Carlos Acosta interview: “the dance world was a world I wasn’t supposed to be in”

Carlos Acosta’s remarkable journey from the streets of Havana to Principal of the Royal Ballet is told in a film of his life, Yuli, which is premiering at the Glasgow Film Festival. The acclaimed dancer talks to Kelly Apter about the sacrifices he made to step up to the barre

Carlos Acosta in Yuli

During the opening credits of Yuli, a camera swoops through the streets of Havana, picking out the iconic 1950s cars driving by. But arriving at the city’s beautiful Gran Teatro to rehearse, Carlos Acosta himself parks a silver-grey Hyundai, complete with air conditioning and seatbelts – no colourful gas-guzzler for him.

It’s a small point, but one which sets the scene for what is to unfold in this fascinating, clever and poignant biopic about the man deemed the finest dancer of his generation. Despite being surrounded by people almost constantly during the film, Acosta often looks alone, other, separate. Taking ballet class with those more affluent than him, looking out of a school window at children playing, being attacked in his dorm for stealing – even as an adult arriving at English National Ballet speaking only Spanish, or lying in a hospital bed waiting for his ankle to heal – he feels apart.

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At one point in the film, Acosta describes the abject loneliness of “the Wednesday feeling” – the day families used to visit their children at boarding school. Only his father was working, his mother was ill – so nobody ever came.

“When I arrived, I felt the world completely change,” says Acosta, talking to me in advance of Yuli’s premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival. “I was sent away from my family, it was like being in exile. I was the only kid whose family didn’t visit them.

“It was obvious to me that I was different, that this was a world I wasn’t supposed to be in. There was no one like me, with my ethnicity, doing ballet – so it was obvious this wasn’t for people like myself, and I also found that when I became a professional dancer in companies.”

Inspired by the life of Acosta and his 2007 autobiography, No Way Home, Yuli was created by writer Paul Laverty (My Name Is Joe, I, Daniel Blake) and Spanish director Icíar Bollaín. An incredible debut performance by 10-year-old Edilson Manuel Olbera as the young Acosta – nicknamed ‘Yuli’ by his father – takes us back to the dancer’s humble beginnings on the outskirts of Havana. Then, Cuban dancer Keyvin Martínez takes over as the 18-year-old leaving his homeland to dance in England.

Interspersed with this, the film blends archive footage (Acosta winning the Gold medal at the 1990 Prix de Lausanne, dancing at the Royal Ballet where he was a Principal for 17 years) with modern-day rehearsals at Acosta’s own company in Havana. Scenes of deep emotional resonance, such as a brutal beating from his father for missing ballet school, are played out through dance to great effect.

For unusually, it was Pedro Acosta, not his son Carlos, who wanted the young boy to study ballet. “He was born to dance – he just doesn’t know it yet,” says Pedro in the film; he has “natural talent, from his head to his toes,” say his teachers at ballet class. But young Acosta has other ideas –

he wants to be a footballer like Pelé and, above all, avoid being called a “faggot” by the boys in his neighbourhood.

“I battled against the will of my father,” recalls Acosta. “He wanted me to study ballet, and that was something I really didn’t want to do. And when I first became a dancer it was terrible – I left behind my home and family to go into a world I didn’t know, where I didn’t speak the language and had to find my own space in a metropolis that was completely foreign.

“I often thought at the beginning, that I was dancing so I could fulfil my father’s dream – and those dreams led me away from my family and the country that I love. Now, I see that it’s been the most incredible gift.”

That early agony of separation is felt keenly in Yuli, through the push and pull of Acosta’s parents. On the phone to London, his father urges his son to “forget about us, move on!”, before handing it to Acosta’s mother who wails, “when are you coming home?”.

It’s a dichotomy that followed Acosta to Houston Ballet in Texas, where he danced in the 1990s – another scene brilliantly depicted through ballet in the film.

“When I went back to Cuba with money, I wanted to dress well and have a fancy car – it’s a phase people have to go through,” says Acosta. “I would say to people ‘I’m still the same’ but they would say ‘we like the old one better’.

“And then the aggravation in Houston, with Americans asking if I’m going to defect and telling me I’m a Communist, all these things that bring you down. So you’re caught between two worlds – and all you want to do is dance.” And dance he did to enormous acclaim, before starting his own company, Acosta Danza in Cuba two years ago.

Next January, the 45-year-old great grandson of a slave (we see Pedro and his young son visit the Acosta plantation in Yuli) will become artistic director of one of the oldest dance institutions in Britain, Birmingham Royal Ballet – and take his vision for a more diverse world with him.

“I’d like to work with the local community,” he says, “and collaborate with artists and creative groups that are already there. Also to have a direction that is more in keeping with the times – I want the company to be relevant, to keep this artistry alive, while still embracing the traditions.

“Birmingham Royal Ballet has its own thing going, it’s different from the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, and I want people to know that when they come to us, they will have a different experience.”

The UK premiere of Yuli is at the Glasgow Film Festival on 23 February, with screenings in selected cinemas on 3 April (visit for venues in Scotland), before going on general release on 12 April. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 13-16 March