Acosta, Carlos: 1973—: Dancer

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Carlos Acosta: 1973: Dancer

In one of the last, largely un-integrated bastions of high culture, Carlos Acosta has been hailed as ballet's next major star. The Cuban-born dancer, of mixed Spanish and African heritage, came to prominence in the early 1990s while still in his teens, and esteemed dance companies in both North America and Europe began offering him lead romantic roles over the next decade. After a stint in Houston, Acosta joined England's Royal Ballet in 1998. With his fabled grace and athleticism, he has earned comparisons to Mikhail Baryshnikov or Rudolf Nureyev. A writer for London's Independent newspaper described Acosta as "a dancer who slashes across space faster than anyone else, who lacerates the air with shapes so clear and sharp they seem to throw off sparks."

Born in 1973, Acosta was the eleventh and last child in an impoverished Havana family whose home was in one of the rougher quarters of that city. His father was a truck driver, and his mother often suffered from health problems. The island nation of Cuba had become a socialist state after the 1959 victory by Marxist guerrilla leader Fidel Castro, but remained overwhelmingly poor. Acosta grew up with no toys, sometimes went shoeless, and did not even have a birthday cake until he turned 23. The streets of his neighborhood provided plenty of entertainment, however, and he spent his time playing soccer, break-dancing, and raiding nearby mango groves with his friends. He was an overly energetic child, and Pedros Acosta, his father, felt that his youngest son would soon land in serious trouble. Dance training at one of the state-funded schools, his father decided, would teach the boy discipline and provide him with a free lunch every day.

Had Early Troubles With Ballet Image

At the age of nine Acosta entered a school that served as a feeder for Cuba's National Ballet School. He had to wake at five a.m., then take three buses to get to after-school ballet class; sometimes he fell asleep on the bus, however, and missed his stop. Moreover, he found the ballet training very dull compared to Havana's lively streets, and worried what his friends would think. He began to skip classes outright, recalling that "I started to have problems because I thought ballet was sissy," Acosta told a writer for London's Independent newspaper. When his father learned of this, he punished him harshly. "He beat me with a belt, one time with a machete, another time with a cable," Acosta recalled in an interview with Dance writer Margaret Putnam. "Man, I was scared. I wanted to quit, but my father wouldn't listen. One time I told him, 'I want to be a normal person.' He took me to the balcony of our apartment and pointed to the people on the street below. 'You want to be like them, with no future?'"

At a Glance . . .

Born in 1973, in Havana, Cuba; son of Pedro Acosta (a truck driver) and Maria Quesada. Education: Attended ballet school at Pinar del Río, Cuba, and the National Ballet School of Cuba, Havana.

Career: English National Ballet, principal dancer, 1991-92; National Ballet of Cuba, principal dancer, 1992-93; Houston Ballet, principal dancer, 1993-98; Royal Ballet of England, principal dancer, 1998; American Ballet Theater, New York City, guest dancer, 2002; guest dancer with companies in Munich, Stuttgart, St. Petersburg, and Athens, 2000s.

Awards: Prix de Lausanne, 1990.

Address: Office Royal Ballet, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD, England.

Acosta was finally ejected from the school at age 13, but his teachers suggested another place that might take him; when he and his father arrived in the city of Villa Clara, there had been a mistake, and there was no chance of enrollment in its school. He and his father were forced to sleep in the bus station for two nights while waiting for the next bus home. Still determined, Acosta's father found a ballet school in Pinar del Río that would take his son, and it was a boarding school as wellwhich would make it harder for him to miss class. Moreover, some of his siblings lived in the city, so he could stay with them on the weekends. Teachers at the Pinar del Río school gave him a one-month tryout, and in those first weeks alongside other students, Acosta suddenly realized that he had a natural affinity for ballet. He began working much harder than he had before, and teachers were pleased with his steady progress.

The school also took a field trip to see a performance of the National Ballet of Cuba, and Acosta was surprised at how athletic the dancers were. "I realized I could touch people with ballet," he told New York Times journalist Anna Kisselgoff. "That's when I started to like it." He gained entrance into the prestigious National School of Ballet when he was 14, and quickly emerged as one of its most promising students. The school was considered, even on an international level, an excellent training ground, for many of its teachers had benefited from rigorous Russian school-inga legacy of the cultural ties between the former Soviet Union and Cuba. Acosta was able to travel outside of Cuba for the first time, taking part in an exchange program in Italy at the age of 16, and winning the 1990 Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland, one of ballet's most coveted honors.

Rose to Fame in Ballet World

In 1991 Acosta was offered a slot with the English National Ballet, but a bone spur injury in his ankle hampered his performance time in London. After surgery in Cuba, he joined the National Ballet of Cuba for its 1992-93 season. While on a tour of Spain, Acosta was approached by Ben Stevenson, director and choreographer of the Houston Ballet, and Stevenson offered Acostajust twenty years oldto join what was one of leading companies in the United States. Acosta made his debut in Houston in November of 1993. Stevenson became an important mentor to Acosta, working with him to develop his repertoire in several lead roles, and the novice dancer thrived under the tutelage and came into his prime. He appeared in Don Quixote, Dracula, and The Nutcracker, and traveled to Europe for special guest performances.

Invited for a stint as principal dancer in fall of 1997 season with London's Royal Ballet, Acosta was slightly disappointed that he did not dance as much as he had hoped. After appearing in just eleven performances in one three-month span, he reflected in an interview with Houston Chronicle writer Molly Glentzer that the London scene was a far different one from the nurturing corps de ballet environment in Houston under Stevenson. "Who said ballet is easy?" Acosta reflected. "And sometimes it's not fair. You find there's a lot of politics. They don't give you the right part sometimes. But you keep pushing. You just have to show the right attitude." Still, Acosta did make enough of an impression on international balletomanes that some began deeming him the next Baryshnikov or Nureyev, perhaps the best known male ballet dancers of the twentieth century. In a 1997 article, Dance writer Putnam asserted that Acosta "has polish, power, and ease when launching himself into the air with apparently no preparation, tossing off yet-to-be-named steps that leave audiences dazzled. His turns are marvels, both for their number of revolutions and their control: After speeding up at will, he often slows the ending in an insolent display of cool."

As his repertoire widened, Acosta also won praise for his acting abilities. A fellow dancer, Paloma Herrera, told WWD 's Robert Haskell that Acosta's "presence is unbelievable when he goes onstage. He has a very powerful personality, but at the same time his dancing is clean and pure, so there's a wonderful contrast. As a ballerina, you feel very secure with him." Acosta has said that his biggest fear is dropping a ballerina during one of their lifts, and reportedly does a thousand push-ups daily in order to maintain the necessary upper-body strength.

Surprised by Success

In 1998 Acosta joined the Royal Ballet permanently, after an emotional farewell performance in Houston. He toured Japan and China with the Royal Ballet, appeared in Brazil, and still danced with the National Ballet of Cuba on occasion. The source of financial support for his family back in Cuba, Acosta once bought himself a new German luxury automobilebut realized that it cost more than his parents' Havana home and traded it in for a used one. He remains grateful that his father pushed him so hard, as he told Putnam in the Dance interview, "He means everything to me." Acosta declared, "He never gave up on me."

In June of 2002 Acosta delighted New York City audiences with an appearance with the American Ballet Theater in a run of Le Corsaire. He has started to write his autobiography, and will premiere a new dance project, Tocororo (A Cuban Tale) in London in the summer of 2003. "It's about a woman who separates two gangs, and tells them that we don't learn from the past if we make war," Acosta explained to the New York Times 's Kisselgoff. "Tocororo is the national Cuban bird, and the music has drums and salsa: Cuban rhythms." He remains an ardent salsa dancer himself, and still owns the first trophy he ever wonat age nine, for break-dancing. "I never thought I was going to get this far," Acosta told the Houston Chronicle's Glentzer. "If somebody had told me, 'Five years from now, you'll be doing this or that,' I would have said, 'Nah.' Everything happened so fast." Modestly, he dismissed comparisons to the other great male dancers before him, but did concede in the Houston Chronicle article that with "Baryshnikov and all the biggest stars it's not about one thing," Glentzer quoted him as saying. "It's about everything. When I think of Baryshnikov, I don't think how many pirouettes he can do or how high he jumps. It's the charisma: how he does it. You really have to enjoy dancing. Every time I perform, I have fun."



Newsmakers 1997, Issue 4, Gale, 1997.


Back Stage, June 14, 2002, p. 11.

Dance, March 1998, p. 92; June 1999, p. 78; September 2001, p. 14.

Houston Chronicle, September 6, 1998, p. 15; September 5, 1999, p. 11.

Independent (London, England), December 26, 1998, p. 8.

New York Times, June 13, 2002, p. E1; June 19, 2002, p. E5.

People, March 31, 1997, p. 85.

Time International, August 13, 2001, p. 59.

WWD, May 31, 2002, p. 4.

Carol Brennan