Dressed in black dance clothes, he stood still front of stage, bathed in a bright spotlight as the Royal Albert Hall erupted with a standing ovation. The Cuban superstar, Carlos Acosta, humbly acknowledged the enthusiastic audience and then, overcome with emotion, burst into tears. This was his final – very final – programme to say his farewell to classical ballet, and he was celebrating it with close friends, both on stage and off. Rather than offering a parade of technical wizardry, which is the usual fare for such an event, he chose extracts from some of the ballets he has danced throughout his career, works that have moulded and made him one of the greatest and most popular male dancers of his generation.

Carlos Acosta (Basilio in <i>Don Quixote</i>) © Johan Persson
Carlos Acosta (Basilio in Don Quixote)
© Johan Persson

 There must have been a moment standing before his adoring fans that had Acosta thinking about how far he had come since his earliest days. As a reluctant student at the National Ballet School in Cuba, he initially had done everything to escape from the drudgery and boredom of the art’s daily routines. The eleventh child of an impoverished truck driver, it seemed unbelievable that he would, one day, be gracing the stages of the world’s greatest theatres, performing for heads of state as well as a general public which adored him, and being honoured with a CBE. His dreams have come true through his own sheer hard work, by surmounting innumerable challenges and by an over-riding great talent, which has been an inspiration for so many of today’s young dancers.

This “Classical Farewell” was a good mix of his past roles and also touched on his future. It included dramatic, spiritual, sparkly and contemporary pieces performed with some of his best friends. There was also a nod to the next stage of his life with two young Cuban dancers, Gabriela Lugo and Luis Valie, from his newly formed Havana based company Acosta Danza, who performed the scene between the Golden Slave and Zobeide from Scheherazade, and a short piece from a young Cuban choreographer Raül Reinoso called Anadromous.

Marianela Núñez and Carlos Acosta in <i>Don Quixote</i> © Johan Persson
Marianela Núñez and Carlos Acosta in Don Quixote
© Johan Persson

The evening opened – and closed – with a kit bag. After a mood setting piano solo by Robert Clark, Acosta strolled nonchalantly onto the stage wearing the green uniform of a Russian soldier, his kit bag slung over one shoulder, for the passionate pas de deux from MacMillan’s Winter Dreams. Later, in his final moments, he sat on a chair and contemplatively exchanged his dance shoes for sneakers, put his costume into his dance bag before strolling off. In the hush that came with the realisation that this was our farewell to him also, one audience member yelled out “Thank you, Carlos Acosta!” and tears began to well up in many eyes.

Marianela Núñez and Carlos Acosta in <i>Apollo</i> © Johan Persson
Marianela Núñez and Carlos Acosta in Apollo
© Johan Persson
Royal Ballet principal Marianela Núñez has been one of his favourite partners, a wonderful dancer who just gets better and better. In Winter Dreams, dressed in flowing apricot beige chiffon, she was graceful and eloquent in their tender farewell pas de deux. Later, in the grand pas from Don Quixote, she was sassy and flirtatious with Acosta, flashing her eyes at him and performing with impeccable technique. And in the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Apollo, they complemented each other’s refinement and sensitivity, moulding their dancing into one eye-pleasing whole.

Laura Morera is a feisty dancer, regularly taking risks and offering technique and characterisations that are sharp and exacting. Dancing with Ryoichi Hirano in the bedroom pas de deux from Manon, she was a flirtatious minx, enticing her lover to ‘work’ other than writing poetry. Then in sharp contrast, she and Acosta danced the final scene from Mayerling – the dark, forceful last moments of the lives of the morphine addicted Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress Mary Vetsera before their suicide pact. The choreography involves much throwing, catching and tossing of Mary, and Acosta’s stamina and Morera’s fearlessness were highly impressive.

Also participating in the evening’s celebration were other Royal Ballet dancers. Sarah Lamb gave a silky smooth performance as The Dying Swan, her arms rippling and undulating as she bourréed across the stage. She returned in the second half with Hirano in the fluid and poignant Domine Deus from Gloria, MacMillan’s tribute to the First World War.

This more sombre tone was followed by two beautiful moments, Offertoire and Pie Jesu from Requiem, danced exquisitely by Acosta and Yuhui Choe, and accompanied by the Pegasus Choir. Choe had earlier danced with delicate finesse in the final duet from Ashton’s flowing Rhapsody with a buoyant Valentino Zucchetti, who made an excellent Bratfisch, Rudolf’s driver in Mayerling.

Though Acosta is hanging up his ballet pumps, he plans to continue dancing contemporary works, and he showed fine, youthful form in his last piece of the evening, Memoria by Miguel Altunaga. It hints back to his childhood days when he would show-off to other boys with his street dancing. How his world has changed... and we are all the richer for it. We will miss you Carlos!