I spoke to Carlos Acosta within an hour of him receiving the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award from RAD President, Dame Darcey Bussell, at the London home of the Spencer family. Former winners of the 65-year-old award include Dame Marie Rambert, Sir Frederick Ashton and Rudolf Nureyev. “These are people who shaped the world of dance and to be in their company is just wonderful”, he tells me, adding quickly: “But, I pinch myself and ask how did this happen”?

Acosta rehearsing <i>Don Quixote</i> at The Royal Ballet (2013) © ROH | Johan Persson
Acosta rehearsing Don Quixote at The Royal Ballet (2013)
© ROH | Johan Persson
Such self-effacement runs through a conversation with Acosta like a golden thread. “Fame will pass; it’s very ephemeral”, he says. “It’s important to stay grounded and realise that I’m just living the dream. I have been able to cultivate great friends and I have a wonderful family and that’s what stays with you when fame moves on. I don’t think I will ever change anything in my life. I’m just concentrating on what’s up next”.

His impoverished beginning – born in Havana, the eleventh and last child of Pedro Acosta and Dulce Maria Quesada – has been well-documented but it is impossible not to reference this tough context, since it is what made him. “My parents worked hard to give us a living; my mother used to travel to the countryside to exchange soap, toothpaste or anything she could find so that we could get food. My dad drove a lorry all the time and, unconsciously, they passed onto us the value of hard work. At some point, they had to sell the refrigerator and the sewing machine which were our most treasured possessions. Nobody should have to eat their pets. I had to do that”.

Pedro famously propelled his son towards ballet. “My father imposed this artform on me. I wanted to be the next Michael Jackson, but he clearly saw some other talent for dance”. It is often written that young Carlos was rebellious, but he is quick to deny it: “I wasn’t a rebel. I was just a kid that didn’t want to do ballet. I had other aspirations for my life and I was put onto a path that I hated at the beginning”. This distinction is clearly important, as he explains: “Even when I was reluctant to do ballet, I was always respectful to my teachers, which is not what you expect from a rebel! Today, I see dancers walking out of class without saying sorry or asking permission to leave. I teach my dancers old-fashioned morals because I think respect is essential”.

Nonetheless, his early years at the Cuban National Ballet School were difficult. “I was thrown out a few times, but my father kept fighting so that I could have a career – the chances that he didn’t have. He never gave up on me”. There is a turning point in every dancer’s career and Acosta soon realised that shaping his future was not down to fate or his father’s insistence: “From my teenage years onwards, I knew that if I was ever going to get somewhere then I had to do it myself”.   

Carlos Acosta, in his final curtain call at the Royal Opera House © ROH | Ian Gavan
Carlos Acosta, in his final curtain call at the Royal Opera House
© ROH | Ian Gavan
It is important to reflect upon the things that Acosta missed in his youth. “I read my first book when I was 25; I didn’t know who Mozart was before that; so, I had a lot to catch up on”. But, this early absence of culture also had its advantages: “I was in such a low place that I had no fear of failing because I recognised that everything is a journey. I have always learned from my mistakes and tried hard not to repeat them”.

Gradually, Acosta became aware of the impact his ability had on others. “I loved the applause”, he acknowledges. “I was very insecure but applause made me realise that I could do something about my life through ballet and that if I succeeded, I wouldn’t have to eat another pet”.  

He is refreshingly honest about the bumpy road that took his career from Cuba via Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne (1990), through English National Ballet and Houston Ballet, to seventeen glorious years in Covent Garden. He recalls one particular performance, at The Royal Opera House - as Siegfried in Swan Lake: “I felt so empty on stage that it was unfair on the audience because I had nothing to give. I was like a zombie going from one performance to another and so I walked into Monica Mason’s office [then director of the Royal Ballet] and asked to take a whole year off because I needed to recharge. The following day, Jeanetta [Mason’s assistant director] gave me a list of shows that I would miss: it was their way of saying ‘come on snap out of it’ and exactly what I needed to regain my enthusiasm”.

Carlos Acosta in Bruce's <i>Rooster</i> at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year © Tristram Kenton
Carlos Acosta in Bruce's Rooster at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year
© Tristram Kenton
Acosta doesn’t have a favourite role. His stock response is simply “all of them”. However, he retains a great affection for the MacMillan repertoire. “Romeo and Juliet was a revelation for me because I never considered myself as Romeo. I had to use everything in my imagination and I did something with it”, he says, disarmingly, whilst crediting his regular partner: “Performing with Tamara (Rojo) was something divine and I knew that what she achieved on stage was very special”.  MacMillan’s Mayerling was also especially challenging:  “I tried to paint myself white so that I could be close to the real Rudolf. That was really reinventing myself. All these roles give you a chance to experience on stage a person that you are not”.

He has no doubts about the future of classical ballet. “The music of Tchaikovsky and the wonderful choreography of Petipa and Balanchine are jewels; they’re the roots of all dance.  So, of course, they must have a future”. When pressed about the failure of ballet to attract young audiences, he acknowledges that ballet might have its own Sleeping Beauty period: “Ballet may go into a dormant phase until a wonderful talent comes along to reawaken it”. And, he believes in the need for continual renewal: “It is always good to keep renovating rep and combining new work with the ghosts of the past. The Royal Ballet is doing this. Wayne McGregor has brought something completely new and different, which is always a good thing”.

Acosta also sees ballet’s marriage with new technology as essential, citing Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Titian triple bill that marked Mason’s farewell as director as exciting examples. “Mixing technology and visual arts with classical vocabulary integrates ballet with products that are closer to today’s world and – through multi-media –modern work will act as a gateway to bring people back to the classics”.

He is keeping ballet relevant through his own company, Acosta Danza, which helped to celebrate his thirty years in dance, recently, with sell-out performances at The Royal Albert Hall. The company provides a professional platform for Cuban dancers, with a repertory that embraces both modern and classical forms. “In three years, my company has achieved what a lot of companies don’t achieve in ten. The key for us is how to bring something that is relevant and different. I am always battling with the budget but that is also a good thing because it draws me towards emerging choreographers who have a lot to offer”.

Carlos Acosta leads Acosta Danza in class © Lester Vila Pereira
Carlos Acosta leads Acosta Danza in class
© Lester Vila Pereira

To underpin this endeavour, Acosta has also opened his own dance academy in Havana. “I believe in free education, which allows all the talents to be discovered so that they can then be given to the world”. It’s a noble cause, which Acosta is quick to acknowledge as impossible without the help of others: “I have been lucky enough that there are people who have been prepared to invest in this crazy idea of mine”. He is as hands-on as his busy life allows: “We spend two months a year in Cuba and I teach whenever I’m there”.

At 45, Acosta is still delivering virtuoso performances that would be a dream for many younger men, as he demonstrated in those recent 30th Anniversary shows; but I put it to him that there must come a time when he will consider quitting the stage? “It’s difficult now, I’m telling you”, he responds, quickly. “But, I’m still in the process of discovery and I love my relationship with the audience. So, I’m going to dance as long as I can because it is still in there, inside me, saying something. I hope that this journey still has a while to go”!

He acknowledges that the mode of transport is changing.“Dance is very addictive, but [...] I don’t need to be Siegfried, anymore. I believe in projects that enable mature dancers to continue to connect with an audience, finding new vocabularies and further evolution as an artist. I had the pleasure to work with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on Mermaid, recently, and I was in terrible shape. But you learn so much by working with such creative artists who maximise the experience that you have as a performer. (Merce) Cunningham danced until the very end, in his nineties. That would do me, I’m telling you – so long as I can find a nice wheelchair”!

For a man who didn’t read a book until his 20s, Acosta has become something of a polymath. As well as dancing, directing, teaching and choreographing, he is a published author and has acted in four films. He is refreshingly modest about his acting career: “I’m not going to put myself alongside professional actors who are expert in what they do! They just go and read and imitate an accent – they have particular skills that I will never master. I have never auditioned. I’m lucky that four movies have just come my way. They were looking for somebody just like me and I didn’t have to try that hard”.

I ask if he sees a time when any of these other aspects of his life will supersede dance. He is adamant in his rebuttal: “I am not going to pursue a literary career although I think that there is another book in me. I will always consider myself first, a dancer. I don’t consider myself as a choreographer, but I have projects. If I think I could do something with a story then I’ll get it out of my system, but I’m never going to push the boundaries in any way.  I am simply satisfying my thirst to do things”.  

Carlos Acosta rehearses <i>Carmen</i> with dancers of Acosta Danza © Lester Vila Pereira
Carlos Acosta rehearses Carmen with dancers of Acosta Danza
© Lester Vila Pereira

Does he pay attention to the critics? “Yes, they can give really great advice. The one thing I know is that I don’t know it all. I have to keep learning and that comes from making my own mistakes.  If the critics see that (and the audiences must see it, too) then my attitude is that, next time, I’ll do it better”.

Was he hurt by the negative criticism of his production of Carmen, when it premiered at The Royal Ballet, in 2015?  “I didn’t get it how I wanted”, is his honest response. “I was battling with the emotion of retiring from the company; the cinematic relay; the fact that I was performing both Don José and Escamillo, alternately; choreographing and directing; even the pressure of making a speech at the end! It was just too much and I didn’t have time to correct mistakes. Every production needs a process – with previews – and a chance to perfect over a period, that is how it is in musical theatre, for example, but we rarely have that luxury in ballet. Also, when you are directing, you need to see from afar but I couldn’t do that because I was inside the show. I didn’t get it right the first time but there is always room for manoeuvre. I think the production really suits my dancers in Acosta Danza and I am hoping to extend it into a full evening work for them”.

Carlos Acosta with Dame Darcey Bussell at the RAD Queen Elizabeth II coronation award © Piers Allardyce
Carlos Acosta with Dame Darcey Bussell at the RAD Queen Elizabeth II coronation award
© Piers Allardyce
How would he feel if any of his daughters wanted to dance? “I would encourage them, 100%. We will support them in whatever they want to do”. We are back full circle to his own childhood. “My parents’ example of working hard was a key element in my success. Every day, I give thanks for a wonderful life – it is magical; I’m still pinching myself, you know”. Looking at his impressive Coronation Medal in its velvet box, he refers again to his father, Pedro: “you know, this is as much his, as it is mine”.