When Carlos Acosta sees me backstage, he walks toward me smiling, his arms open wide. We met briefly the night before at a reception, but he embraces me and kisses me on both cheeks like we’re old friends. It’s 11:15 am one morning in mid-March, and he’s warming up onstage, preparing for the 11:30 class. He rose early. After walking the grounds of his host, he had fruit for breakfast and read, enjoying the Texas sun. “It was such a beautiful morning,” he says.
Acosta is in Fort Worth to dance Le Corsaire Pas de Deux with the National Ballet of China’s Zhang Jian at Bass Hall. He’s danced with her before. This time, it’s part of a Texas Ballet Theater mixed-rep program called Stars and Premieres, with a three-performance run. Tomorrow is opening night, and he’s only been in town a few days.
Acosta began dancing at age 9 at the National Ballet School of Cuba. Even before graduating in 1991, he began touring and guesting worldwide. In 1993, he met Ben Stevenson, then–artistic director of Houston Ballet, who currently heads TBT. Stevenson invited Acosta to join Houston Ballet as a principal, and Acosta remained there for five years.
Acosta credits Stevenson for paving the way for his success, including being a principal at The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, as well as performing all over the world, appearing on British television and in two films, and receiving numerous awards.
With Acosta spending most of his time dancing in London, New York and Paris, it may seem odd that he’d come to Fort Worth to dance one short piece for three nights. Put that question to Acosta and his answer is simple and immediate: “There is something called appreciation,” he says. “I feel very grateful to Ben. He means a lot to me. This is a way to pay him back for what he’s done for me.”
Preparing for class, Acosta stretches alongside the other dancers. He pounds his thighs with his fists and then sits, crossing his legs to rub his feet. Then he stands to stretch his legs on the barre.
His stature is striking; his dark skin and wild, curly hair add to his allure. He’s wholly aware of his surroundings and completely rapt in what he’s doing, sometimes stopping to smile at me between exercises as I sit on the apron of the stage; other times he’s lost in the combinations.
By 12:10 pm, the class moves on to center work. Acosta loosens his spine, collapsing backward over a barre in the wings, chatting with the dancers. He returns to the stage with his group—turning, leaping, soaring through the space. In each combination, his speed, accuracy and technical skills are as grand as during any performance.
Class lasts only an hour, and because he’s not due back for the tech rehearsal until after 3, he suggests we grab lunch. “Something light, of course. Maybe a salad,” he says. We walk to a restaurant and get a table outside.
Latin music plays, and Acosta dances in his chair. “We could dance Corsaire to this,” he jokes. We talk about his career, about how people recognize him in New York, about his buying a home in London. “The realtor knew more about me than me,” he says. “There were lots of bids on the house, but I got it because the owner’s wife is a ballet fan.” He shakes his head, laughing.
The conversation turns to his age, and he grins. “I’m 34. I’m a dinosaur.”
“How could you possibly say that?” I ask.
“You should have seen me this morning, limping and shuffling to the bathroom,” he teases. “I’m becoming a fossil. I don’t know how much longer I can do all these shows and tours.”
Acosta muses about wanting a family of his own one day, of how much he is enjoying this time in his career, of how he values all that he has. “I have freedom. And freedom is the most precious thing.”
As for his future plans, he says he’s already writing his autobiography. After that? “It all depends, because I want to enjoy my children,” he says, speaking of the ones he hopes to have one day. “I know I can do many things. I don’t see myself in a ballet classroom teaching.”
He talks about Cuba. His voice full of love and respect—for the country and its people. “In Cuba, it’s all about human contact. Here, it’s all computers, no connection. In [London], I don’t even know my neighbors, and I’ve been there five years. If we don’t pay attention, we’re all going to be robots,” he says. “In the end, that’s what life should be all about—sharing experiences.”
Growing up in the barrio and leaving school at an early age provided Acosta with little formal education. His father enrolled him in ballet school to keep him out of trouble. “I started reading because I wanted to tell my story,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at school. I got kicked out, and I regret it. I didn’t know anything about anything. Someone once said, ‘You can’t be a doctor if you only know medicine.’ Same applies. I feel more free knowing about more than just ballet.”
At 3:20, after spending only a few moments warming up in the wings, Acosta’s onstage for the tech rehearsal. It’s primarily for lights, cues and staging, so Acosta and Zhang mark much of the choreography—a relief, as an ongoing injury in his foot and ankle are hurting him badly.
He’s not due onstage again until after 8 pm for the evening’s dress rehearsal. He heads to his dressing room to ice his injury. He then heads for his host’s home to read and nap. His focus onstage demands time for meditation off of it.
It’s an odd day for Acosta, filled more with waiting than dancing. The one piece he’s performing is only nine minutes long, but Acosta doesn’t appear to mind. He seems happy for the ease with which the day is unfolding.
At 7:25, Acosta is in costume backstage, warming up at the barre. Thirty minutes later, he returns to his dressing room for one final look in the mirror. He details Corsaire for me, explaining the plot and his role as slave. He acts out the scene, gesturing with graceful bows and sweeping arms. His eyes are pleading, and his movements are as dramatic as any stage performance.
He returns to the wings at 8:12. Minutes later he’s onstage, dancing full out at this dress rehearsal for the next three nights’ performances. His colleagues in the wings stop to watch. Their faces register awe. The audience for the rehearsal is small, just company members and press photographers, but Acosta’s performance draws cheers and applause that belie the tiny number of occupied seats.
What seems like an instant later, Acosta is rehearsing his bows. He stops to mark a few steps onstage and speaks to the pianist about the tempo of the piece. Then he dashes into his dressing room to gather his things. Second later he slips out, kisses me on both checks, and says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Twenty-four hours later, after watching his opening-night performance, I can see the sheer joy on his face. As I hear the audience clap and cheer and watch everyone rise to their feet, I can’t help but remember something Acosta said about the passing of Ibrahim Ferrer, a musician he greatly loved and admired: “When you live in someone else’s heart, that’s the best way to live.”
Jenny Block writes for a variety of regional and national publications. Her latest work appears in the new anthology It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters.