The career synopsis of the Cuban-born dancer Carlos Acosta reads like a fairy tale. As a dark-skinned boy from an especially poor part of Havana, he was forced to audition for the national ballet school by his father, who wanted him off the streets. After he was accepted, he started winning competitions in Europe while still a student. Soon, he joined the prestigious Ballet Nacional de Cuba, only to be snatched up by Houston Ballet, and then the Royal Ballet in Britain, where he became an international star.
For an exceptionally successful person, Mr. Acosta can come across as exceptionally ambivalent about his success. Recounting his achievements in his 2007 memoir “No Way Home,” he seems to wince with each step up the ladder, registering the cost — the painful separation from his family, his country, his sense of belonging. Speaking about his past in a recent phone interview, he again emphasized the estrangement, not the glory, recalling that on visits home even his cultural references were met with incomprehension.
Nevertheless, the successes have continued. In 2016, when he retired from ballet, at 43, his fans packed the 5,000-seat Royal Albert Hall in London for five farewell shows. Already, he had initiated the next stage in his career. Acosta Danza, a classical-meets-contemporary company he founded in Cuba, had given its first performances in Havana. Tours of Europe and Britain were soon to follow. The troupe makes its United States debut at City Center in New York on Wednesday.
As its name indicates, the company clearly banks on Mr. Acosta’s fame, but it’s not your usual vanity project. At City Center, he will dance (as a guest artist) in only one of the five works on the program, applying his gallant presence and superb partnering skills to “Mermaid,” a drunk duet by the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. And although Mr. Acosta is himself a choreographer, no pieces on the program are by him.
“I have enough flowers,” Mr. Acosta said in the interview, speaking from London, where he lives when he isn’t in Havana or on tour. His focus is on the company’s dancers: young, uncommonly agile and well-trained Cubans who have flocked to the call of a national hero, many of them giving up positions with Ballet Nacional or with Danza Contemporánea, the country’s flagship contemporary dance troupe.
His goal is to give back to the country that gave him an excellent, free dance education. More specifically, it’s to give the members of Acosta Danza something he didn’t have: a chance to enjoy an international-level career without the pain of leaving Cuba. “I want to bring them to the world, but also to bring the world to them,” he said.
Partly, this is a question of money and influence. Like almost every cultural organization in Cuba, Acosta Danza is connected to the government and subject to government approval. As a favored son, who has often returned to perform, Mr. Acosta has been granted some prime real estate for rehearsal space, among other privileges, by the Ministry of Culture. But the government-sponsored salaries are at Cuban rates, so it helps that Mr. Acosta has other connections.
Acosta Danza is also supported by Sadler’s Wells, one of the foremost dance theaters and commissioning organizations in Britain. Its artistic director, Alistair Spalding, said in a recent interview that Sadler’s Wells — which has been producing Cuban-themed and Acosta-and-Friends-style shows for more than a decade — now arranges international tours for Acosta Danza and subsidizes the dancers’ salaries on those tours at much higher rates. (“Some dancers have already been able to buy houses,” Mr. Acosta reported proudly.) Its financial support also pays the fees of big-name choreographers like Mr. Cherkaoui, a Sadler’s Wells associate artist whose high-profile client list has lately included Beyoncé.
In this way, a remedy for one problem facing Cuban dance — limited funds — helps address another: weakness in choreography. Cuba is famous for producing dancers the rest of the world finds astonishing, many of whom go abroad or even “defect” in the Cold War sense, but that reputation doesn’t extend to the development of choreographers.
Mr. Acosta blames cultural isolation: “You can’t make great Champagne in a closet.” For decades, Cold War politics and poverty have limited the access that Cuban dancers have had to changes in technique and taste shared by the rest of the dance world. Lately, the situation has been improving, but there’s a lot of catching up to do. When Mr. Acosta says he wants to bring the world to his dancers, importing world-class choreographers is a crucial component of what he means.
Mr. Acosta’s hope, he said, is that these choreographers will expose not just his dancers but the whole Cuban dance scene to global trends, ideas and standards of excellence. Yet he is also aware of a potential pitfall: that by stocking his repertory with the work of sought-after choreographers (Pontus Lidberg, Justin Peck and, still on his wish list, Crystal Pite) he might make Acosta Danza indistinguishable from the many companies that also present their dances.
One strategy is to encourage choreographers to use Cuban music and designers. Another is to favor dancemakers from the Spanish-speaking world. Two pieces on the City Center program are by lesser-known Spanish choreographers: “Alrededor no Hay Nada,” a dark but jazzy ensemble work that Goyo Montero made for Ballet Nacional in 2006, and “Twelve,” an intricate team exercise in tossing water bottles, by Jorge Crecis. More significantly, though, the remaining two works are by Cubans.
One is “El Cruce Sobre el Niágara,” which Marianela Boán created for Danza Contemporánea in 1987. By including this piece, a duet that translates the difficulty of tightrope walking into dance, Mr. Acosta acknowledges that his project isn’t starting from scratch. Soon after Ms. Boán created it, she founded her own company, DanzAbierta, part of a wave of troupe-founding and creativity at that time. (That Ms. Boán and many others of her generation later left Cuba to pursue their artistic ambitions is another reminder of the challenges.)
The other is “Nosotros,” by Raúl Reinoso, who will perform in it. He’s in Acosta Danza, but until recently was a member of Danza Contemporánea. Why did he make the switch? Because, he explained over the phone from Havana, Mr. Acosta immediately embraced him as both a dancer and a choreographer. Mr. Reinoso said he hadn’t initially considered “Nosotros,” an intimate duet he created with his girlfriend, Beatriz García Díaz, as a work for public consumption, but Mr. Acosta saw and liked it, and put it into the repertory.
Mr. Reinoso, 26, also said that working with the European choreographers that Mr. Acosta has hired has been a great education for him, giving him new information and tools that he has already started to apply — which is exactly what Mr. Acosta had in mind.
Mr. Spalding, who said that trips to check on the progress of Acosta Danza in Havana are “one of the great pleasures of my life,” believes that there is little risk of the company looking like other repertory troupes. “Because the dancers are extraordinary,” he said. “They have this joy in dancing that communicates directly with an audience. I haven’t really seen anything like it.”
That’s the kind of thing that outsiders are always saying about Cuban dancers. As for Mr. Acosta, he stressed that his project was still in a very early stage. “This will take years to develop,” he said, but so far the going has been less tough than he expected. However mixed his feelings about success might be, he pursues his aspirations tenaciously. Maybe the ambition that once pulled him away from home can now help transform it.
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