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Posted on September 28, 2017

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Since announcing his retirement from ballet, Carlos Acosta has been busier than ever. In October 2015, he talked to Zoë Anderson about Carmen, Cuba and a new company.

Carlos Acosta is very, very focused. Deep in rehearsals for his new ballet Carmen, he’s also laying plans for his farewell to classical ballet, as well as his career afterwards. He talks fast, with a rumbling voice and plenty of charm, but also shows a pragmatic awareness of how dance companies operate, from dancers’ preferences to the different stages of building a reputation.

Carmen, which has its premiere at The Royal Ballet this month, is part of Acosta’s farewell to the company, where he has been principal guest artist since 2003. It’s his second production for Covent Garden, following his 2013 staging of Don Quixote. Why did he choose Carmen for his Royal Ballet swan song? “I’m a fan of the music, and the subject. It could make a very good dramatic ballet. They didn’t have it in the repertoire – I mean,” he corrects himself, “there’s the Mats Ek one that comes from time to time, but that’s ultra-modern, really far away from ballet. So I thought it would make a good vehicle for the company – to bring the emotional aspect, to make it more literal, true to the story.”

Acosta is planning a less stylised approach than Ek’s, but he’s still “making my own story. I do away with a lot of the characters from the opera – like Micaëla, and some of the minor characters. I’m just concentrating on the triangle: Carmen, José and Escamillo. That for me is the main element of the story. I thought that could be a good ballet for the company, that could show the company well.”

Though he’s cutting supporting characters, he still has a big cast in mind. “For me the corps de ballet is the life of the scene. If they aren’t reacting to whatever they’re seeing, it’s not there – then the whole thing fails. It’s very important that the weight doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of the three main characters. I want to stretch everybody. So, just as I did in Don Quixote, everybody dances. Even the corps de ballet are doing very difficult stuff! They’re going to be challenged by it, because I can’t help bringing the fusion that defined me as an artist and as a person. So you will see ballet, of course, but you will see contemporary, you will see some Cuban moves, all kinds of dance. Even simple things, people enjoying themselves dancing. That says a lot about who these people are.”

There’s going to be some fusion in the music, too. Martin Yates has created a new arrangement of Bizet, including a singing chorus. “Sometimes they’re on stage, sometimes off stage but still singing, so the voices are a great part of the music throughout,” Acosta explains. “We have some added numbers. The flamenco ensemble Taconeo will be in the tavern, guitar players and palms, bringing the Spanish folk into it.

“I wanted it to be modern, a story that was born now. Something that people will relate to, like now. The costumes are going to be like jeans, some flamenco pants, making it more – well, sexy, of course, but also more now. I’m not trying to recreate the period of the opera. It’s more conceptual: we’re aiming for something simple but striking. The colours are quite dark, red, we’ve got the ring of fire – which is Carmen, she’s always up to no good, she’s playing, living life to the full, she’s bold. This circle is going to be stamped on the floor, and that’s her environment.”


Carlos Acosta rehearsing Carmen with Marianela Nuñez, and with Natalia Osipova and Federico Bonelli. Photographs: Andrej Uspenski Courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

There were musicians on stage in Acosta’s Don Quixote and Tocororo, too. “I like the concept of a big party, a big celebration. I don’t want to exclude anybody. It’s interesting to break this theatrical boundary – where the orchestra lives there, that lives here. It’s just softening the edges. How can I keep surprising you, using new elements? Not just dance, it’s everything; sometimes people talk. You break the boundaries of what’s what – it’s all art, ultimately. I find that has a very good effect, especially in ballet. If you go to contemporary dance, it’s normal, it’s nothing new – but in ballet, when you have pointe shoes, it’s like you’re not allowed to talk! Because it’s so classical, it’s wrong – and I think it shouldn’t be wrong. It needs to evolve into now.”

Acosta stresses that this will be a company work. How has he approached casting? “You’ve got the obvious ballerinas who would suit this role very well – we know [Natalia] Osipova and Marianela [Nuñez]. Also, I’m fond of launching somebody, some new talent that could surprise us. So I have done that in this cast, with Tierney [Heap]. To me, it’s important that people believe in what I’m doing. They want to be there and have fun. There are perhaps some people who aren’t interested, it’s not their thing, they’d rather be doing something more classical. In that case, it’s good to know, because then I could give it to somebody who wants to do it. I realised, as well, that we have to do it a few times. Meaning, this time around, it’s not going to be the way it lives in my head. So maybe when it comes back, people are more familiar with it, they relax more… It’s a process.”

Is that how he feels, as a dancer? “As a classical dancer, I’ve done these roles so many times. What else can I do with this role that is still fresh? Sometimes you take a risk by going to territory you haven’t been in with that role. Sometimes it doesn’t suit you. You say, well, for next time, I know that, I’ll do something else. You have to be having fun, evolving, or it’s no good.”

Why has he decided to leave ballet? “Well, I’m 42 years old. I don’t want to decline in the classics. I’m still young enough to make that jump, and it allows me to carry on, but protecting what I’ve done so far.

“I think a time comes when you don’t connect with a company, because from your generation, my generation – there are just a few people here. They have these new youngsters coming in, so my generation are all retired, moving away. All of a sudden, I go to the ballet barre, and the company has changed completely! It’s a move that I’ve foreseen, a while back. I signed a contract with The Royal Ballet, and you just see, every year, what is the rep? Then you question yourself, ‘Do you really want to do this again?’ Then you take the decision. I wanted to leave, but with something that is meaningful. What could be more meaningful than to leave [a production] for the company?

“I’m very happy that I managed to take the decision – to ask how I want to be remembered, my last show. It’s all good. I’m a father” – his daughter, who joined him for the curtain call after his last Colas in La Fille mal gardée, is aged three. “I have a lot to give, still. This is a time to discover what is out there, to keep collaborating and keep growing, instead of just doing the same old ballets. It’s like allowing you to fly into a new and different territory.”

The School of Ballet building in Cuba. Photograph: Nigel Young and Foster+Partners

Or territories: Acosta has many plans. He wants to start a new company, and to found a centre in Cuba, giving young people the chance to study the arts. He might write more books, following his autobiography and his novel Pig’s Foot: “I like the feeling of connecting with an audience. It’s not going to be high literature, I just like storytelling.”

More immediately, he’s planning a new company. He’s already staged his own productions, mixing guest artists and sometimes working with the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. His new company will have Cuban roots and an international slant; he hopes to build on his existing connections with Sadler’s Wells. “We’ve had auditions. It’s going to be a company of 20, 25 people, from all over the place: maybe half classical, half contemporary, folkloric. We’re in the process of creating repertoire. We have a few choreographers that we have approached. I’m very interested in using it as a platform for national talent, to choreograph things that are part of our culture.

“How can I create a company that is very distinctive in what it does? Like, when you see Alvin Ailey, you know that this is Alvin Ailey. In Cuba, our culture is very rich, there’s so much to say. There are so many musicians. If you could bring all these talents to collaborate, something unique could happen. Also, just to reach out to choreographers outside, merge them with the Cuban talent, and something unique might happen. That’s what I’m looking for, so it has its own authenticity. So it doesn’t do what everybody else does.

“If you think of choreographers around the world, there are a handful who everybody shares. Yeah, that’s fine, but it’s important that we have pieces that don’t look like anything else out there. It’s a process: we’re going to have to go step by step. We need choreographers who make people go, ‘Ah, I know this choreographer!’ Ultimately, we need these collaborations. In the meantime, we’re putting ourselves out there, the company will develop its own profile, but eventually, the goal is that we launch the careers of these other people in Cuba. That people come to see the company and things are more ingrained, more individual.”

Acosta, and his family, plan to live in both the UK and Cuba. “The idea is that I share time, six months in Cuba, six months here. It’s important that I am around here, not to disappear from the scene. Especially because I have a company that will be based in Cuba: Cuba is still far away and isolated,” though he hopes improved relations between Cuba and the US will have a positive impact. More personally, he sounds happy about the balance, thinking of projects in both countries. “And also, you know, we have the kids – we are planning to have more. There is a British school in Cuba, so they could go there, they could go here. To me, to our family, that’s a good balance. At least, we’ll try, we’ll see.”

He speaks enthusiastically about all his many projects, but there’s a particular glow when Acosta describes his planned dance centre in Cuba. “The foundation is for the work we’re going to do with children. We’ll audition kids from all over, give them an education for free.” He plans to base his new dance centre in Cuba’s abandoned School of Ballet, an arts complex commissioned by Fidel Castro in 1961 but never completed. “It’s a building that we’ve found, but it’s in ruins. It’s magnificent. That would be wonderful for this kind of project. This is a long process, because we need a lot of money for it.

“I’m trying to build a centre that will connect Cuba with the world. I’m not doing it just for Cuba, it’s a legacy for the world. It would give people from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to study for free. That’s something I believe in, because it happened to me. If nobody had given me a chance, I would have been lost. I’m wondering how many people are lost – waiting to be discovered, to get the chance I had. So hopefully this is something that will live on, but I need the help of everybody. That’s that.”

Top image: Carlos Acosta rehearsing Carmen with Marianela Nuñez, and with Natalia Osipova and Federico Bonelli. Photographs: Courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

Carlos Acosta’s Acosta Danza opens at Sadler’s Wells on September 28, before touring.

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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