Superstar and BRB director Carlos Acosta used to think ballet was just a nonsense, but all that changed when the National Ballet of Cuba came to town
Widely considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director Carlos Acosta had to be forcefully coerced to try the artform by his father who wanted to save him from a slippery slope of skipping school and low-level theft.
Carlos says all he really wanted to be at the time was Michael Jackson and his dance style was more street than stage. He recalls: “We lived in a rough part of Havana where people just didn’t do ballet. I’d started skipping school and stealing, so my father forced me into ballet to pull me away from the crowd I was involved with. I hated ballet initially. I thought it was just nonsense and so slow. I wanted to break dance in the street with music blasting.”
Despite his reluctance, Carlos found he had a talent for capturing movement when he put his mind to it. The day the National Ballet of Cuba rolled into town and Carlos watched them perform was a pivotal moment. “They were athletic and cool and made it look effortless. I started to work hard and utilise my time better and it paid off.”
Carlos began to get noticed by directors. He bagged a place at a ballet camp in Switzerland and started to shine. At 16 years old, Carlos won the coveted Prix de Lausanne. He says: “I looked different. I had a big afro with these skinny legs, but I became a ballet dancer. Ballet changed my life.”
Carlos was principal dancer at the Royal Ballet for 17 years and has had a celebrated career. His role at Birmingham Royal Ballet was a bold move, but one he relished. “I took the challenge when it came along. I can help the company be more representative and more diverse and pass on the knowledge I’ve acquired. The expectations of ballet have shifted. The core ballets like Swan Lake will never go, but we’re introducing new ballets too. Twenty-first century ballet looks different. It’s important we don’t rely on yesterday and we strike the right balance.”
Guiding BRB through the challenges of the pandemic has been tough, but Carlos says the unity and togetherness across the arts community in Birmingham has been heart-warming. “I’ve had so many meetings with different organisations and the narrative has been ‘what can we do to get through this collectively?’ That’s been wonderful.”
BRB’s natural home is the Hippodrome which has been shut, so navigating new ways to reach people has required fresh partnerships, creative thinking and embracing digital. “We were in uncharted territory. The pandemic accelerated taking shows online and generating revenue that way. We’ll probably do more going forward. You can play with the camera with an online show getting right in among the dancers. It’s interesting.”
Even the previously simple tasks of bringing the company together to train and perform is a challenge with regular tests, bubbles and reduced casts. Carlos made a short online film during lockdown titled Empty Stage – his moving rallying call to all those affected by the ban of live audiences. “There’s a danger we will lose a generation of young dancers coming into the profession as well as damaging the careers of dancers who are in the prime right now with nowhere to perform.”
The company has coped by delaying some things and streaming others always with contingency plans as the situation changes so quickly. Forming a new relationship with the Rep with the Hippodrome out of action has been key too. Carlos says: “The Rep has different characteristics to the Hippodrome. It’s more subsidised which has allowed for more activity. We’ve formed an alliance as a result of the supportive conversations in the city I talked of before.”
Keeping dancers inspired and their minds active at home has been a priority. “I’ve considered a number of things to lift their spirits. I’ve brought world class names to do virtual classes for my dancers. We’ve had sessions from someone in Brazil I’ve worked with previously as well as a wonderful teacher from the Paris Opera.”
CURATED BY CARLOS
The arts are more important than ever during tough times and Carlos is keen to bring people joy. Thankfully, live performances at the Rep will begin again in June. As well as an adapted production of Sir David Bintley’s family classic, Cinderella, there’ll be a triple bill titled, Curated by Carlos which will feature the world premiere of City of a Thousand Trades, an abstract ballet dedicated to Birmingham – a love letter to the city.
Of the return of live audiences Carlos says: “To be able to present work to audiences again will be a huge relief. It is over a year since the theatres closed and a year later than planned that these two new works, which I am very excited about, will make their premieres. The programme illustrates what I want this Company to be and highlights our commitment to diverse talent.’