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    Carlos Acosta 2023

    Carlos Acosta

    Director, Birmingham Royal Ballet & Acosta Danza and President, The Ballet Association

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Tue 05th September, 2023


    David welcomed Carlos who began by talking about his recent show, Carlos at 50,and how he organised the programme. He said it was one of those moments and he was still in the clouds. He misses the stage and can’t let go of it. The art form is too short so you have an idea of how to get into roles but then it’s all over. He still has an itch to wear tights and go back to some of the roles he most treasures while giving an opportunity to others to perform on that stage like his nephew Yonah Acosta and Brandon Lawrence who has great talent, with an amazing body and elasticity. Also, he wanted to give space to Acosta Danza, his ‘baby’ which was developed eight years ago and is still a very young company but like a family so they included a Carmen tableau. They wanted some fireworks and put in Corsaire which was performed by Laurretta Summerscales and Yonah.  Carlos recalled telling his teacher about his idea to form a company and asking if he could have a space. She agreed so they started from zero and developed a repertory in one of the studios. Eventually they got a base and now they have solid foundations. Carlos considers himself a combination of cultures, not a purist in the classical sense.  Before ballet came into his life there was the whole Cuban heritage which comes from a collision of mainly African and Spanish cultures. He grew up with Cuban dances and folk, then in the 80s he discovered hip hop, before he began studying ballet as a career. What he’s trying to project is an extension of who he is as an individual. He has varying tastes and lots of information and wants to try to offer works that connect with different people at different stages. So the classicism is there in one of its greatest works, Apollo, which he loves. He thought that with a whole year’s training he could deliver an idea of the dancer he was while doing so with dignity and not trying to be 20 at 50, but keeping the perspective of the man he is now and what he knows of the roles. One highlight was the chance to dance again with Marianela Nuñez who was his partner for many years.  They incorporated various elements to make a good evening bringing in the colours he’d acquired throughout his career, from contemporary roles to the classics like Manon. which he loves, and going back full circle to finish with his roots as a Cuban, finally ending on a high and happy note with a band, and bringing his daughters on stage which he was very keen to make happen. The programming went through different stages. They tried to put together a set of skills, with all the elements that can compensate for the lack of energy or strength. It wasn’t meant as a comeback but just a celebration, not necessarily to be done perfectly but to be performed with dignity. Carlos performed every night for five nights and is still sore!

    Ben Stevenson’s End of Time was on the programme. Ben played a crucial part in Carlos’ career. In Cuba they lived through what was known as ‘the special period’ when the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 and Cuba became completely disconnected from the world, they lost funding from the Soviet countries and without their own industry being well developed it was a very tough time. Ben was a saviour as his rescue came when Carlos was making one dollar a month in Los Pinos where he was born. He’d cycle to train and cycle home again and there wasn’t a lot of food so life was hard. Many changes were happening, there was the exodus of people in 1994 who took what they could and went to sea and many perished. Carlos at 18 had begun his career with English National Ballet (ENB) but due to injury he had surgery here and when he went back home he lost contact with the outside world during the ‘special period’. He had worked with Ben at ENB in 1991, and Ben went to Cuba to hire him and take him to Houston. Ben had a British passport so could travel to Cuba whereas Americans could not. Then it was a question of reconciling working in the USA while keeping ties with his own country which he wasn’t prepared to give up. Somehow Ben found an amazing lawyer who made it happen. Carlos asked Alicia Alonso, Director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC) for permission to go to Houston Ballet for eight months. This was the start of Carlos’ relationship with Ben and allowed him to carry on his international career which had begun at 18. Ben was one of those angels who appear in your life and make your future bright and he became a father figure. Carlos didn’t know what Christmas was, there were no holidays to celebrate.  Ben opened up many new horizons for him including discovering the guy dressed in red with a white beard was Santa Claus with reindeer! He learned about the generosity and relationship between choreographer and dancer. Until then it was just a repetition of the classics but to collaborate on a creation was a new process which he enjoyed with Ben so he has much to be grateful for. He had danced End of Time which is very simple and pure but with a narrative to be discovered and brought that piece to Birmingham during the pandemic. He includes it in almost every programme and as Ben was around he put it into his celebration as a tribute to him. David commented on his extraordinary generosity, gifting ballets to BNC and paying for assistants to travel to Cuba. Carlos agreed that Ben is a true artist who lives for the art form. Everything is directed towards ballet and he funds it all.

    Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) and Black Sabbath. When Carlos took over he understood that BRB was like a product of Birmingham so they needed to enhance the city audience where they’re based. They act as ambassadors for Birmingham but Carlos found people hadn’t been very effective in voicing how wonderful the city had been throughout history from the leaders of the Industrial Revolution, immigration, the shop of the world where you could find anything, so many treasures, so they are bringing this awareness to the community, working with them to show how great the city is and also how wonderful BRB is, encouraging them to be part of this amazing company. The programme is a dedication of three ballets for the city. The City of 1000 Trades talking about immigration and many cultures, building the city, the Windrush movement etc.  You shouldn’t always be predictable. They are a classical company but sometimes you need to take risks and be bold enough to gain different audiences along the way. Perhaps twenty-somethings don’t go to ballet as they think it’s what their grand-parents do so we need to try to engage with them while encouraging an audience who would normally go to the classics. Also, heavy metal and Black Sabbath were born in Birmingham as was Ozzie Osborne. They have one of the best orchestras in the nation, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. For Carlos it was interesting to see how these dissimilar worlds could collide and coexist. It was a tough call and they wondered how it would work but if you team up with brilliant minds, hopefully you can find a middle path where they come together and progress. It has been brilliantly received and several months ago all the tickets were sold so now they had to come up with a show! It’s a good problem to have but a responsibility. Already 60% of those who’ve invested in the show and bought tickets are not from the ballet world and they may not have heard of BRB beforehand so this is their target group. Black Sabbath fans are probably 50 or 60 year olds but Carlos said they were precursors of the movement which developed into the Goths, punk etc and that is the route many of the 20-30 year olds find is now part of their lives. It’s not so much about the music itself but through it coming up with an original artistic expression. It’s inspiration and the sense of Black Sabbath which gives them a sound and they can fly from that point to come up with something different. You’ll see the dancers in pointe shoes doing ballet, in the second act it’s tennis shoes, and the three acts have three different journeys.  There are three different composers and three choreographers which is the most complicated project Carlos has ever been involved in. The first act is choreographed by a very talented Cuban, Raoul Reinoso, whose work Satori they have already performed and this gives him the opportunity to create a longer piece which is also good for his development. The second act is by a choreographer from Brazil, Cassi Abranches, a very different language, sometimes very poetic, and he’s very pleased to have her on board. The third act is by Pontus Lidberg who has choreographed internationally including for Acosta Danza, using some tracks of a highly regarded Cuban classical composer, Leo Brouwer, and another who was inspired by him. He made a classical piece for Acosta Danza called Paysage, soudain, la nuit.  Carlos likes his work and wanted to have him in the project. As for composers, there’s Chris Austin who did the music for Chroma, and is very good at transferring rock into symphonic sound. He has worked recently with Arthur Pita and the Beach Boys. There’s also Marko Nyberg from Finland who did Act I, Rocky Sun Keting of Chinese descent and another wonderful composer who did Act II and Chris Act III. Many others were involved in the production so hopefully it’ll be a good show.

    It’s Carlos’ third year, going into the fourth, as Director of BRB. He joined in 2020 and three months later we all know what happened. He’s still traumatised about it. It was very hard for all performing arts with theatres closed. He couldn’t implement his vision but had to apply survival mode, contract finances while keeping everyone motivated. So, he applied to friends like Ben and Valery Panov to give him pieces not requiring a lot of space, so they could be performed in a library, museum or tennis court for example and accessed on line. At the time they didn’t have a streaming capability so it had to be developed as the only way to reach an audience and they did Nutcracker on line. This all meant his original vision had to wait for two years until finally he did a programme Into The Music including Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land, Seventh Symphony and a commissioned work, Hotel. Meantime they had to think what they could do and how far could they go which was a very exhaustive exercise and just when they thought it was going to fly, going on tour with Carlos’ Don Quixote, Omicron hit. It didn’t achieve the level of sales they expected and had involved about £1 million of investment so all of that led to stress but they had to keep the motivation alive. Cubans are good at trying to work through adversity which has always been their life but now they are out there in the public eye, and they’ve launched BRB2 which is a great initiative giving newcomers the chance to develop rapidly so they could be used by BRB. Also using technology to show how they can be a brand as a company of experience and fun and excitement, and engaging the audience on different levels.

    Reverting to Don Q. which the Royal Ballet will be performing, Carlos said he will be involved from next week as there are some debuts in the roles but up till now he’s been immersed in Carlos at 50 and Black Sabbath.  The BRB version came from the ROH production. He always tries not to do the obvious and sometimes gets it wrong but they still have to be able to come up with something different. He talked to Tim Hatley who’s come from the world of Broadway rather than ballet.  It’s always bothered him in Giselle that the house doesn’t move and wondered how it could be changed. His idea is to freshen up the classics, not to disturb the ghosts of the past but bring in new elements so they speak about who we are today. When he passes away, Carlos would hate to be thought of as an extension of someone else’s works so every day he tries to make a statement and bring something new to the table. In Don Q there was a very sad mechanical horse! He’s proud of what they have now but it was very costly. Also, BRB has a much reduced budget so they had to take a completely different approach and they tour to places where there’s no space so the concept of moving the house wouldn’t work but traditionally they have to be able to fly things up and down. Now he’s used projection in the second act. Technology is an expression of today and, if well blended with the classics, can be interesting and cost effective in many ways as you don’t need a lot of crew. So, there are projections in Act II and there’s a male Amour which some people hate but there are new experiences for both companies. The National Ballet of Canada is taking the BRB production to Canada so he’s looking forward to working with them, and also Hong Kong Ballet in 2025.  It was very well received and he’s looking forward to working on both productions this time round. For David the highlight of the BRB production was the orchestration. Carlos said if he’s given the choice of a safe path, and another which you don’t know if it will work he’ll always take the risk. Sometimes you get it wrong but it comes from the heart.

    BRB2. The dancers have a two year rolling programme. It’s a rotation for six dancers and in the second year there’s a new intake for another six dancers forming a group of 12 with the first year helping the latest intake. There was no time to create something from scratch for their first performance so they redid the gala Carlos Acosta and Friends of the Royal Ballet which he’d put on at Sadler’s Wells in 2008 and which won an Olivier award. It was hard in terms of physicality and artistry including works like Winter Dreamsand Diana and Acteon, but a good way to motivate dancers and it was very well received. Many sponsors want to participate at the beginning of someone’s career and follow them through so there was plenty of interest in helping the new generation who are leading the way. Also, they aren’t tied to the live music policy as BRB are so can use recorded music if necessary. Normally they are going to 500-600 seater venues and finance is a big consideration so it has to be within the boundaries of what they can afford. They try to minimise the danger of not selling tickets and that also affects what they can offer. They had to develop the skill and couldn’t just fly which could have had terrible consequences. So, for the second programme this year they have the same gala but at different venues. When they launched last season they had six dancers so had to bring in some younger members of the main company in support but now there are 12 in BRB2. Normally when a dancer comes from the school they have to wait for roles and that is discouraging. Only when challenged physically and made to do difficult things can you grow so in BRB2 they have the best of both worlds. They’ll still perform large scale works like Nutcrackerand Swan Lake with BRB but at the same time having a tailor-made rep just for them. Physically the dancers will be stronger and they have to develop quickly as BRB need a contingency group of dancers being a comparatively small company of about 60 so if there are injuries someone has to come in at the last minute to deliver a soloist role. Everyone should be a potential soloist so the magic of the stage can be sustained and the production doesn’t suffer.

    Last week virtual stage was launched. This is their effort to push boundaries in the technological world and there’s increasing talk about AI etc so in that context ballet mustn’t be left behind. They have to be able to absorb technology and deliver a new experience especially to people who are not mobile. Say you are in hospital, if you have the possibility of watching Swan Lake all around you and see the dancers, it would ease the pain and make life more pleasurable. Technology plays an amazing role. Bloomberg and Canon made big donations. (Carlos met Michael Bloomberg a while ago when he was looking for sponsors to rescue the old school in Cuba which finally didn’t happen.) They are big on technology and so Carlos approached Bloomberg who provided a major endorsement. They are very pleased and the team with Tom Rogers have done a great job working day and night to get it off the ground. They launched the programme and Tom and the team are going to New York in October to discuss the next stage with Bloomberg. It’s incredible as Swan Lake is recorded and you’re placed within a ballet and everyone dances around you and you can see emotions and expressions. The possibilities are endless and it’s especially good for people who love ballet and can no longer attend live performances.

    Acosta Danza and the schools in Cuba. In 2015 Carlos had the idea of forming a company. In Cuba it sits between the power-houses of BNC and Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and absorbs every type of dance. With his outside contacts he could bring the best choreographers to Cuba and bring the best of Cuban talent to the world so the idea was to create a bridge between the two. Sadler’s Wells was their producer and founder helping to sell the company and making connections with choreographers and partners around the world to invest in the company and take them on tour. But it’s very much a Cuban project. They faced many challenges. Cuba is suffering from a big exodus and increasingly you find dancers want to leave Cuba which is a big difficulty. He thought of opening a dance centre here where the dancers could come for six months to train, give them growth and financial compensation and they could go back to share with their families. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult to keep the project going but now it should be manageable. The centre is now here in Woolwich which is an underprivileged area where there’s not a lot of dance but there are a lot of people of African descent and Cubans are half African so there’s a common language which they hopefully can bring to the community and make sure they can take ownership of what is going on in the building. At the same time, they wanted to create a reference point of dance by getting people to engage in winter and summer courses, and to create another temple of dance in the region from the perspective of what they can bring which is their Cuban-ness which is a blend of Afro-Cuban salsa and contemporary.  With the curriculum implemented for Acosta Danza they hope to train dancers here, so trying to preserve the future with the new modality that the centre offers. Carlos is working on a new production of Nutcracker, creating one they didn’t have in Cuba, called Nutcracker in Habana.  With Acosta Danza he’s trying to tackle a larger format and they need a show. Nutcracker is a very expensive show to tour and there are theatres that would never have a Nutcracker so this is for them. While the dancers are here they need a show to tour. They try to retain its roots as a Cuban project but make it financially viable. The original plan for the school didn’t work but they now have a school in Havana and they’ve just had their first graduation so it’s nice to see their babies growing up and you’ll see the company changing and new dancers joining Acosta Danza.

    Originally, they took dancers from contemporary, classical and cabaret backgrounds. They alternate days with classical and contemporary classes, they do classical and pointe shoes if they’re preparing Swan Lake as classical is an amazing way to train the body. But there are many techniques in contemporary dance and his assistant Yaday Ponce comes from this background, from the roots of the dance technique that Ramido Vera, founding father of contemporary dance in Cuba, developed from his connection with Martha Graham and other contemporary masters. She grew up with all that information but also developed it into a classical language. It’s still pretty much classical vocabulary but an open tendue or something with a contraction but it’s a very nice technique. In the beginning Carlos held an open audition and people turned up from different fields. There’s a woman, Zeleidy Crespo, who just won the Critics’ Circle award for best contemporary dancer and she’s like an African goddess. She was such a presence and Carlos felt she had to be part of the company as she could do amazing things and even choreography like Faun from Sidi Larbi which is very hard. He’s very proud of her and she’s proof that sometimes looks are deceptive and it shows if you work hard and commit anything can happen.

    Javier Torres, managing director of Acosta Dance Foundation (ADF) joined us briefly and told us about the Acosta Dance Centre (ADC), one of the main pillars of ADF, which had been launched the previous day. The Foundation’s been around for more than 11 years and has done amazing work in Cuba helping dancers with their careers and moving on to Acosta Danza. Now there’s been a massive investment to expand the work done in Cuba into the UK so they now have three main pillars, the work in Cuba which is still very active and alive, a platform to be created in 2026, and the ADC which they opened yesterday. They’re very excited about the work they’ll do there. They have a great building in Royal Arsenal Woolwich, 18 minutes from there to Tottenham Court Road so come and join, he said! Several things going on – the Centre offers commercial classes from rumba, folklore, ballet, contemporary, cabaret. Javier expressed himself to be very proud to join with Carlos in this venture. His vision for the Foundation and the Centre is not just to affect the dance world in Cuba and the UK but something that will grow into an international reference for dance. It couldn’t be done in Cuba, but it’s happening here in London and we’re all invited to visit.

    Ramona de Saa had an enormous effect on Carlos’ life. She’s like a mother figure for him. There was an exchange cultural programme between the new theatre in Turin and the Cuban NBS in early 90s. Ramona decided to experiment by selecting two dancers from the school to work in the new company in Turin. Carlos was one and the other was Ariell Serrano who now has his own successful academy in Sarasota, and they’re still in contact and are planning to work together with the Centre and his academy. The relationship with Ramona was of mentor and mother figure. At the time Cuba was very closed.  Ramona was one of the pillars of the educational system, head of the NBS. She helped to write the School’s training methodology with Fernando Alonso who along with Alicia Alonso was the father figure of ballet and dance in Cuba. Ramona prepared Carlos for the Prix de Lausanne. They had a Romanian choreographer’s Carmen in rep at that time and he saw Carlos and said he should go to the Prix. His teacher found out about the competition and Ramona prepared him for it so he went and won the grand prix. He returned to Italy and then began to be noticed by the press and danced soloist roles. Ivan Nagy from Hungary took over ENB in 1990 and went to audition dancers in Cuba. He saw Carlos, aged 17, and wanted him to come as a principal in the company but Carlos already had a place in NBC to start in September 1991 as a member of the corps.  Ramona did something which was quite extraordinary and affected the course of his whole life. While they were in Italy during the summer, she called Ivan and said he’s here if you still want him. It was a big gamble for her because at the time with the way things were in Cuba it could cause her a lot of trouble. Ramona arranged everything and Carlos didn’t join NBC but flew to London instead. But she had to go back to Cuba and when they discovered what she’d done she was in big trouble. It was because of her, he was an ENB principal dancer aged 18, performing with the likes of Eva Evdokimova. It would have taken an eternity to get that far had he been in NBC so she was responsible for the start of a career which otherwise would have been lost.  He’s always kept in contact, she was a mentor and, as seen in the movie Yuli, she prepared him to join Ben Stephenson in Houston. She now lives in Mexico and they keep in contact.   There are other things that bind them together – for example Carlos had to let her know by phone of the tragic death of her daughter. She is another of those angels who’ve been in his life who was director of the school for 50 years until her recent retirement.

    Cuba used to be like a dancing factory and especially for boys. It was a very young school with Vaganova, Danish, and French methods but in the 80s it was amazing what they produced and many of them were making their mark in competitions and always getting the top prizes so people became very aware of the Cuban training. Also, a lot of their teachers like Azari Plissetski, Maya Plisetskaya’s brother, was one of the pioneers who danced with Alicia Alonso and many others great dancers. Teachers like Lasaro Carreño was in the last class of Pushkin and a fellow student with Baryshnikov. The school is still very strong but slowly in decline because of the situation the country is facing. So many valuable people have left taking their knowledge and skills with them and they’re irreplaceable - once they have gone it’s too late. Carlos feels for the situation as he loves Cuba so much. It has enormous potential and led the way in so many directions like sports and the arts. That was what motivated him to found his company in Cuba, to show the world what assets they have but it’s increasingly very challenging and very sad.

    Questions: Will the financial difficulties for Birmingham Council which have just been announced impact on BRB? Are you going to do a Pre-Raphaelite work? Carlos said previously the City Council gave them about £1 million, but that has been cut drastically. This July they received their grant for next season which is down to £154,000. In the light of today’s news it could be zero in future. He’s already put forward his three-year plan for the upcoming rep so the other will have to wait.

    How do you get teenage girls to watch BRB and engage in ballet dancing themselves? Normally as a professional they start at the age of 9 or10 and it involves training every day for eight hours. You’re investing in a life style almost doing away with normality and going on a journey towards becoming a professional. As for BRB, he suggested starting by watching clips on YouTube but you need to be ready to become involved. Sometimes in your teen years you haven’t ever listened to classical music but as you get older and research a bit you may then be ready to engage with ballet. Everybody’s journey of discovery is different. It might not be the right time now, but could be later.

    How do you juggle BRB, Acosta Danza and family? Carlos admitted to being a workaholic. You really need to have your team and he is blessed to have a good team and have a clear path and try to work with helpful and motivational people. It’s incredible what Javier is doing at the moment and he feels so motivated by him investing his time and energy in what Carlos wanted to create. They find a lot of pleasure in building something for the audiences. You have to persuade people to come on board with you and you have an idea which develops and becomes something else so it’s no longer your idea but something different you can create together. You need to have the ability to listen and get people on board. He couldn’t accomplish all this if there weren’t peace of mind in his home, the ‘home team’ of his wife and kids who give him inspiration. He wants to make sure while he is here he doesn’t lose a single minute of satisfying his thirst for evolving his creativity.

    In thanking Carlos very much, David said we planned to go to Birmingham to see Sleeping Beauty in February and BRB2 in Canterbury later in the spring. It is always a pleasure to talk to him and we are most grateful for his commitment to the Association as one of our Presidents.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Carlos Acosta and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2023