Ballet leaps back in UK with Acosta world premieres

·4-min read
Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta poses at the Birmingham Royal Ballet in Birmingham

Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta is staging world dance premieres at one of Britain's top ballet companies to welcome audiences back after the "nightmare" of the pandemic lockdowns.

The 47-year-old, who took over as director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet early last year, said that he could not wait to "connect" with ballet-goers again through a mixed programme of both modern and classical dance.

Acosta grew up in poverty in Cuba but his prodigious talent propelled him into major roles at dance companies, including The Royal Ballet in London.

He hung up his ballet shoes in 2016 and in January 2020 took over the reins of the Birmingham company, based in the UK's second largest city.

However, soon after his appointment, the country was plunged into a series of lengthy lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.

- 'Very traumatic' -

"It was very traumatic," Acosta told AFP, after leading a class at his studio. "This institution is very large. It was all new to me."

He had the task of keeping the company's finances afloat and chose to reduce his own salary so all 60 dancers could be paid in full.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet was one of the first British companies to go back to live performances in October, between two lockdowns.

The first live show programmed by Acosta was a one-act ballet called "Lazuli Sky".

Dancers obeyed rules on social distancing by performing in voluminous skirts, inspired by the crinolines worn in the 19th century when this was believed to prevent cholera transmission.

"I wanted to leave a record behind of the pandemic," Acosta said, of the show's concept.

But the lockdown rules on dancers not touching each other were "very unnatural", he admitted.

"With no contact, there are limited things that you can do."

-'False hope'-

Later, the company started rehearsing with dancers in "bubbles" to reduce the risk of the entire company having to self-isolate if one fell ill.

Soon afterwards, the UK locked down again, with theatres only briefly reopening in December before closing again until early this month.

"It was like a false sense of hope," said Rosanna Ely, a 25-year-old dancer at the company.

The pandemic "has been a nightmare for everyone", Acosta agreed.

For dancers, "the body suffers" but the lockdowns and reopenings were also "very damaging" psychologically, he said.

For the company, closing down during the normally lucrative festive season was financially disastrous, too.

The cancellation of Christmas performances of "The Nutcracker" meant it lost around £1 million (1.2 million euros, $1.4 million), Acosta said.

To welcome audiences back, Acosta is putting on "Curated by Carlos: Triple Bill", a performance made up of three short ballets, two of which are world premieres, from June 10.

One of the premieres -- "City of a Thousand Trades" from Havana-born choreographer Miguel Altunaga -- celebrates Birmingham's industrial heritage.

The other, "Imminent", by Brazilian-British choreographer Daniela Cardim, is inspired by themes including climate change.

"It's very eclectic, it's fresh... it's what I think is the way forward for a ballet company of the 21st century," Acosta said.

The company will also be staging a traditional favourite, "Cinderella", later in June.

- 'Not easily defeated' -

Acosta's programming reflects his vision of dancers embracing both modern dance and classical ballet.

"I'm loving so much this contemporary stuff at the moment because it's so different and it's so much out of my comfort zone", said Ely, after a rehearsal of "City of a Thousand Trades", Birmingham's nickname during the Industrial Revolution.

Darel Jose Perez, a 22-year-old Dominican dancer, joined the Birmingham ballet as an apprentice dancer in November, thanks to the Carlos Acosta International Dance Foundation, which aims to give opportunities to dancers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"It was really hard to come to a country I didn't know," he said.

He added that he "felt alone" during the pandemic but was still very grateful for the "great opportunity".

Acosta himself is of mixed Spanish and African heritage.

He grew up as the 11th child in his family, but his truck driver father pushed him to study ballet.

His career saw him perform with the world's top companies, making him a trailblazer for black dancers.

While at The Royal Ballet, he was the only black principal dancer and one of only two non-white dancers.

"I think now this has changed," he said.

Acosta has set up projects to help young dancers in his native Cuba: the Carlos Acosta Dance Academy and the Acosta Danza company, launched in 2015.

He said that his background had given him "tremendous resilience" and he was "not somebody that gives up or gets defeated very easily".

He hopes there will not be another lockdown but added that "if it does (happen), then we'll have to adapt".