A Day In The Life Of Carlos Acosta

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.

Ballet Careers
Lenai Alexis Wilkerson. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Michelle Tabnick Public Relations.

This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Lenai Alexis Wilkerson graduated from University of Southern California with a BFA in dance (dance performance concentration) and a political science minor in 2019.

As Lenai Alexis Wilkerson looked at colleges, she wanted a school that would prepare her for two totally different professions: dancing and law. "I knew, pretty much when I was 16, that I wanted to go to law school," she says. "So I wanted the opportunity to have a dual college experience, where I could have a conservatory training style within a university and I could focus equally on my academics." When she auditioned for the inaugural class of University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, she knew it was the right fit.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Nicolas Pelletier in Carmina Burana. Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Last week, Colorado Ballet interrupted Nutcracker rehearsals for an exciting announcement: Four dancers were being promoted. Though all made the jump from the company's corps de ballet, Nicolas Pelletier ascended directly to the rank of soloist, while Sean Omandam, Emily Speed and Melissa Zoebisch were promoted to demi-soloist. This news comes hot on the heels of last August's promotion of Francisco Estevez to principal.

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

Keep reading... Show less