A New Side of Carlos Acosta

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.

Latest Posts


Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

2020 Stars of the Corps: 10 Dancers Making Strides In and Out of the Spotlight

The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

A male dancer catches a female dancer in his right arm as she wraps her left arm around his shoulder and executes a high arabesque on pointe. Both wear white costumes and dance in front of a blue backdrop onstage.

Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami City Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Juha Mustonen, Courtesy Finnish National Ballet

Val Caniparoli Pulled Zoom All-Nighters For His Upcoming Premiere at Finnish National Ballet

Back in April, it seemed like everyone in the performing arts was either coping with company shutdowns or watching future work evaporate before their eyes. As seasons were canceled or pushed off into the unknown future, choreographer Val Caniparoli took a deep breath and focused on a glimmer of hope: Finnish National Ballet had commissioned him to develop a full-length Jekyll & Hyde, and was determined to move forward with its November world premiere. So, Caniparoli hunkered down in his apartment while honing his vision at all hours to build this psychological thriller into a reality.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

#TBT: Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre in "Thaïs Pas De Deux" (2008)

When Sir Frederick Ashton premiered Thaïs Pas de Deux, a duet set to the "Méditation" interlude from Jules Massenet's opera Thaïs, the ballet was immediately acclaimed as one of his masterpieces, despite the fact that it is only a few minutes long. In this clip from 2008, Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre, then principals of the Bavarian State Ballet, give a tender, enchanting performance that is six-and-a-half minutes of pure beauty.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks