When Carlos Acosta published a critically acclaimed novel a couple of years ago, Waterstones described him as “The Carlos Acosta” in their window displays, in case customers thought there was another author with the same name, or there had been a mistake. After all, what was the greatest male ballet dancer since Nureyev and Baryshnikov doing writing a novel?
I find myself thinking about this as I watch The Carlos Acosta rehearsing Carmen, a one-act ballet that he has both created for the Royal Ballet and taken a lead role in – two in fact, because he alternates between Don José and the toreador Escamillo, the rivals for Carmen’s love. (Lasting 50 minutes, it will conclude a mixed programme, with works by Liam Scarlett, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.) His default question – as with his decision to write a novel – appears to be not why, but why not?
Carmen will be what Acosta calls his swansong, as he is leaving the Royal Ballet after this season to form his own contemporary dance company in his native Cuba – and write some more fiction. Well, he is 42, which is knocking on a bit for a ballet star (even if Margot Fonteyn did carry on dancing until she was 60), and he has been with the Royal Ballet for 17 years. But still. His legion of fans around the world will be inconsolable. The critics, too. How they will miss his “luminous and stately” Apollo, his “dramatic and affecting” Romeo, the “animal magnetism” of his Siegfried.
The scene he is rehearsing today is one in which Don José meets Carmen (Marianela Nuñez), and the pianist is being asked to play the haunting Bizet score for the fifth time as the two principals glide once more across the mirrored space – lifting, turning and folding in and out of one another with all the grace and athleticism you would expect. (Acosta is known for his partnerships, most notably with Tamara Rojo, before she headed over to English National Ballet.) But he isn’t happy with his performance and, after half an hour, he shakes his head slowly, holds up a hand and mouths the word “sorry” before dabbing his sweat-mantled brow with a towel and wandering into the corridor, head bowed. Nuñez shrugs. The pianist shrugs back. It seems rehearsals are over for the day.
When I meet Acosta properly, four days later, he says with a broad smile that he hadn’t been feeling well then, but that he is back on track now, and happy. He has an easy smile, which he deploys constantly. In fact, the deep grooves that bracket his mouth seemed to have been etched there through years of sustained smiling.
His face can be seen on billboards all around Covent Garden, I note. Not him in action doing one of his gravity-defying leaps, but just his face. That says something about the nature of his fame. “Ah,” he says, waving a dismissive hand, “I look 100 years old in that photo. I try not to hang on to these things, because they pass. When I was younger, posters mattered a lot to me, but not now.” (Cuba, by the way, is still there, like rum and cigar smoke, in every thickly accented syllable of the English he speaks.) “I’m taking a new path where I will still be dancing,” he says, “but no longer the main protagonist. We will work with the future stars, 22 dancers in my company, and these will be the ones on the posters.”
That he is going off in this direction comes as no surprise, because he has for some years now been more than a classical dancer. He has been an impresario too, one who has not only written and choreographed a semi-autobiographical show, Tocororo, and pieced together eclectic evenings of works by others, but also taken on the choreography of established pieces, such as his Guys and Dolls, which is about to come to the Savoy Theatre. The last work he created for the Royal Ballet was Don Quixote in 2013 – will his Carmen be, like that, quite traditional? Or will it be more modern? “It will be ambitious. Going out with a bang. The story is based on Carmen, but it’s a fusion of things. I used to break-dance and I have a Cuban heritage, and I try to bring all these things into the show. I also want the dancers to be like normal people, natural.”
He empties two sachets of sugar into his coffee and grins when I suggest he must be a masochist to want to perform in his own piece, as well as choreograph it. “Yeah, there’s a reason hardly anyone has done it, at least in the ballet world. It is something that happens much more with contemporary dance.”
In the past, he has had to have operations on his damaged knees and toes in order to keep dancing. Is he going to miss the pain and the injuries that come with ballet? Another smile. “Course I’m not going to miss that. Are you crazy? I’m going to miss the company and the people, but the pain, no.”
Given that pain is the body’s way of telling you to stop doing something, isn’t he defeating that object when he injects himself with cortisone to get through a performance, as he has done in the past? “Yes, but pain is also a way of telling you your muscles are weak. If your knee hurts when you land, it means you need to exercise to strengthen your quads.”
It’s a telling comment, one that gives a glimpse into the mental toughness of a ballet dancer. But the toughness is physical too, of course. Ballet stars are much stronger than footballers and rugby players, after all, perhaps even than gymnasts. Though he is not as tall in person as he looks on stage, Acosta is as muscular, and today the veins on his arms – he is wearing a T-shirt – are like pencils under the skin. I point to them and ask what he thinks will happen to his muscle tone when he eventually stops dancing. “I may still train,” he replies, “because the ballet class is a good way to wake up your body and joints. But even now I don’t have to train as much as I did when I was doing Swan Lake. I don’t have to train for eight hours a day. I don’t need to do these massive jumps anymore. I’ve done that.” Does he sometimes look at old videos of himself leaping and think: how is that even possible physically? “What I do feel is pleasure when I look at videos of myself on YouTube as a younger dancer. I think ‘wow’, because I can’t do that anymore. But the memory is still there. Everything felt so light.”
Before Acosta – who was made a CBE last year – wrote his bestselling memoir No Way Home (2008), few of his fans had appreciated how deprived his childhood had been. Growing up in extreme poverty, as the youngest of 11 in the backstreets of Havana, he stole, played truant and was expelled from school. His father, a truck driver, was sent to prison after causing a serious traffic accident and enrolled the reluctant young Carlos in a ballet school only because it came with a guarantee of regular square meals.
But he nevertheless thinks this poverty and hardship shaped his personality in a positive way. “You have to learn to be independent, because no one is going to save you. It makes you tough and you learn to not complain, and to make the most of what you have. It gave me a hunger to prove I could be somebody, to demonstrate through my dance who I was.”
Everything changed for him in 1990 when, at the age of 16, he won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne. “It’s cause and effect, because you work hard and get praise and that gives you confidence. Growing up, I thought I wasn’t attractive to girls, but then when I danced I was somebody and I was the centre of attention and I wanted more. I realised I was the only salvation my family had. I still support them.”
The following year, 1991, Acosta joined English National Ballet and from there he went to companies in Cuba, America and even Russia, where he became the first foreigner to be a guest-principal with the Bolshoi. There were other firsts: the first black principal with the Royal Ballet, the first black Romeo. Does he find it patronising that people make such a fuss about him being the first black ballet star? “I know the reasons they always mention that. People try to find role models and there are still very few black dancers around the world, so I’m glad they do that. It’s still very rare to have a black Romeo. But I think people don’t notice as much anymore.”
Although he says he never had a Che Guevara poster on his wall – unlike so many students in the West – he did consider himself a communist. “Well, everyone was one in Cuba, because it was a communist country, but I was more concerned with ballet than politics. It took up all my time and thoughts. I didn’t think the world was a bad place. I had other things to worry about, like my father being in jail. On paper, I had everything laid down in life to fail, but I didn’t. I beat the odds. The ballet world became my extended family and gave me love.”
Even allowing for the fact that Acosta is speaking to me in his second language, there seems to be no false modesty with him: he knows he deserves his fame and fortune, that he has earned it the hard way. But his manner is, nevertheless, more unassuming than his words suggest. When he first moved to London from Cuba, he found it cold and wet, he says, and he hated feeling like a foreigner. “I felt homesick, but then I realised what a welcoming and cosmopolitan place it is.” He also fell in love with, and married, an Englishwoman, one who isn’t a dancer. “But she can relate to the life of the dancer, because she sees me coming home destroyed.”
They met at a barbecue 10 years ago. “I have seen the video of the exact moment we met. How many people can say that, no? We played it at the wedding. It was amazing. We start at opposite sides and keep getting closer and closer and then we are talking and dancing and it is like a magnet.”
His memoir was frank regarding his numerous sexual conquests as a young man. What did his wife, Charlotte, a former model, make of the book? “She skips those passages,” he says with a laugh. “I guess I was kind of graphic.”
And this was after his editor insisted that certain passages be deleted. Given what stayed in, what on earth was cut? “Stuff about a girlfriend who liked it rough, she liked to make love in the public places and would be violent. I had to tone that down. The publishers were concerned people would think we were criminals.”
Well, it was probably just as well, because one day his daughter (who is three) might read it. “Yeah and she will be like: ‘Daddy, why did you do this?’ ”
From the end of this year, Acosta and family will divide their time between Cuba and Britain. “I want to be able to speak to my daughter in Cuban Spanish. And I want her to learn about Cuban culture.”
And that will mean learning about what her father does, because dance, in all its forms, is even more popular than football there. Acosta, indeed, is a national hero in Cuba; even Fidel Castro is a fan. “When I met Fidel, I thought he was amazing,” Acosta recalls. “He will outlive everyone. And now Obama is extending the hand of friendship, so who knows what the future will bring.”
The dancer thinks his next novel might be about the aftermath of a Cuban hurricane, when several families find shelter under the same roof. He wants to be successful in more than one career, it seems, and to have more than one country to call home. And why not? He is, after all, The Carlos Acosta.