Ballet: Carlos Acosta on his life and Edinburgh show

Carlos Acosta, whose new show is in Edinburgh this week. Picture: Getty
Carlos Acosta, whose new show is in Edinburgh this week. Picture: Getty
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CARLOS Acosta is sitting on a plush sofa in a suite at the Caledonian Hotel. As he sips his coffee from a bone china cup in one of Edinburgh’s most expensive establishments, it’s hard to imagine this is the same man who grew up with no toys and no birthday presents, having to borrow food from neighbours to survive.

From the poor suburbs of Havana, Cuba, to the world stage, Carlos Acosta’s life reads like a fairy tale – and no-one is more aware of this than him. Two months shy of his 40th birthday, Acosta has danced with some of the finest ballet companies in the world, and is now carving out a new career creating his own shows, writing books and performing in films.

“The life I’m living is amazing – it really is,” he says. “The journey from so low to meeting the Queen, having Princess Diana knocking on my dressing room door, Fidel Castro putting on a suit to come and see me. How the hell did all this happen?

“I can still visualise where I used to live. We never had any water, so we had to carry buckets in and out every day. I would ask our neighbours for eggs or rice, because we had no food. Even going to the centre of Havana was a big leap for me, so imagine where I’ve ended up, it’s remarkable.”

Acosta’s career with the Royal Ballet is well documented, spending almost 15 years with the company as well as performing with English National Ballet, Houston Ballet, the Kirov and Bolshoi among others. But despite all these achievements, it is the competition he won at the age of 16 that brings the fondest memories. Just talking about it, Acosta’s face lights up, his voice becomes brighter.

Widely recognised as the most important international ballet prize for young people, the Prix de Lausanne attracts competitors from over 40 countries. In 1990, Acosta won the gold medal, despite having been kicked out of ballet school three years earlier for skipping classes and general disinterest. Inspired by a trip to see the National Ballet of Cuba, he’d come back to the fold and proved to everyone – most importantly himself – that he had a talent worth developing.

“I was somebody who really didn’t have much expectation of my future,” recalls Acosta. “I came from a very humble beginning where I had nothing, was insecure and thought I was unattractive. The amount of times I would hear people say I was no good, that I was a disaster because I kept skipping classes, and then I was expelled. It really broke my confidence – but to win that competition, it was just amazing.”

Acosta’s career in ballet took off from there, but after 20 years of wowing the crowds with his high leaps and turns, it’s time for something new. Due at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre later this month, On Before is an evening of contemporary choreography charting the troubled relationship between a man and woman.

Joined by Royal Ballet principal Zenaida Yanowsky, Acosta will perform the work of Russell Maliphant, Kim Brandstrup, Edwaard Liang and Miguel Altunaga – all modern choreographers who know how to work with a classically trained body. It’s a new departure for Acosta, but one he was more than ready for.

“I had an idea for this show and felt I had something to say. Because up until now, I have been creating crowd-pleasing, feel-good shows that are for everybody, kids as well. But this time, I wanted to really say something – not just on the surface but to go in a completely different direction, and almost detach myself from the dancer that everybody knows.”

Acosta’s motivations for change are two-fold. On the one hand, even dancing lead roles can become tedious after a while, but on the other, the legs that jettison him into the air aren’t getting any younger. “You can only push your body for so long, so I really had to be smart about it because I don’t want to be an unhealthy old man. I still have what it takes, but for how long? And I really don’t want to do it anyway, I don’t want to keep repeating myself. Could I still be the 16-year-old Romeo when I’m 45? No. There’s a whole other life out there, and that to me is more exciting than falling in love with a swan.”

It’s been a brave move. When you’re known for one thing, audiences can be reluctant to let you branch out into new territory. He may have started ballet school aged nine as a means of getting a hot meal every day, but once he began to believe in himself, there was no going back. Acosta is, he says, “an artist as well as a dancer”, and the need to be creative is strong.

“I’m not afraid of failure, and I don’t think about what will happen if it doesn’t work. I go into everything with tremendous enthusiasm and a conviction that I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I don’t get it right, but the attempt to say something new is worth the effort. Because you can’t stay in your comfort zone all the time, or you won’t move, you won’t evolve. You have to take risks.”

Which is what he’s been doing all along. From the streets of Havana to the stage at the Royal Opera House, Acosta has had to trust his instincts. On Before is just the latest adventure in a career that is far from over, wherever he decides to go next. “The thing is, we Cubans are survivors. Because you have no other choice. If you have a power cut, you think. ‘Well, never mind, I still have to carry on even if it’s 40 degrees with no air conditioning and mosquitoes everywhere.’ It is what it is, and you make the best of it. All these obstacles make you really strong mentally, and then nothing can touch you, because everything else is on the surface.”

• Carlos Acosta: On Before is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 26 -27 April.