Interviewed by Joan Seaman, with questions from the floor, at the Ballet Association meeting in London on 18th July 2001. As recorded by Stuart Sweeney for criticaldance.
Carlos Acosta is a favourite with ballet fans and critics in the UK with his fine technique, athleticism and his expressive dancing in roles such as Albrecht in 'Giselle'. His ability to entertain audiences was clear at this meeting, where his winning smile and relaxed approach charmed everyone.
Q. How did you start dancing?
A. It was really by accident. I was the youngest of eleven children and we lived in a very poor part of Havana. We had no classical music or ballet in my family. By the time I was nine, I was already mixing with delinquents and my Father was worried about what would happen to me. A neighbour had two sons going to a ballet school, so my Father thought that would be a good idea. He told me, 'I have a surprise for you, you're going to ballet school.' So I asked him, 'What's ballet?' and he didn't know! But what my Father said was law. My interests were all in sport, but like everyone in Cuba I danced salsa.
Q. How did you get on at the ballet school?
A. Not very well. It was so boring; I wanted to run and do something. I got a reputation as a trouble-maker who was very unreliable. To be honest I don't think they helped me as much as they could have as I had a lot of problems at home then. So, at 13 they kicked me out.
But then I saw my first ballet performance. It was the National Ballet of Cuba with Alicia Alonzo with men jumping high and I thought, 'Is that ballet?'. So I decided to give it a shot. I went to a ballet school in another town and made rapid progress. One teacher taught me steps beyond my grade and made some choreography for me.
Q. Why do you think so many fine dancers emerge from Cuba?
A. There are a lot of reasons. Free access to education is very important. If you have talent and dedication you can succeed even if you come from a poor family like mine. If I had had to pay £20 a lesson there would be no chance. We are a country rich in culture with a passion for dance; you dance before you can walk. Also we had a strong link with Russia and they sent very good teachers who gave you strong discipline, which you have to have if you're going to succeed.
Q. What was your first professional engagement?
A. When I was 16 there was a cultural exchange with the New Theatre of Turin and two of us joined the company. I was in the corps with 'Carmen' and so on. It was hard work, but they thought I had something. I had to stay on after everyone had gone home and rehearse for the Prix de Lausanne competition. Then I went back to Cuba and carried on rehearsing and looking at tapes of Baryshnikov. But I had visa problems and it was only the day before that they told me that I could go and out of 127 competitors I was the last to arrive. I performed 'Don Q' and a contemporary solo and I won the Gold Medal. I learnt a lot in Italy and my perseverance improved and I worked hard to improve my muscles. It's not enough to have talent, you must push yourself to succeed.
Q. What happened next?
A. In 1991/2, when I was 18, I came to London with English National Ballet. It was good experience for me, but I had an injury problem and had to have surgery and it still hurt a lot. At the end of the season I went back to Cuba and went a year without dancing and eventually had to have surgery again.
Then I had a letter from Ben Stevenson from Houston who I knew from ENB. There were lots of problems because of the political situation between Cuba and the USA, but Ben found a way round them and I stayed in Houston for 5 years. He brought out my acting ability and created ballets on me. The Company is like a family for me and I always want to keep a tie with them. Lauren Anderson [a Principal at Houston] and I have something special. She's a wonderful dancer and we're great friends. I like a partner who looks in my eyes. It's important for dancers to communicate and not just think about how they look on stage.
Q. How did you come to join the Royal Ballet?
A. I saw them a few times when I was with ENB and I always hoped I would dance with them. I wanted to do different roles and when I came it was all new for me. Anthony and I are so different as dancers it means I can do my own thing. This year 'The Song of The Earth' has been great for me - the power and mystery of the character. But 'Oberon' is good as well and gives you the chance for humour, which I like. For instance, I enjoyed dancing in 'Rooster' at Houston and Christopher Bruce makes fantastic movement and is very musical.
Q. Which roles are the most challenging.
A. 'Manon' is difficult as I play De Grieux, a timid man. I love the dancing and the final scene is fantastic. It would be interesting to play Lescaut. I haven't had any acting lessons, but I listen and have good instincts. In ballet you can be a different person like a Prince and I like to put myself into the role and express love or whatever.
Q. What roles would you like to dance?
A. I'd love to do more Balanchine and 'Scheherazade' with the Kirov.
Q. What about next season?
A. I'm dancing in 'Don Q' with the Royal and leaving space for more performances here as I really want to dance in London. I also want to keep my connection with Houston and there are possibilities elsewhere. I miss the sun when I'm here in London so I do need to move around and I love to work in Cuba.
Q. Is your success recognised in Cuba?
A. Those in the ballet and cultural world know and show their appreciation. I've just danced there for the first time in 3 years and it was shown on TV. My parents have never seen me dance outside Cuba, which is a shame.
Q. What do you like to do outside of ballet?
A. I like to salsa and go to movies and spend time with friends. I read books in English and Spanish. The main thing is to get away from ballet.
Q. Have you had an embarrassing incident that you can tell us about?
A.. I was in a Gala in Japan and I was closing the show with 'Le Corsaire'. I went for my first big jump and slipped and fell over on my back. Everyone gasped, but I got up and carried on. And then I had my next big jump and fell over again. Well, by then I was wobbling about and taking everything so carefully. At the end everyone was laughing and I thought at least they had some fun! The next night I had to do the same thing again. I put so much rosin on my shoes....then I couldn't turn.
Carlos Acosta dances the 'Don Q' pas de deux and Oberon in 'The Dream' as part of The Royal Ballet Summer Season from 23 July to 4 August. Details from the ROH Box Office on +44 (0) 20 7304 4000.
<small>[ 21 December 2003, 03:29 PM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>