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THE rehearsal floor of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, with its fairytale rooftops view, is a world away from its gilded public spaces. Halfway up a fire escape lies an abandoned tutu an exhausted ballerina has stepped out of. In every seat, there is a resplendent corps de ballet male. Some are sleeping; some languish on their chests, others have legs extended up the wall like lampposts. Like so many Greek statues in pale, freckled or burnished shades. Through a glass door, choreographer Wayne McGregor is taking dancers through a work: bodies in extraordinary poses, legs and arms akimbo. But all distractions are lost when we come near to where Carlos Acosta is rehearsing Swan Lake with Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo.
I glimpse his unmistakable reflection first; dark head dipped over the barre, resting on caramel arms. They are watched over by the Russian répétiteur Alexander Agadzhanov and Cuban guest teacher Loipa Araujo. Tamara is slouched in a grey tutu and T-shirt, her fragilely beautiful unmade face wan and peaky. Carlos, in grey tracksuit pants and a long-sleeved blue T-shirt streaked with sweat, suddenly breaks into an air-lacerating grand jété. Despite his famously muscular form, his body seems delicate, elegant and poised, even when standing casually. They all ignore me apart from Carlos, who politely comes over to offer a chair to this heavily pregnant reporter. Brownie point number one for civilised Cuban manners.
When the music starts, and the pair start their act-four pas de deux, their bodies and faces transform. I don’t know if it’s the weird intimacy of this proximity, combined with the sound of the Royal Opera House pianist in my ear, but my eyes prick with tears. There must be something wrong with me: hormones, perhaps, or the febrile tropical atmosphere (the room is overheated to keep dancers’ muscles soft, and the sweat of the fifty corps de ballet rehearsing there this morning still hangs in the air). Or – can there be anything in life more beautiful up close than this coalescence of music and movement?
Later, I wait for Carlos in an overheated sliver of a room. I feel stifled, like I can hardly breathe. Or maybe it’s the proximity of the world’s second-most famous Cuban. First-most beautiful. Mixed-race Carlos is what the Cubans call a ‘pure Cuban’, born of a white mother and a black father, and what straight-talking Cuban women would call a ‘mulaton’ – the paragon of mixed race male gorgeousness. But it’s not just his undeniably luscious body, now in blue jeans, grey t-shirt and ankle boots, that is in his favour. It’s also his core demeanour: the intelligent easy charm, earthiness and charismatic twinkling humour that Cuban men combine. Then there is the virtuosity that transforms this man from run-of-the-mill dreamboat to something spectacular: the technical ability and athleticism combined with a soulful ability to interpret a story that has stuffy critics reaching for the superlatives.
‘Lithe’, ‘virile’, ‘powerful’, even ‘feral’, are commonly used adjectives; and many reviews are fairly laden with craven sexual desperation. ‘Carlos Acosta knows what his largely female audience want of him,’ intoned one reviewer breathlessly in the Observer last year: ‘they desire dreams of sexual annihilation’. I ask him: can you ever get bored of this? ‘No!’ He flings his arms back along the sofa and stretches his legs out at a 90-degree angle across my sofa and his, apparently the favoured position for post-rehearsing dancers.’It is wonnnnnderful.’
Carlos knows that whatever stardust he has that sets him apart has been seen in few other male ballet dancers in history. You need less than the fingers of one hand to count those who’ve achieved cult status: Rudolf Nureyev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Mikhail Baryshnikov (who later played Carrie Bradshaw’s Russian boyfriend Aleksandr Petrovsky in Sex and the City)… and Carlos.
He has his own views about how a poverty-stricken eleventh child of a truck driver, often underfed, who seethed with resentment that his father forced him into ballet when all he wanted was to body-pop, has become the golden boy of the cut-throat world of international ballet. At 16 he won the Gold Medal at the prestigious ballet competition the Prix de Lausanne and went on to guest with the Bolshoi in Moscow. The rest is history. ‘I think it’s a combination of factors,’ e says. ‘In the ballet world people say I am exotic. From the point of view of ethnicity I cannot recall other black Romeos, and that adds something completely new to this world. And this is a factor I’ve been able to command globally. I am the only black guy at this level and that includes the Bolshoi, The Paris Opera Ballet, in New York: everywhere. Then I am a very good technician, my dance has the wow factor, I can do impossible feats, have a very strong body, and can change from one role to another. My dancing is not uni-dimensional, and I’ve been able to surprise again and again.’ All these men brought a self-transformation to their work, a powering charisma and a story. ‘Nureyev was something never seen before. The world was divided when he arrived, and he had defected. He had his own persona; he was a king with a rock-and-roll style. He was androgynous, and men, women and little girls loved him. He was wonderful. Baryshnikov too brought something completely different. I did. I have something new; the whole life I had behind me.’
The Carlos Acosta package has attracted a cult following and a band of celebrity admirers. Jude Law and Sienna Miller became captivated with his dancing after watching him backstage:
Natalie Portman cast him as a main character her directed segment of New York, I Love You, a 2009 anthology of 11 short films. She stayed in touch during the filming of Black Swan, in which she playing a disintegrating ballerina under siege. ‘She’s very bright, and she took a very big chance engaging me in ‘New York I Love You. The producers thought she was crazy but she insisted that she had written the part for me. On the first day of filming her apartment was full of professional actors and I can’t even read English aloud properly. I was reading in this dead voice and I could see them looking at me and thinking “And this guy is the main character?” I was sweaty and nervous but she kept calm and she never pressured me. She kept telling me everything was fine and little by little I gained confidence. She’s wonderful.’
He is sanguine about the twisted world portrayed in the hot-blooded, erotic ballet thriller Black Swan. ‘Listen, apart from all the clichés that have nothing to do with our world – I mean, he [director Darren Aronofsky] seems to have made up a lot of strange ballet vocabulary that we don’t use, and no one would ever say “Go home and touch yourself” [as Tomas advises his repressed protégée Nina], I mean, you’d get done for sexual harassment, haha – it’s not a bad movie. The ballet world has many dark and down sides, not everything has to be glitter and happy ever after when the curtain goes up. Bulimia and anorexia are real; people are dying from these things. Eating disorders are prevalent. The pressure of staying thin to get the role leads you into this sickness. And if that’s what the director wants to show, it’s valid, is it not?’
After ten years at the top of this dark-sided world, where else is there to go? He has performed the principal male role in nearly every classical ballet. In recent years, he been principal guest artist for the Royal Ballet, freeing himself up for other projects; the writing of his autobiography, No Way Home (written without a ghost writer, in a fresh and guileless voice); forays into choreography and his own shows: this summer sees the return of Premieres Plus, which features collaborations with dance stars and musicians. Then there was Tocororo: A Cuban Tale, Carlos’ own ballet based on his life story, in which Yonah Acosta, his nephew and a rising-star dancer for the English National Ballet who shares his Islington home along with his English fiancée, played the young Carlos. His choreography has drawn some sniping from critics, but Carlos doesn’t care. ‘I don’t think I am going to be a choreographer. I am not good enough. If critics can see what I am saying, great but sometimes what they say is all about themselves.’ Another filmic interlude involved taking the lead role in The Day of Flowers, a John Roberts road movie shot in Cuba. It was a little boring. ‘You are waiting and waiting and waiting. You are there at noon and you shoot at 8 and then it rains and they say we can’t do this. Ugh.’ He has even completed a novel, Patade Puerco, a first-person narrative about a slave settlement and its story from the 1800s to the present day. ‘I have no idea if it’s any good, but I started it, and I finished it, and I am very proud that as dancer, I managed to do it.’
His real dream is a Carlos Acosta dance company in Cuba, which will have taken off within five years, he thinks. He wants to build a bridge between Cuba, London and the rest of the world. ‘Cubans are dancers, great technicians, but they are isolated. I want to change many things. Dancers keep defecting and it’s understandable because they have nowhere to grow artistically and their repertoire is stuck in the past. There are no choreographers, and dancers are not challenged to grow. I want Cuba to compete in the world,’ he says. ‘I don’t want us to be outcasts, marooned. It’s time for me to give back my energy and my talent. There are so many versions of me all around the world, and if we all return, this is how we will reveal our country.’
He is nostalgic about Cuba, about the wildness of its nature, it’s perceived lack of racial segregation (elsewhere, it’s a superficial mixing but in Cuba black and white are brothers’) and a slow pace of life when there’s time to play dominoes and breathe the scent of mangoes and eat congris, while in London ‘it’s all about working’.
He can’t quite give up London though, and his weekend haunts: the cinema; Ronnie Scott’s; the salsa bar Floridita. After years of talking about loneliness and not belonging, he finds he is a Londoner, too. ‘It is true that when I first arrived I was very lonely – the Opera House was closed, I had broken up with my then-fiancée, I had no friends and no dancing. But I’ve never felt like a foreigner. This is one of the best things this country has to offer. “Foreigner” is good in Britain. The British value talent and embrace the new, something they haven’t seen. It doesn’t matter where you come from.’
He also knows that the Cuba he longed for, in his dark early London days, has gone. He lost both his mother and sister in 2010. Now only his father, still fierce but now 93, is left. ‘I need to start my own family, now,’ he says, mournfully.
Moreover, he longs for an idea of Cuba that is now redundant. ‘I long for the things that I lost, leaving,’ he says. ‘I long for my time that I lived that is never going to come back. Cuba in the 1980s was an amazing place. It was the most incredible place. We were all the same, lawyers, sweepers, it was a wonderful craziness, and we had a sense of community that has started to disappear as people becoming more individualistic. I long for those days. They say that when the devil wanted to divide, he invented money, then went to sleep. So it happened with my family, and so it happened in Cuba. That home of the 1980s is gone. I have another home on the beach now [in Santa Maria del Mar), but the sense of neighbourhood is not there. Maybe my point of view is idealistic and romantic. Maybe that is life.”
When he’s old and back in Cuba, rocking on his porch, which of his thousand memories will be most vivid when he closes his eyes. Which ballerinas will flicker on the stage of his imagination? ‘It would be unfair to select one. I would remember for sure Romeo and Juliet with Tamara, and the many great moments with Marianela Nuñez in La Fille Mal Gardée, Darcy [Bussell] I will remember for sure, and of course Sylvie Guillem.’ He looks pensive. ‘It’s a wonderful life. I have been blessed.’
I have noticed in him before, in televised interviews, a fracture between the Carlos Acosta interviewed in English, and in Spanish. Highbrow, poised ballet talk prevails in the former; in the latter his eyes changes, his shoulders fall and his expression is unrestrained and breezy. ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘It is the split in my personality. The humour is different on the British side; you change, adapt and translate. But Cuba is within me.’
Like when we I talk about him bringing a raw physicality to the world of ballet: ‘Siiii, la sabrosura, la rumba!’ he ripostes, doing a little hip swivel. Then, when I ask what his swan song would be, his last performance before retiring, he says: ‘Reggaetón! To Don Omar’ (the Puerto Rican king of reggaetón); then, more seriously, ‘Spartacus it would have to be. Because they kill him at the end anyway.’ With that, he leaps up with a ‘Bueno Mamita’ and a kiss, he is gone, like a tropical sunburst in the Cuban rainy season.
The next evening I watch Tamara and Carlos’ swan song at the Royal Opera House against a beautifully gaudy backdrop. Carlos leaps across the stage like a foal, half his 37 years. Tamara is snow-pale, hued like moonlight as her stricken flamenco dancer’s face meets his molten gaze. At the finale, the swans shimmer in rows as Tamara and Carlos glide past in swan-shaped chariot, united in death. This is epic romance at its most heart-rending, making Black Swan seem like so much hysteria. Sorry Hollywood, but for the real thing, you need Carlos.