Autobiography can take many forms. And while it might seem as if Carlos Acosta – Havana street kid turned crown prince of the international ballet stage – has told all there is to tell in his just-published memoir, No Way Home, there is another story he wants to tell in dance.
He set the ball rolling in his hit show Tocororo, garnishing a simple rags-to-riches tale with the gutsy social dance forms he grew up with – rumba, samba and chango. Now he is keen to give his British audience a taste of his early ballet influences, and has roped in friends from Cuba's National Ballet to help.
His mistake is to rely on the repertory of a single choreographer, Alberto Mendez, active at a time when Cuba was forcibly isolated from artistic developments elsewhere. Perhaps the haze of nostalgia has blurred Acosta's judgement of pieces he first saw as a teenager in the Eighties. To be blunt, they just don't stand up on a London stage.
First up, Muñecos, a quaint little duet about toys that come to life: the soldier boy from The Nutcracker meets Coppélia. This isn't quite as dismissably childish as it sounds given the Soviet-style technical demands: entrechats with flexed heels for Acosta's military stiff, hops on one toe for Anette Delgado's ragdoll, an astonishing fish dive that swoops her through her partner's legs, all very neatly done. It's saved, too, by hints of adult sauciness, boosted by hip-twitchy Latin music, and mounting frustration as the pair's floppy or jerky toy-movements gradually reclaim them, inhibiting the blossoming romance.
The piece at least has brevity and a measure of wit. The folkloric duet that follows, El Rio y el Bosque, is both ludicrous and long-winded. I felt for poor, blameless Jose Losada, no doubt a fine dancer of ballet, pogo-ing about as the Yoruba god of iron in nothing more than a pouch and a few tassels, while Veronica Corveas wafted soulfully around him like a reject moth from Titania's bower.
Acosta knows these items are too slight to stand alone, and his solution is to frame them in a narrative of his own. In this everyday tale of modern Havana youth told in a characterless mix of high-kicking lifts and mime, Yolanda Correa, in specs and a jumper, has timeshare issues with her boyfriend (hunky Javier Torres). While he wants nookie on the sofa, she wants to be left alone with a book. And what's the book about? You guessed. The inhabitants of a toy box and a brace of African gods. Her sofa levitates obligingly so that she can peer down on the action.
Mendez's third offering, a comic Paso a Tres, is perhaps the creakiest and skimpiest of all. But its unsophisticated gaffes – missed cues, fumbled lifts and the danseur's head stuck under a ballerina's skirt – are performed with such innocent brio that it seems mean to cavil. And then ... schwoook. You're hit between the eyes with a streak of golden light that can only be Carlos en l'air. Thinking that we were still in travesty territory (and as it was only 8.45pm), I was amazed to find we'd already reached the final scheduled item – the pas de deux from Corsaire, a favourite Carlos party piece.
Both he and his partner, Vieng-say Valdes, seem to register that it's make or break in their brief six or seven minutes. He adds impossible macramé knots to his already impossible jumps; she adds fancy tricks to fouettés that could go on spinning all night.
And there is more, as it happens, though still not enough. The show ends with a cheesy reprise, everyone leaping together to a jazz score very like "For Once In My Life". For once in my life, I felt short-changed by Carlos Acosta. His audience loves him, but not unconditionally.
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