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Interview: Carlos Acosta on his Classical Farewell and 17 years of dance

The legendary ballet dancer talks retirement, his Cuban roots and his upcoming three-night show in Hong Kong

Angela Taylor

Receiving an astounding 20-minute standing ovation at his final ballet performance at London's Royal Opera House (ROH), where he danced for 17 years, was a fitting end to the career of one of the greatest dancers of our time. Hailed by his company during that final curtain call as 'a trailblazer and inspiration for male dancers', Carlos Acosta has appeared in title roles in the most prominent venues in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera House, New York and the Paris Opera, and was the first foreign dancer ever to be a guest-principal at the Bolshoi Ballet. Now 43, he is retiring from the world of classical ballet having enjoyed a long and successful international career, which he is celebrating with his upcoming three-night show, A Classical Farewell, in Hong Kong this week.

"This programme consists of several ballets from different styles and times," Acosta tells us ahead of his shows. "It shows us the world of ballet on stage, and backstage. The selection has to do with my career, and some of the choreographers are my friends." A Classical Farewell features a wide-ranging repertoire, from excerpts of the crown jewel of ballets, Swan Lake, to Acosta’s swansong at the ROH, Carmen, a production which saw him take on duties as both lead dancer and choreographer.

When asked why this is his 'classical farewell', Acosta answers, "I have fulfilled almost every dream, so I think it is time for a change. It’s not only for my body, but I also have other interests." Acosta has remained tight-lipped about his future, but indicates that he will 'stay in the world of dance as a teacher, choreographer, but with more contemporary leanings'.

For someone who seems to have such an innate talent, Acosta has not always loved ballet. "When my father took me to ballet school it was not a good experience," Acosta says, deadpan. "For a long time, I went against my will and that brought me some problems." Coming from a very humble background in backstreets of Havana, Cuba, he reveals in his bestselling memoir No Way Home (2008) that he used to steal, play truant and was expelled from school. Indeed, he went to ballet school for no other reason than the fact that the school would provide regular square meals. 

A school trip to the Cuban National Ballet changed his life. "I saw a dancer called Alberto Terrero," Acosta recalls. "I was astonished with his jumps, and I decided I wanted to emulate him. From that day on, ballet began to grow inside of me." After winning the prestigious Prix de Lausanne at the age of 16 in 1990, he joined the English National Ballet the following year to begin his international career. "It was a happy time that showed that my father was not wrong and that ballet was a good path for me," Acosta says.

Acosta quickly became one of the most celebrated ballet dancers in the world, capturing hearts with his elegance, athleticism and distinctly Cuban touch of stage presence.  "Our culture speaks out loudly in the way we dance, we move, and we relate with each other," Acosta says. "There is a grace, a sensuality, and an extroversion in our ballet dancers." He posits that Cuban ballet is bright and powerful, reflecting Cubans' joy of living in their sunny homeland, granting their dancers distinct personalities which shine even with the most distinguished companies in the world.

But Cuban culture is more important to Acosta than merely influencing the way he dances. "My own culture defined me and helped me to deal with all the things that happened later on in my career," Acosta explains. "The way I move on stage, the way I construct a character, is defined by my culture and is the base of who I am." 

One of Acosta's most well-known quotes reads 'don’t remain where you are, but keep evolving'. This is exactly what he is doing right now. Rumours abound that he will be opening a dance school in Cuba to help aspiring dancers achieve their dreams while also leaving a long-lasting legacy in his native country. Whatever he decides to do after his final curtain call, though, will be fulfilling and enriching in its own way. "Allow yourself the freedom to commit mistakes," he told his final audience at the ROH, "You’re always learning, so be curious."

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