so many otherwise great physical specimens look pasty – is glorious on Acosta. With his muscled golden form set against Balanchine's signature Athens sky, he's the closest to a Greek god we're ever likely to get. But it's the dignity inherent in the title role that makes this 1928 modernist classic ideal Acosta territory. In the old days, he would have been called a danseur noble: he has more of that quality than any other man dancing today.

Yet he combines that nobility with an imaginative engagement with the role that lights up its more obscure corners: handling Apollo's lyre with the bragadoccio of a rock star with his first Stratocaster; lining up his three Muses like a cat that got the cream (can things get any better for a junior god?), and testing the tension in their triple-linked arms with an avidness that made me – dozens of Apollos under my belt – see their symbolism: the interdependence of all art.

The evening is completed by Young Apollo, a new work by Adam Hougland set to a zingy score by Britten. Danced ably by Erina Takahashi and Junor de Oliveira Souza (allowing Acosta a breather), it makes a small, if nicely contrasting impact. The mighty Apollo has no match.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark 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.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing