A New Side of Carlos Acosta

The superstar stages "Don Quixote" for The Royal Ballet.
Published in the October/November 2013 issue.

Acosta directing a "Don Q" rehearsal. Photo Andrej Uspenski/ROH.

Carlos Acosta. The name is almost synonymous with great male dancing, calling up an image of a performer whose combination of athletic dynamism, refined classicism and onstage magnetism have made him a superstar from just about the start of his career. Born and raised in Cuba, he began performing at 18 with English National Ballet in London. He moved to Houston Ballet in 1993, joined The Royal Ballet as a principal in 1998 and was a regular guest artist at American Ballet Theatre (among other companies) for several years. Despite the acclaim that has consistently come his way, Acosta hasn’t ever rested on his laurels. Like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, he is a star capable of drawing audiences to any performance bearing his name, and over the last decade, he has presented regular seasons of his own programs in London and abroad. These have ranged from Cuban-themed populist shows to adventurous contemporary work featuring film and experimental choreography, but Acosta’s own charismatic personality is always at their heart. He remains a favorite of audiences at The Royal Ballet, where he is staging his own production of Don Quixote, which runs from September 30 through November 6 at the Royal Opera House. After a long day of rehearsal, he talked to Pointe about the new production, what Don Quixote means to him, Cuba and lots more.

How did the idea of staging Don Quixote for The Royal Ballet come about?

Every classical ballet company should have a Don Quixote, but for some reason The Royal Ballet hasn’t had a production for more than 10 years. We have a lot of youngsters who really want to try out their technical skills—and that’s the ballet to do it. People practice wild jumps in class, but there’s nowhere to do that onstage, no place for a really free kind of dancing.

When Kevin O’Hare was in line for director here, he heard that I had said something about this, and he told me, “If I get the job, we should make it happen.” He got the job—and I took the challenge.

Have you ever staged a ballet before?
No! But I have a lot of curiosity about new experiences. It is the natural course for an artist to keep trying things, not to keep repeating things—that is artistic death. Baryshnikov is what an artist should be, adapting and evolving all the time.

You have been closely identified with Don Quixote as a dancer.

I’ve always loved it. I won the Prix de Lausanne with the solo at 16, and it’s the ballet I have performed the most—at American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opéra, Stuttgart, Cuba, Chile, The Royal. It has so many great characters, and so much dancing for the corps. And it’s just so much fun.

Are you particularly influenced by any one version?

Ben Stevenson created a version in Houston for me in 1995, and perhaps because it was made on me, it is the one I really like. He has a tremendous sense of humor, particularly in the pantomime. I am keeping quite a lot from that production, including the libretto and structure.

How much original choreography have you introduced?

A lot, but it’s all in a dialogue with Petipa; I’m not trying to be clever, to put it in leather jeans and be “contemporary.” I’ve kept pretty much the same vocabulary, using the tambourines, the seguidilla, the fans, the toreadors, the capes. But I’ve tried to ease the rigidity of the classicism. The ballet can look dated; it was created in the 1800s. Today we have a different humor and I want people to see the personalities, not the stereotypes.

How have you done that?

Mostly through the acting. I want the dancers to have real conversations, people shouting in the crowds, more naturalistic behavior. I keep telling the dancers, we are people onstage. I want them to relax, to walk normally.

What has the process been like?
Very challenging. The company splits its time between so many productions, and I needed to start quite early. It’s hard for them to rehearse for a premiere a year ahead of time, but I needed to have a sense of who could do it, and whether what I choreographed worked outside of my head!

Is there any Cuban influence in the ballet?
Not specifically, although of course I am the product of what I learned in Cuba. In the final pas de deux, for example, I like the Cuban version when they finish the first section with Basilio’s back to the audience, and Kitri facing forward. There is something sexy about it, seeing just his back and the profile. I want that in the ballet, and also the exuberance. You want to jump as high as you can jump, and no one is going to tell you not to.

Are you suggesting that the English style is more restrained?
A lot of English choreography, like Kenneth MacMillan’s, is more personal and intimate. That quality can bring warmth to Don Q, and I think the ballet also requires that. This company does the pantomime parts so well because they have that storytelling tradition in their DNA.

What has it been like to direct your colleagues?

I am very hands-on, but I depend a lot on everyone working with me, too. I don’t always have the answers—I haven’t set 10 ballets before. I’m learning as well.

You have written a novel that’s out this month, you just had a season at the London Coliseum and helped recreate an arts center in Havana. And you are still dancing. Why take on staging a full-length ballet, too?

I like to keep testing my limits. It gives me creative fuel. It’s all a lot of work, but it helps me to stay at the level I need to be. I’ve always been a worker.