Arts & Books: From Havana, Trailing Sparks Carlos Acosta Once Thought Ballet Was for Sissies. Not Any More. Just Watch Him Fly
Meisner, Nadine, The Independent (London, England)
Winter in London seems colder when you were raised in Cuba and have spent the last five years of your career in the soupy bayou climate of Houston, Texas. In fact, Carlos Acosta seems to be having difficulty adjusting, not only to our weather, but also to the Royal Ballet. Still, he knows it is early days. He will probably feel better once he plants his feet on the Royal Festival Hall stage and takes on his first major role, as Colas in Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee.
To an outsider, he looks the antithesis of British drizzle. He evokes sunshine and pleasure with his grammatically relaxed, consonant-slurring Hispanic English, his sudden gleeful laughter as he describes an enthralled visit to the V&A, his warm brown skin. He is that rarity: a black ballet dancer, one of only two (with Jerry Douglas) in the Royal Ballet. Where modern dance has both attracted and accepted all human shades, ballet - middle-class and rarefied - has deterred black children, and ballet companies have failed to welcome black dancers.
New ballet is tentatively trying to become colour-blind; and in an art form where talent - especially male talent - is scarce, directors can discover the advantage of enlarging their pool of choices. Acosta, who joined this season, is a real star for a company that has become more a collection of black holes than a galaxy of heavenly bodies. We wait to see how well he will suit the gentle filigree of Ashton's Fille, although he has briefly dipped into Ashton before, with a secondary part in English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. But, during the Royal Ballet's October-November programmes at Sadler's Wells, he astonished audiences in Raymonda Act III, partnering the exquisite Miyako Yoshjida. They saw a dancer who slashes across space faster than anyone else, who lacerates the air with shapes so clear and sharp they seem to throw off sparks. He is no mere step-trickster, either: his Russian-derived Cuban training has given him elegance and subtlety. In a country other than Cuba, where the population is racially mixed and vocational dance training is free, all the odds would have been against him. Born 25 years ago in a poor district of Havana, he was the youngest of 11 children, a kid with excess energy who played football, break-danced on the street, and stole fruit. But his father, a truck driver, had a neighbour whose two sons were at ballet school. He realised that such an establishment would not only curb his nine-year-old son's hyperactivity, but would also educate and feed him. "So he enrolled me," Acosta says. "And, of course, I started to have problems because I thought ballet was sissy. I skipped the classes and exams, and when I was 13 they fired me." His persevering father found another ballet school, where he could become a boarder this time and the teachers could keep a closer watch on him. And soon afterwards, Acosta had his first sight of the superlative National Ballet of Cuba. Proud of his own physicality, he was awe-struck by the dancers' honed athleticism and determined to be like them. …