Carlos Acosta: ‘Plymouth is great but in New York you’ve got strong competition’

The capacity matinee audience is cheering heartily for the cast of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s five-star Swan Lake, but the ovation grows louder still for the smiling man in blue velvet who slips on from the wings. “My name is Carlos Acosta, director of this beautiful company.” When the excitement dies down, the Cuban ballet legend gives a short, heartfelt speech in praise of the afternoon’s Siegfried (Lachlan Monaghan), then announces his promotion to the highest rank of Principal. Five hours later, the same surprise is sprung on another soloist, Max Maslen, after the evening performance. Not a dry eye in the house.

Ballet companies have a pyramidal structure that mirrors the dramatis personae of the classical repertoire: a lead couple flanked by friends and enemies and underpinned by the hard-working corps de ballet. It is possible to dance Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty with undistinguished dancers — it’s done every day — but the classics only really come alive in the hands of exceptional artists. Acosta, who shone so brightly as a dancer during his long international career, is determined to make the stars he needs by promoting deserving dancers, hiring guest artists and teachers and giving maximum exposure to the youngest artists in his 60-strong West Midlands troupe.

What makes a star? Acosta’s own fame owed much to the romance of his unconventional background as the 11th child of a Cuban truck driver making good in the supposedly snooty world of classical ballet. “It could be technique, it could be connectivity, it could be emotion, it could be physique. In my case it was my ‘story’; the fact that I’m not the conventional prince that everybody expected,” he says, an expressive hand sweeps the length of his still match-fit body. “But it has to be backed by talent. Without talent then it’s fake and it doesn’t work.”

Momoko Hirata as Odette and Lachlan Monaghan as Siegfried in ‘Swan Lake’ © Tyrone Singleton

David Bintley, his immediate predecessor in Birmingham, never saw the need to hire guest artists, but Acosta is in no doubt of their value. Last year’s Don Quixote performances were gold-plated by flying visits from his old Royal Ballet colleagues Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov and the Birmingham leg of the current tour of Swan Lake featured the veteran Odette/Odile Polina Semionova. “When they see a star of that calibre they know they’ve seen something really special — they might not know why exactly — and it raises the profile of the company knowing that stars like Polina chose to come and perform here.”

The Bolshoi-trained Semionova was a one-woman masterclass for BRB’s swans. “It’s good. It inspires them. We all need to be inspired.” The sheer quality of Semionova’s performances also reminds both dancers and audiences that there is a world elsewhere, a world that Acosta plans to conquer. “It gives you an indication of how much you have to up your game. This is a touring company and I need them to think worldwide, because once we go to New York it’s not the same as dancing in Plymouth. You know what I mean? Plymouth is great, but in New York you’ve got strong competition.”

Acosta himself was in constant demand as a guest artist. Did this never cause resentment from the home teams? There is a rare pause in the easy flow of words. “There’s always a bit of that. I remember with Spartacus [in Moscow with the Bolshoi in 2007] there were some . . . challenges because nobody ever invited a Spartacus from outside, but that only lasts a week because then they see what you’re capable of.”

Paris Opera Ballet seldom fielded guest stars but Acosta’s 2004 debut there in Nureyev’s Don Quixote was unforgettable. After the bows and bouquets the applause continued from behind the curtain. “There were people standing in the wings, all the way through the rig. Everyone wanted to see who is this guy guesting here? It was beautiful.”

Acosta was celebrated for galvanising classical warhorses and several of his signature roles, including the impossibly virtuosic Diana and Actaeon pas de deux, will feature on the inaugural tour by BRB2, a performance group designed to give young graduates vital time in the spotlight. “Carlos Acosta’s Classical Selection” will include pas de deux from La Sylphide and Swan Lake as well as an extract from Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, the 1980 masterpiece originally tailored to the genius of the young Mikhail Baryshnikov. Strong meat for novice performers, but Acosta makes no apology: “We need to build up the dancers and the only way you do that is with hard, hard repertory.”

Five men in black trousers and colourful shirts make balletic movements on stage
Carlos Acosta and the Acosta Danza company perform ‘Rooster’ at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2018 © Daniel Leal/Getty

Acosta never wearies of the classical back catalogue. But he is keen to broaden both his repertoire and his audience base — hence the decision to join forces with one of Birmingham’s greatest exports: Black Sabbath. The full-evening ballet, which begins a nationwide tour at the Hippodrome in September, will use eight of the band’s greatest hits orchestrated for Birmingham’s Royal Ballet Sinfonia by Christopher Austin.

The venture is part of a long-term strategy: “Little by little, people start to think, ‘Wow! It’s exciting, it’s bold, you’ve got all these stars, all these interesting propositions’, then after a while it’s not even about the rep any more. People just trust the brand and want to come.”

Acosta is very much the face of that brand and his workload is eye-watering. Even as we chat in his windowless office he is multitasking: powering through some killer quad and hamstring stretches, keeping himself in shape for his 50th birthday season at Covent Garden this summer. In addition to the directorship of BRB and BRB2, he has Acosta Danza, a 13-man contemporary ballet company (and feeder academy) back in Havana, plus additional commitments as a governor of London’s Royal Ballet School.

His ability to juggle so many roles is testament to both his team-building and his sheer stamina. His home with his wife and three young daughters is in Somerset in the West Country, a fiddly three-hour train ride from Birmingham, but he attends every performance at the Hippodrome, staying in a nearby hotel, and does his best to be at key dates on tour. “I try to see every cast and give corrections so they can improve.”

Most of the time he will view these performances from an easy-access spot in the dress circle so that he can nip backstage to congratulate (or promote) his artists; now and then he will slip into one of the cheap seats to check that their dancing registers loud and clear in the starry Russo-Cuban tradition. “It’s very important: how you project into the space so that you involve everyone at the back” — he fills the tiny room with another grand, easy gesture — “that’s the kind of dancing I always go for. We [Cubans] have been taught that: be bigger, jump bigger, be the best you can be.”

‘Swan Lake’ tours to April 1; BRB2 tours from April 25, ‘Carlos At 50’, Royal Opera House, July 26-30,

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This post was originally published on Financial Times

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