Cuban Ballet Legend Remains Firmly in the Spotlight

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liszt, Poulenc, Stravinsky et al – Carlos Acosta, Classical Selection: Carlos Acosta, guest soloists, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Paul Murphy (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 30.7.2013. (JPr)

The Royal Ballet, 2013, Credit : Johan Persson,
Carlos Acosta, The Royal Ballet, 2013, Credit : Johan Persson

Winter Dreams (MacMillan) Carlos Acosta & Marianela Nuñez
Dying Swan (Fokine) Melissa Hamilton
Rhapsody (Ashton) Yuhui Choe & Ricardo Cervera
Schéhérezade (Folkine) Carlos Acosta & Marianela Nuñez
Manon (MacMillan) Leanne Benjamin & Nehemiah Kish
Diana and Actaeon (Vaganova) Carlos Acosta & Marianela Nuñez
Mayerling (MacMillan) Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin & Ricardo Cervera
Gloria (MacMillan) Nehemiah Kish & Melissa Hamilton
Requiem (MacMillan) Carlos Acosta & Leanne Benjamin
Rubies (Balanchine) Ricardo Cervera & Meaghan Grace Hinkis
Apollo (Balanchine) Carlos Acosta & Marianela Nuñez
Tryst (Wheeldon) Eric Underwood & Melissa Hamilton
Memoria (Altunaga) Carlos Acosta

A TV programme the night of this performance began with the statement ‘When you look in the abyss, the abyss also looks into you’. This was something so profound that I thought it must be a quote by some significant person other than something written for a fictional character to say: apparently not so, but it is deeply philosophical and memorable nonetheless.

Why am I mulling over this remark? Well, Cuban ballet legend, Carlos Acosta, was already quoted a few years ago as saying ‘every time I go on stage and see the light I know that one day this is going to stop’ and he has reinforced this recently because of his recent 40th birthday and the knowledge that a major injury now brings his stunning career to a premature end. So that probably explain the reason why he begins his latest London summer dance season on a chair in the spotlight removing leggings and everyday shoes and seemingly preparing for ballet class and then an extensive rehearsal. The programme ends with him putting on a T shirt, towelling down, staring out to the audience (the ‘abyss’ that is the future?) and preparing to move on.

What will come next? Choreography certainly (his new Don Quixote for Royal Ballet is eagerly awaited next season) and the creation of his Carlos Acosta Arts Centres around the world, most definitely. He was born to dance – though of course we all know there was much more to it than that – and I doubt that dance will let him stop and walk away that easily!

To my shame though I have always gone to ballet in the years I did not have the opportunity to write about it, I have not seen Carlos Acosta perform many times – and if you are like me or perhaps have never even seen him – then grab your chance while you still can either here or at Covent Garden … or anywhere else while he is still dancing. Concentrating on twentieth-century bits and pieces Acosta explains how he devised his ‘Classical Selection’ as ‘an impression of my career. From the beginning when I came to London, I was eager to grow and become an artist, an actor, and to express emotion – not just someone who can leap but has many other tools to play with. This programme is a synthesis of what I am about and gives me a chance to show the many faces of my career. People who have been on this journey will appreciate what I have been able to do and achieve.’

Even those like me who have joined him, rather belatedly, on his journey can appreciate how he has made himself into one of the greatest dancers in the history of ballet. He has that unique ability – only blessed to some – of exuding charisma and demanding the audience’s attention even if doing very little on stage. That he spends most of his time during this gala-style evening wearing little on his upper body might seem narcissism to some, but I doubt Acosta would give this a second thought as it is just what the pas de deux or other excerpt requires.

The first of his topless contributions was the Schéhérezade duet (attributed to Mikhail Folkine) and because he was squeezed into a turbaned, jewel-encrusted costume there was a hint that Acosta’s centre of gravity was now further south than it once was. (However later he showed that he is still in superb physical shape and he will need to be to get through this demanding six-day season.) It is wrong to say he retains a stunning leap and I would now describe it as a little languid but he still moves around the stage with pantherine grace. How marvellously precise are both his landings and spins! You can trust that every movement he makes on stage will be almost as perfect as you can ever see. And what a considerate partner he was to Marianela Nuñez here and in their other showpiece duets: MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, Vaganova’s Diana and Actaeon and an elegant excision from Balanchine’s Apollo. Like the superstar dancer she was, sharing the stage with, Nuñez proved to be a very versatile ballerina easily able to switch from one style of dance or required emotion to another with the drop of a curtain. From Zobeide’s rubber-limbed teasing of Acosta’s lusty Golden Slave to the absolutely graceful embodiment of Terpsichore, the muse of dance she certainly seemed to bring the best out of Carlos Acosta.

Sometimes the mood changed so quickly between the ballets that unless you had some knowledge of the original pieces themselves some might have been at a loss as to what was going on. Leanne Benjamin, who at 48 (and looking half her age) has just retired from the Royal Ballet, was another welcome guest dancer. Her first appearance reminding us of her wonderful skittish portrayal of Manon was in the bedroom scene opposite Nehemiah Kish’s infatuated Des Grieux and placed between Schéhérezade and Diana and Actaeon! In fact, everything before the interval was rather more upbeat that what followed. Perhaps Fokine’s familiar Dying Swan (given a subtly nuanced performance by Melissa Hamilton) isn’t a lot of laughs but Ashton’s Rhapsody has an naïve romantic appeal to it. As good as Ricardo Cervera and Yuhui Choe were they were not Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier who danced this first in 1980.

Everything else was just a shade depressing as if Acosta already wanted to say goodbye! Proving what a loss she will be to ballet, Leanne Benjamin was tremendous as Mary Vetsera in the final, extremely dark and troubling, double-suicide scene from Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling opposite Acosta’s Crown Prince Rudolf. And if it was possible, she was even more dramatically involved in the simple ‘prayer for peace’ set to Faure’s Pie Jesu in the same chorographer’s Requiem where she led a suitably sombre and anguished loin-clothed Carlos Acosta who knows where – perhaps further along on that journey of his? It was simply in all senses of the word breathtaking and as poetic like another elegiac MacMillan piece that preceded it, Gloria with Melissa Hamilton and the rangy Nehemiah Kish. The Pegasus Choir deserves mention for its atmospheric accompaniment of both Gloria and Requiem.

Meaghan Grace Hinkis’s high-spirits needed someone with a little more personality that Ricardo Cervera to make Balanchine’s Rubies truly sparkle and in the pas de deux from Tryst Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood brought genuine emotional chemistry and much skilled athleticism to Christopher Wheeldon’s intimate, yet prosaic, balletic couplings.

The music from a myriad range of composers (including Liszt, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and James MacMillan) was played with care but also some panache when it was called for by the resilient Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Paul Murphy who was notably eager to follow the dancers rather than the reverse. Robert Clark topped-and-tailed the evening with some fine Tchaikovsky played at a piano in half-light at the rear of an empty stage.

Before one of Cuba’s better exports played out the thought-provoking coda to his ‘Classical Selection’, Acosta performed a contemporary piece by Miguel Altunaga to an electronic score by Murcof. It was all fist pumping, rhythmic gymnastics with added breakdancing (a reminder of his formative years in Havana) and accomplished backspinning. He was shown firmly in the spotlight – where I am sure he will want to be for a few years yet!

Jim Pritchard

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