Tocororo, Sadler's Wells, London

It's not the plot, it's the moves
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The Independent Culture

This time last year British acquaintance with Cuba's hottest dance export was confined to Covent Garden audiences. Then after BBC1's Imagine... documentary, Carlos Acosta (pictured) entered that goldfish bowl world where everyone knew something about him: like the fact that he was the eleventh of 11 kids growing up in a barrios slum, that he was the ballet school prodigy who did it for the free hot meals, or that he turned into the handsome prince who badly missed his mum. Billy Elliot in Havana was a story anyone could relate to.

Yet none of these colourful details surfaces in Tocororo, a show sold as semi-autobiographical but which was really devised to showcase Acosta's Cuban culture. Believing that his own story lacked stage quality, he translated his breakdance-to-ballet experience into a much blander tale about a country boy who struggles to find his place in the city. Tocororo does this not by becoming brilliant at the barre, but by dissing his classical credentials and learning to execute the salty hip-thrusts of rumba and salsa. It's street cred that puts him right with the world and gets him the girl - which is not only precisely the reverse of the truth, but makes a plot that is clunky, predictable and thin.

Yet it just about holds up as a framework for the Afro-Hispanic folk dances, ballet fireworks and modern Cuban street styles that bubble happily together in this capacious pot. And it's mostly due to the meaty thump of the onstage band, and the fizzing energy of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. Acosta's best choreography goes to this handsome dance-chorus of bickering sharks and jets, most stunning in their unison Yoruba tribal stomps but just as exuberant in sub-balletic numbers. Since its first run the show has undergone several structural changes, and all the ensembles benefit. The 1950s Chevrolet that purrs into view disgorging squealing dancers remains a high spot.

Acosta has also tweaked the spoken scene with the Santera (the traditional wise-woman of Cuba who to this day dispenses voodoo charms and moral advice). Now at least Mireya Chapman is audible, even if her counsel - "only you can decide your path, my son" - is less than a revelation. I had hoped to find Alexander Varona - Tocororo's cigar-munching rival - expanding on his fabulous vocal rap, but fans will have to wait for the film version for that.

Again, the stage boy-Carlos is touchingly danced by the Bambi-limbed Yonah Acosta. Though at 14 he's almost as tall as his uncle, he moves with that quick, springy quality young ballet males exult in before they're weighed down by muscle. His shadow duet with his older self is one of the loveliest things in the show. By contrast the love interest, the inexhaustible Veronica Corveas, suffers from over-exposure. Her romantic duets with Acosta are so long and repetitive that one soon falls to wondering what kind of knickers she has under that flirty skirt. (We find out soon enough).

I suspect that mystery doesn't feature much in Carlos Acosta's book. What he offers, in abundance, is his sunny, beaming self, a body that flies, and phenomenal grace in a chunky golden package. These dances hardly stretch him, but that smile is worth the ticket price alone.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

'Tocororo': Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0870 737 7737) to 24 July

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