After cigars and rum, the most prized export of Havana, Cuba, is ballet - a fact less surprising when you consider the free ballet training communist Cuba provides, plus Cubans' natural propensity for breaking into a sidewalk shimmy wherever there's a melody and a beat. Of the country's recent ballet exportees, Carlos Acosta is king, though until a fortnight ago his fame in Britain was confined to Covent Garden audiences. But since BBC1's hour-long documentary he's entered that strange, open-gate territory where everyone knows everything about him. He was the eleventh of 11 children of a truck driver in a slum suburb. He was the prodigy who was expelled from ballet school twice. He was the boy who was arrested for stealing but ended up stealing the show. You couldn't make it up.
And now there is Carlos Acosta: the stage production, premiered in Havana and sold out for a fortnight at Sadler's Wells. Tocororo - A Cuban Tale was created and directed by its star, who appears as a thinly veiled version of himself in a plot likewise doctored for reasons that are not clear. Were this simply a celebrity vanity project, a chance for Acosta to wow a new audience with his athleticism and noble bearing, it wouldn't require any plot at all. But he seems intent on conveying a message based on his experience of life so far, namely his feelings of isolation, of being cut off from his roots.
To push this message home, he makes Tocororo a poor country boy, quitting the old homestead to seek his fortune in the city, where he finds only mockery and rejection. It's a parable, in other words, relayed through the medium of dance. Country boy does ballet, the city crowd does all that sexy jutting and strutting. They don't recognise his talents, he's despairingly envious of theirs. Country boy suffers, then learns to rumba and breakdance. Hey presto, he's accepted. And he even gets the girl.
Crude plotting can be overlooked, of course, if everything else is right. But Acosta's lack of experience as a director shouts from every scene. Too often is the audience left gazing at an empty space; too often is applause asked for when it hasn't been properly earned. A rap sequence starts promisingly then unaccountably fizzles out, yet the cheesy romantic duets (and Miguel Nunez's dire, gloopy music) seem to go on forever.
Worse is the want of clear thinking as to exactly which medium we're in here. One character - a randomly introduced witch-woman who reads fortunes and has all the answers - speaks but doesn't dance. Leggy rapper Alexander Varona sings and dances but never speaks. The chorus dancers rhubarb but never speak lines, and Acosta's Tocororo expresses the arrival of a thought in his head by launching into a heart-stopping jeté. For this speechlessness we are eternally grateful, given that the shaman woman's text is of the "You shall be the judge of the path you take" variety.
Salvatore Forino's back cloths depicting family shack with painted palm trees or crumbling Havana street are jarringly old-fashioned, and a scene in which women appear to be hanging laundry on a line within spitting distance of the on-stage band just doesn't wash. Yet there is fun to be had in snatches, notably a shiny red Cadillac that purrs onto the stage disgorging bodies, plus a moderately amusing scene in which Acosta tries to tribalise his classical technique and gets it wrong.
There is also balm for the eyes in Acosta's 13-year-old nephew, Yonah Acosta, a Carlos-in-miniature whose stage presence and timing, to say nothing of his gorgeous line in arabesque, promise much for a career like his uncle's. The love-interest (Veronica Corveas) is a lovely mover too, and I can think of many who'd like to be in her place.
But ultimately audiences will forget the ah-factor. In fact they'll forget it all bar the dancing - a melange of classical, modern, Afro-Latin and breakdance that really does gather up Cuba's eclectic traditions and present a compelling package. Acosta's pure ballet solos are as stylish as we've come to expect, and the sun seems to beam from his face when he tips back his peasant straw hat to launch his first leap. But I'd still rather see that joyous technique put to the service of Manon or Giselle. This is Acosta at merely half-throttle.
It's the African-rooted dances that get my vote, and the show could use more of them. The most compelling five minutes pits six women against six men - West Side Story-style - in a terrific hunkering, stomping series of line-dances in which limbs get shaken so hard you think they'll come loose. The dancers - all from the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba - are brilliantly versatile and hugely enthusiastic, as I wish I could be about this much-anticipated venture.
Considering that Acosta, before embarking on Tocororo, had never created a step, it is a bold first try (and one might say a pretty reckless gamble on the part of Sadler's Wells). Yet audiences will love it because despite all the cracks and creaks, Acosta is a proper star - maybe the nearest thing ballet has to a matinee idol. Perhaps he has now learnt how difficult choreography is. And perhaps he'll consider using a stage director next time.
'Tocororo - A Cuban Tale': Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020 7863 8000), to SatReuse content