Carlos Acosta – 'I was keen to go back to Cuba and give everything I could to help my country'

Interview: Carlos Acosta

From classical to contemporary, ballet's bright star looks to the future

One of ballet's brightest stars, Carlos Acosta swapped classical dance for contemporary a few years back. But now, having formed his own company, he's embracing all styles and giving the public the best of both worlds. We speak to Acosta about the bold move of becoming an artistic director, how he built a repertoire for his company's debut tour, and how he's avoided the mistakes he feels other ballet companies make.

Starting your own company isn't something you do lightly – what were the reasons behind you forming Acosta Danza?

I was keen to pass on what I had learned, and also keen to go back to Cuba and give, at this stage of my career, everything I could to help my country. And the best way, obviously, is to do what I do best: teaching, coaching. I thought that by having a company I could do all of those things and also leave a legacy behind, and it would be a company that could launch the career of the next generation of Cuban talent.

How much did you own experience of being a young dancer in Cuba influence your desire to start a company?

Well, it was a positive experiment: how could we, by creating this company, give dancers a better way of life? So they don't resort to defecting or leaving the company, but at the same time could live comfortably doing what they do best, and travel the world. That was an opportunity I never had. Back then I thought, like many, that the salaries were low, the conditions were very poor in Cuba and the repertoire was stagnant, so the best thing for me was to go elsewhere. So hopefully, even if it's on a minor scale, I can help to stop the exodus of talent that has been happening throughout the years.

How did you go about choosing the dancers for your company?

I wanted to have performers that could dance it all. And I knew that eventually, the best way for that to happen would be to create the dancers myself, and that's why I started my academy. But before I had the results from the academy, I had to start somewhere, so I took dancers who showed a very strong technique in either classical or contemporary. And I used that as the foundation and built on top of it.

In the beginning, the dancers were really classical and had never experienced contemporary dance before, and the contemporary dancers were very contemporary and had some sort of classical training, but very basic. And so the gap between these two techniques was huge. But two years down the line, when you come to our show, you see that everybody does everything; the dancers can comfortably move from one style to the other.'

Your company's first show is co-produced by Sadler's Wells in London. How did that come about?

Cuba is an island, so I needed to root my company to a big metropolis, and I chose London because of the connection I already had with that city. I needed to build bridges, so I didn't feel isolated and so that I could bring the best choreographers – people like Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – to work with us. It was about sharing our talent with the world, but also about bringing the world to Cuba.'

You've danced in companies all over the world. What did you learn from them that you did, or didn't, want to bring into your own company?

Classical ballet has a very particular repertoire, with narratives that tell a story, so you have the prince, then down the line you have the prince's helper, and you carry on down to the soldiers and the peasants, so there is a class base. And I guess when you work in a ballet company, you expect the same class system: if you're a principal dancer, you're always going to play Romeo, if you're a soloist you'll play Mercutio and so on. It's been like this forever.

But since I wanted to create a contemporary company, I thought I would do away with that. Because every time you have a label saying you are a principal dancer, there is a danger that you become very comfortable with that, and feel you've reached your peak, that you don't have to work or try hard anymore because you've already made it. And that is a big mistake, but that's what sometimes happens with labels. And I wanted my dancers to start from the beginning everyday, to see that each new day is an opportunity to prove yourself, and don't get comfortable at the top.

So, whenever a choreographer comes to my company, regardless of whether last year a dancer was amazing, you still have to audition for that choreographer at the highest level, so that they will use you in the piece. And it's also about being humble, because one day you're the main character in a ballet and the next day you may be part of the corp de ballet. It doesn't matter, because it's about the group, it's about the company, and in that show, you do whatever needs to be done so that the show and the company looks good. And that enhances the sense of community.

Talk us through the repertoire for Acosta Danza's first outing, Debut.

I started to build a repertoire from zero, because I had nothing obviously; there was no company, no costumes, nothing. So I thought, OK, what are the classic Cuban pieces that are still relevant, and that I could show almost as a re-discovery, because they've never been able to take those pieces to Europe. And I came across Marianela Boán's El cruce sobre el Niágara, which is a great piece, very physical and almost hypnotic.

Goyo Montero did a piece a while back for the National Ballet of Cuba, and I thought it was wonderful, so I commissioned a new ballet from him – Imponderable – which again, is a very good piece.

And I wanted to show how diverse my dancers are, that they can do contemporary but also pointe work and neoclassical. So I got in touch with Justin Peck, resident choreographer at New York City Ballet, and asked him to send me some ballets, and from those I selected Belles-Lettres and encouraged Justin to do a little bit of a twist for us so that it doesn't feel quite the same as when the New York City Ballet dancers perform it. And there is a soloist in the piece, so I said why don't you cast one of my contemporary dancers? And Justin was very receptive to that.

For eight years I've been trying to work with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and I said to him I really need you because you're a very big name and I need a heavy hitter in my company's debut. So he agreed to do something for me: Mermaid.

And I also asked Jorge Crecis to work with my dancers and teach them a bit of floor work, because he's very good at that. And after a few weeks he said 'I have a piece of choreography,' and I watched it and all the dancers were throwing bottles around the stage, and I thought wow this is cool, so I included it in the tour.

So now Debut is a journey of evolution, starting with something classical and slow, then going into neoclassical, then into something more contemporary, then Mermaid, which is a great work of art, and finish throwing bottles around the stage, which is very light. I thought that could be a very good evening, and I think I've been proved right, because Debut has been very popular with audiences.

Acosta Danza's Debut is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Fri 10 Nov, 7.30pm.

Acosta Danza: Debut

Former Royal Ballet star Carlos Acosta tours his debut show, featuring the work of five contemporary choreographers, including Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.