Ballet star Carlos Acosta says Hong Kong stop on farewell tour won’t be all about him
Cuban dancer says after years of daily pain, it’s time to let audiences see what the next generation of dancers has to offer
When Cuban international ballet star Carlos Acosta discusses dance with his four-year-old daughter Aila, she has things she wants to share.
“She says, ‘You sit down, Daddy,’” Acosta recounts. “She says, ‘Let me show you how to do it.’”
The young daughter of the man who has been called “the greatest dancer of his generation” is already keen on dance, and has said quite emphatically that she wants to be a dancer.
“But when I see her try to do the splits, I don’t know. I’m not sure that she can cope with the pain,” he says. “And it is a very painful career.”
“Pain,” he adds reflectively. “It is a journey through the unknown, and yet you know it every day as a ballet dancer.”
That is one of the reasons – the slow attrition of the body that inevitably happens with this most athletic and demanding of dance forms – the 43-year-old has decided to call it a day.
But he is doing it in style, with a world gala tour that includes performances at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre before returning to London to appear at the Royal Albert Hall in October .
There will be many of the most famous pas de deux – including Basilio in Don Quixote, Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake and his favourite, Acteon, the hunter turned hunted, with which he won the 1990 Grand Prix in Paris at the age of 16.
The evening will not just be one set piece after another, but will be arranged in a set that embraces the tough backstage work of the dancers’ lives in the studio, showing some of the warming up and preparing for performance.
It is also a chance of symbolically passing the baton to the new generation, Acosta says. “I’ll be dancing with young dancers who are beginning their careers while I’m ending mine.”
“It’s not to say, ‘Look at me one last time’, but to say, ‘Look at this!’” Acosta says. “I want it to be a glimpse of the future, not the past.”
His retirement is going to be rather active, he admits.
After many years of living elsewhere, he is now planning to return with his family to Cuba for several months a year. He is building a dance school in Havana, and is setting up a new modern dance company there as well, which he intends to take a major dance role with.
It is partly because Havana needs something like this, he says. But mostly it is because dance has been his “greatest friend” for more than 30 years, and he cannot imagine being without it. “It will always be by my side,” says Acosta.
The dancers he has selected already were chosen because they reminded him a little of himself: “They have the desire. And they work tirelessly.”
Acosta’s plans also include writing. He published his biography No Way Home: a Cuban Dancer’s Story in 2007, and at the time the publisher HarperCollins was anxious to emphasise that unlike many celebrity autobiographies, this one was by Acosta himself, rather than a ghostwriter.
“It took me 10 years,” he says. And although the process, sitting still in a chair, was physically the opposite of ballet, it had its own very different pain. “I started it when I was very depressed, and I had a lot of time doing not very much,” he says.
It was at a time in his career that he feared he had made a terrible mistake. He had been lead male dancer at the Houston Ballet in Texas. “I was the dancer on every opening night and after five years life was quite easy,” Acosta says. In 1998 he accepted an invitation to join the Royal Ballet in London, and suddenly there were many dancers “and I had to wait my turn”.
Worse than that, the Covent Garden theatre in London was being refurbished; the Royal Ballet, therefore, had no permanent home, and there were far fewer performances.
“I began to question myself,” the dancer recalls. “After all, there had been no black dancers in the history of the Royal Ballet: what hope was there that there would be a black Romeo, or a black Prince Siegfried?
“It was raining, and cold, and I also began to regret being there like a gypsy with no family. So I had to keep my mind occupied. Always before there had been dance to do that, but now there wasn’t, so I started to write.”
He began to see it as a form of therapy. “And finally when the book came out, I realised it was a way of leaving the past behind.”
It is an extraordinary book, about growing up as the youngest of 11 children, about having no money, of stealing food, of having no shoes, no toys, and sleeping on a shared mattress where you had to memorise where the sharp springs jutted through to avoid getting snagged.
It includes the extraordinary story of how his father, a stevedore, born to the daughter of slaves, sneaked one day into a silent film in a cinema reserved exclusively for white people, where he saw ballet for the first time.
“He did not know what the peculiar dance was, but the ballerinas immediately spoke to his senses as they spun round like Japanese parasols. Elegant, delicate and light. My father lost himself in that unfamiliar world … from that moment on, ballet had captured him forever.”
No wonder then that when his father learned his son could get free lunches and a free education if he attended ballet school, he enrolled him immediately, despite Carlos’ protestations that he really wanted to be a footballer.
“What’s everyone in the neighbourhood going to think? They’ll say I’m gay!” he moaned.
“If anyone calls you gay, just smash his face in,” was his father’s answer.
The book was going through the editing stage in 2005, when Acosta met the model Charlotte Holland, seven years younger than him, who later became his wife.
“And I became happy, so I had no more darkness to write about. But I liked writing so I started to write fiction.”
Dance would be too obvious a subject. Instead he wrote about a fictitious village in Cuba where he could set a family saga and explore issues like slavery and truth and identity.
“I knew I wanted to write a book called Pig’s Foot,” he says, “or pata de puerco in Spanish, which is a Cuban delicacy so doesn’t quite translate. And then I started to research and found all sorts of things, including that [Christopher] Columbus’ right hand man was Jewish and spoke seven or eight languages … and then I decided to place my village around the hills of Santiago where the Bacardi rum-making family was based. And I wanted it to be a deserted place.”
He also wanted it to include schizophrenia and a sense of what that illness does.
“My aunt was ill with schizophrenia and my sister inherited it. I remember when the illness came, and one morning she disappeared and we looked for her. And she was completely naked on the street … She was 22, I must have been 16.”
His whole life has been full of great struggle, as well as great success. And yet he says he is grateful.
“I turned out to be all right because of the experiences, not despite them. I didn’t do it for money or fame, I first did it because I wanted to please my teachers. Now there is fame, there is X Factor, and there is a race for celebrity. There wasn’t all of this then …
“I worked for it but it was to dance. It wasn’t deliberate to become a household name.”
Carlos Acosta – A Classical Farewell, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, June 30-July 2. Tickets: HK$160 to HK$520. Inquiries: 2268 7323