“The process is not the most enjoyable, I must say.” Carlos Acosta smiles, stirring the bags around the inside of a dainty little teapot. He is talking about his first foray into movie acting playing a retired dancer and tour guide in Havana in John Roberts’ film, Day of the Flowers. “It’s not when you are ready, it’s whenever the situation is ready, the scene is ready. Sometimes you’re doing night shots at 3am. Everyone else is sleeping and I am running through the streets of Havana and being hit by a car.” His eyebrows rise and he shakes his head. But worse than the anti-social hours, he explains, is the hanging about. “You wait more than you work.”
It makes sense that this would be a problem for Acosta. He is not a man accustomed to loafing around. The leading classical ballet dancer of his generation, Acosta has danced his way through the classical repertoire to huge acclaim. He wrote his impressive autobiography, No Way Home, in 2007 and has just published his debut novel, Pig’s Foot, to positive reviews. In recent weeks, he has danced the lead in a new – and well reviewed – production of Don Quixote at the Royal Opera House, which he also choreographed, and there is the small matter of plans for an arts complex in his native Cuba. His acting debut almost disappears in the flurry of his artistic activity.
He makes no secret of what is going on – Acosta, at 40, is a man on a mission to discover how you move on from reigning supreme in the world of classical ballet for two decades. A glance at what he has achieved so far might suggest that he has little to worry about – writing, choreography, contemporary dance, acting – he can take his pick. But, of course, that doesn’t necessarily make it an easy transition. There’s always anxiety as one chapter of life comes to an end. And there’s something else too, an unexpected explanation for his drive and ambition belied by a life story which reads at first glance like a fairytale. There is a sadness beneath the glittering surface of Acosta’s career, a darkness beneath his seemingly endless creative energy.
Celebrated for his muscular, visceral dancing – the height of his incredible leaps, the power of his grand jetes – in the flesh, although lean and muscular, Acosta is slight, petite almost. He’s charismatic too. It’s partly to do with the way he speaks, in lyrical sentences shaped by someone who still thinks in Spanish. But it’s also to do with his openness – his emotions are close to the surface, whether he’s talking about the joy he experiences with his daughter, Aila, who is 18 months old, or the pain he still feels remembering leaving his home and family as a teenager to join English National Ballet. He’s not just telling me a story, it feels as though he’s reliving his own past.
Dancing to acting
Settled on the sofa, he catches sight for the first time of the large promotional poster for Day of the Flowers propped in the corner of the room. “I haven’t seen that,” he says, genuinely thrilled. “Oh wow. Look at that. I must get one of these. Not for me but for my grandchildren.” He laughs. But it’s clear that he is genuinely excited to see himself, which is surprising because, although classical ballet isn’t mainstream in the way that movies are, Acosta must have seen himself on posters and billboards plenty of times. But his excitement is about something else. “It’s so weird to see this,” he says, still staring. “To actually see me being normal, not in ballet tights. It’s really incredible.”
When Acosta was first approached about the role, he hesitated. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to try something new but more that he feared it might be beyond him. He is nothing if not a curious combination of self-deprecation and steely ambition. “I was concerned because although we [dancers] are actors, we have to project emotion and tell the story, we act through movement so it’s very different. When they approached me I was really excited but I said, look you know you need to be patient, it’s a big challenge and I don’t want to ruin the movie.”
He really needn’t be that modest. The film isn’t without its flaws, but Acosta more than holds his own. He looks at ease, not at all out of place against the other actors.
“Really?” he says when I tell him this. “Oh that’s a great compliment. Thank you very much.”
Acosta grew up in the suburbs of Havana, the youngest of 11 children. His father, Pedro, was a truck driver who pushed his nine-year-old breakdancing son to make his interest in dance more formal by studying ballet. In part, it was about keeping young Carlos out of trouble. At first he resisted, but not for long. By the time he was 16, he had won the Prix de Lausanne, one of the most prestigious ballet competitions. At 18 he moved to London to be a principal dancer with the English National Ballet. He then joined Houston Ballet in 1993 before being appointed principal at The Royal Ballet in 1998.
Acosta once said that he wouldn’t dance beyond the age of 40. And yet, next month, he will dance the role of Romeo opposite the Bolshoi star, Natalia Osipova, in her debut as a principal for the Royal Ballet in Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet, and early next year he will dance the role opposite Tamara Rojo in Derek Deane’s version for English National Ballet. He doesn’t make any secret of the physical demands of dancing classical repertoire, so why keep going?
“I’m getting to a point in my career that I’m going to have to make a transition so in these remaining years I really want to squeeze it so that I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “I don’t want there to be things that I wanted to do but didn’t. Now is the time to do everything that I want to do, or to do things that I’ll be doing for one last time.” It’s hard to imagine a man with a career and reputation that Acosta enjoys regretting anything, but he’s serious.
“Ballet has been my greatest friend so it’s a very, very hard thing to do to break away from that. It’s going to be very painful. Already I’ve been mourning, visualising how it might be so that when the time comes I am ready.”
His vocabulary is striking. He looks genuinely pensive. “I’m here because of ballet,” he says. “All of the houses I’ve bought for my family, the chances I’ve had to get them away and show them London or the US – all of that is from ballet. Even in my darkest place or in my darkest hours I know I’ve got ballet. I can do a class and listen to music, it transports me.” The darkness Acosta speaks of is something that has been with him throughout his career.
‘Stranger in my own home’
When he talks about having to leave Cuba – and his family – when he was still a teenager to have a chance of the life he has now, it’s clear that although he cherishes the life he’s created, the price he paid was high and no amount of artistic acclaim can entirely salve that wound.
“Still, you know, I can’t get rid of it,” he says. “I became a stranger in my own home. My life, my horizons became so much wider, my experiences were so different to the point that when I went back I couldn’t relate to my family because they had stayed in the same place.”
Everything that he was exposed to as a fêted 18-year-old in London – the art, the artists, the music – his family back home knew nothing about it. To connect with them, all he had were “the old things – the old music, the breakdancing, the simplicity of their life. I felt like they didn’t know me any more. I didn’t like that feeling.”
As his success gave him clout, and financial rewards, so he further became alienated. “There was a stage that I became like my parents’ parent,” he says. “I was getting so much respect from them. I wanted my parents to sit me down and give me advice about life but I was in the position of telling them what to do with their lives. It was very weird. I got so much respect, I felt untouchable. I felt so alone. It was no good.” He pauses. “Most of my family is dead now. My mother, my father, my sister. It’s very painful. I try to dissolve that cloud and just to think of the poster, you know.” He looks back across the room to the cardboard prop. He shakes his head and laughs but it sounds sad.
And so we get to his relentless drive to achieve, a double-edged sword that has given him the life he dreamed of but cost him dearly.
“At an early stage I came up with a behaviour to block, to stop me from thinking too much,” he says. “I don’t like to think because thinking might lead to thoughts of regret or a lot of things that have happened in the past that might produce sorrow. As a defence mechanism I try to keep myself busy.”
The outcome, of course, is in many ways positive, after all he’s astoundingly prolific, but he’s aware too of the risks. “I have to be careful because it can become very addictive. It could affect my health. But that’s why I stretch myself too much.”
Cuba has shaped Carlos Acosta – from his childhood experiences, learning to dance on the streets with his friends, to his leaving as a teenager, a kind of exile, to his devotion to artistic creativity. “Cuba formed me,” he says. “It gave me the education I needed for my dancing skills.” And yet, the relationship he has to his country is complex. He says he does imagine living in Cuba in the next few years, but he knows that he can’t be there full time. Cuba is still isolated, he says, and he needs to be where, “all the information is”. London works for that purpose, but he’s committed to ensuring that his daughter will grow up knowing about her heritage. “When I see the kids running around and playing baseball in the street and you see the ethnicity – black, white, blonde playing on the street without their mothers having to check on them. That is wonderful for kids to witness so that they don’t have their only relationship with a computer.
“Some of the problems that the West is facing, the problem with individualism, fear of people who are different, they don’t exist in Cuba because of the way that people live together. People still feel a bond with their neighbours, they have a sense of community.”
And, as you’d expect, there’s also an artistic dimension to Acosta’s ambition for his eventual return to Cuba, which is where his dream of creating an arts complex – a centre for the arts as well as a festival – comes in. “There is so much talent in Cuba,” he says. “It is the land of artists – people can sing, or write books, paint or dance. What I’m trying to create is something absolutely beautiful, a legacy that once I’m dead, a lot of people can benefit from. I am in a position to build bridges. It’s a real responsibility but it’s also a wonderful idea about how to help countries that are in need. Cuba is a great nation, full of stories and full of artists but they’re without a sense of purpose. I want to give them that.”
He says he can imagine himself running a festival “al fresco like Glyndebourne” he says, “with wonderful music outside, then something else going on in the theatre, then in another space there’s a workshop about tango.” When he starts riffing like this I can see how persuasive he can be.
“I think I can do it,” he says simply. “If anyone can do it I can do it because I know that my heart is in the right place. I don’t need to do it, I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for the beauty. I think I will succeed.”
Who would argue?
• Day of the Flowers is in cinemas from 29 November. Pig’s Foot is published by Bloomsbury, £12.99.