Manna from Havana

May 15, 2005

He was a wayward teenager whose father believed he was plagued by evil spirits. Now Carlos Acosta is a world-class ballet star — but he still dances like a man possessed

Carlos Acosta remembers icons, candles and other offerings to Santeria deities jostling for space in every corner of his childhood home in a poor Havana neighbourhood. His father was, and still is, a devotee of the Afro-Cuban religion. The orisha, or divinity, to whom his father prayed most often was the warrior god Ogun.

Time after time, when Carlos is asked to retrace the path that led him from the backstreets of Havana to the forefront of classical ballet — the 31-year-old is now one of the most highly acclaimed dancers of our time, and the only black dancer of such international stature — the father who fought to keep him dancing emerges as the most critical influence on his life. Acosta’s story is invariably then portrayed as a classic rags-to-riches tale. Some have described him as “the Billy Elliot of Havana”. That his trajectory far outstrips any such imagined script is clear. But the details of his life are so extraordinary that attempts to simplify them are understandable.

In short, he is the son of a humble Cuban truck driver, the youngest of 11 children, whose family was so poor Carlos remembers sometimes being given sugared water instead of a meal and chewing sticking tape instead of gum. He readily admits he resorted to stealing fruit from gardens near the family’s tiny apartment because he was so hungry.

By the time Carlos was 10, his father, Pedro, was so convinced his son was on the path to a life of crime that he started casting around for something to get the boy off the streets and occupy his spare time. He hit on the idea of ballet. Not an obvious choice, you might think. But in Cuba, where ballet, like all forms of the arts, are state-subsidised as a demonstration of the cultural superiority of Castro’s communist revolution, it made more sense. It meant ballet lessons were free. So, crucially, were all meals at the school where they were taught. Besides, a downstairs neighbour’s two children were attending the same classes, so Carlos’s father ordered him to tag along with them.

This infuriated the young Carlos. As a boy he dreamt of becoming a footballer. Ballet was for girls, not only he but the neighbourhood toughs he hung out with were convinced. They proceeded to regularly beat him up for being a sissy. This did nothing to encourage his enthusiasm for donning tights and pointe shoes.

When his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour and spent periods in hospital undergoing treatment, and then his father was sent to jail for causing a serious traffic accident, Carlos took advantage of the lack of parental control. He started missing classes; so many that he was eventually thrown out of the ballet school. In his early teens by now, he went back to a life on the street, eventually becoming a champion break dancer.

After his father came out of prison two years later, however, he took his son in hand again. If the ballet school in Havana would not have Carlos back he would find somewhere that would not only take him, but keep him. He drove him to the west coast of Cuba and enrolled him in a boarding school for the performing arts in Pinar del Rio. Carlos, though a naturally talented dancer, was still a reluctant one. On the day his class first went to see the Cuban National Ballet company perform, he admits he wanted to stay behind and watch a baseball match. But sitting in the theatre audience that day, he had an epiphany. Stunned at the sheer athleticism of the performance, he realised that if he worked at it hard enough, he too might one day be able to execute the sort of leaps and movements he found so enthralling.

The official biography provided by the Royal Ballet, where Carlos is now at the height of his career, takes up the story from there. After graduating from Cuba’s National Ballet school “with maximum qualifications and a gold medal” he went on to win gold at the highly esteemed Prix de Lausanne ballet competition at the age of 16. The next year he was invited to dance with the English National Ballet. After returning to Havana for a year to dance with the National Ballet of Cuba, in 1993 he was asked by the British-born artistic director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson, to join the company as principal dancer.
Five years later he made his debut with the Royal Ballet, and in addition to dancing at Covent Garden, he now appears regularly with the Paris Opera and American Ballet Theatre in New York. Among the numerous accolades heaped on him for his stunning leaps and sensational technique are descriptions of him as “the Harrier Jet”, “Air Acosta”, “the Parachute”, “the Black Baryshnikov” and, most significantly for him, “the New Nureyev”.

But there is something that no amount of glittering biographical detail can convey. Something never touched on in the rags-to-riches tales. Something that only surfaces as Carlos starts to talk about the importance of Santeria in his home as he was growing up. It is, perhaps, the reason there seems a hint of sadness behind his seductive eyes. It is also, on his own admission, the reason he became such a superlative dancer.

The key to its understanding lies with the deity with whom his father most identifies, Ogun. While some Afro-Caribbean religions, such as voodoo in neighbouring Haiti, have acquired a sinister reputation because of claims to tap the energies of the dead, belief in Santeria is so widespread in Cuba that the majority of the population practises it to a greater or lesser extent. The religion has its roots in the belief system of the Yoruba people, from what is today called Nigeria, and was brought to Cuba by slaves imported between the 16th and 19th centuries to work the island’s sugar plantations. Carlos’s own surname, he points out, comes from the name of the plantation where his great-grandfather once worked as a slave.

In order to be able to continue observing Yoruba tradition under the eyes of their Spanish masters, the slaves’ complex system of animistic beliefs slowly became veiled behind a thin veneer of Christianity. Each Yoruba deity was matched to a Catholic saint. Followers of the composite religion were, and still are, then allocated their own personal saint, or orisha, judged to reflect their character and personal destiny.

Unlike the Christian saints, however, the orishas are not meant to be perfect. In addition to their special powers and attributes, each is fraught with human frailties. Ogun, for instance, is not only the warrior god and the deity believed to help others realise their human potential — certainly Carlos credits his father for having the vision to force him to make something of his life — he is also the god of secrets. And one of Ogun’s characteristics is a tendency to violence.

When Carlos failed to take his ballet lessons and schoolwork seriously enough and continued hanging out on the street, his father was, he says diplomatically, “tough”. Then, nervously adjusting his beige wool cap, he goes further: “Yeah, I was scared of him. Man, he was scary. Sometimes he would arrive home in a bad mood and I would get it. I grew up afraid of him. That made me lonely. It made me very confused. There was so much going on.

“As a defence mechanism you put it away. I refuse to think about it, even now. I just get on with the present. But there are many layers,” he reflects, his voice trailing off. Suddenly we no longer seem to be in an elegant room in the Royal Opera House, but back in the Havana of his childhood, and the pain of remembering parts of that is etched across his face.

As Carlos continued to refuse to bow to his father’s will, Pedro Acosta became convinced that the boy was possessed by evil spirits. He took his son to a babalow, or Santeria priestess, who performed a divination and exorcism ceremony and designated Carlos his own orisha. She chose the deity Elegua, a man-child god of mischief, but also the god of destiny called on at the start of every Santeria ceremony to open the path of opportunity.

The significance of this meeting is reflected in the central part a similar encounter plays in the semi-autobiographical dance production Tocororo, devised and choreographed by Carlos and in which he starred when it premiered in Havana before Fidel Castro two years ago. The show opened in this country at Sadler’s Wells, then went on a UK tour. Some critics complained it was too long. They suggested one scene be cut — the one where the Santeria priestess tells the hero he has to make a choice between two paths in life. But the scene clearly has deep significance for Carlos. “That woman I saw when I was younger was amazing, very wise. Some things began to make sense to me after I met her. Elegua is very naughty, always tricking people. But he is also the one who opens the way forward.

I love this. It is so rich and spiritual. It makes me think now how much is predestined. I think nothing is accidental.
“Everything in our lives affects other people. Even someone’s death can be a shock, but it can help another person. Everything is entwined. Many things have happened to make me think this way. In my life there has always been someone there to help. I think this was fate and you need that. You need opportunity. Talent is not enough.”

As he exhausts this philosophical train of thought, Carlos returns to reflecting on his father. “He is 87 now and has mellowed a bit. He is funny, charismatic, wise, impulsive. He is, I think, the real brain of the family,” he says of the man he clearly adores. “I can’t judge my parents. They didn’t have an easy life and now I understand my own life more.

“I grew up with many questions. But this is what helped me. I understood finally that ballet was all I had, and probably would ever have, that I could trust and rely on. That is why I became so good. Now I am the main man, the father of the family. I look after them. Sometimes I feel they could give me advice, not think I know it all. Sometimes I feel like being, for once, their son.”

But then, seeming suddenly self-conscious that we have waded into deep water, the dancer leaps up from the sofa on which we are sitting. With a broad smile he starts to mimic the stumbling gait of the Santeria worshippers who flock each year to the shrine of San Lazaro at El Rincon on the outskirts of Havana. This is not meant as mockery. El Rincon is Cuba’s Lourdes. Every year tens of thousands of devotees walk barefoot or crawl there on their knees seeking miracles or the alleviation of pain and illness.

Any time he calls his father in Cuba, which he says he does about twice a week, and mentions he has an ache or pain — most often in his feet — his father will make some sort of offering to San Lazaro. “It doesn’t matter how often I explain to him that it is quite normal for a dancer to be in pain. I know he will make some sort of sacrifice or offering to the gods to try and make it better. I don’t ask him what he does. That is secret. Some people promise the gods they will grow their hair or sacrifice a chicken,” Carlos says, rolling his eyes, then collapsing back on the sofa with laughter.

Every time there is a suggestion that Carlos is in any way troubled, he seems to react in a similar manner — quickly making light of it. When the documentary maker Lucy Blakstad showed his melancholy side as she returned with him to the Havana street where he grew up for the BBC Imagine series, he was at great pains to point out subsequently that he was not unhappy. “I want to tell you emphatically, I am a very happy guy — you don’t need to worry about me, folks,” he told one interviewer. “If I’m not a happy man with all I’ve got, who is?”

When he laughs, which he does often, and claps his hands together as he speaks, his laid-back Caribbean style convinces you this is true. Yet as he talks about his family and his past, it is clear how deeply he still misses Cuba.

“I have adapted to life in London. I am used to the weather here now,” he says, a little unconvincingly. The cooler climate means he spends much of his spare time indoors at his Islington flat, writing his autobiography. “But one day
I will return to Cuba for good. It is everything to me. I will die there for sure.”

Some speculate that he may eventually take over from the legendary Alicia Alonso, now 83 and half-blind, who, together with her former husband, Fernando, founded Cuba’s spectacularly successful Russian-influenced National Ballet. The company has a network of feeder academies spread out across the island nurturing raw talent, and several of its dancers are now dancing abroad to great acclaim. After cigars, ballet dancers have long been one of Cuba’s most prized exports. But while many Cuban dancers — like many of the island’s most prominent writers, musicians and sportsmen — have defected in recent years, Carlos is in a much more fortunate position.

He left the island legally on an authorised work visa after being offered contracts to dance in Houston and London. This means, unlike the defectors, he is able to travel freely to and from Cuba, and his family is able occasionally to travel to watch him perform. So it is likely to be some time before he contemplates returning to live permanently in Cuba. He is ambitious, and in such demand that his work schedule is punishing. Juggling commitments, including those with the Paris Opera and American Ballet Theatre, means he is unable to take up some intriguing opportunities. One role he recently had to turn down because of his heavy workload was that of Jimi Hendrix.

He was due to play the rock legend in a series of dance sequences inspired by his music; it was choreographed by Christopher Bruce and performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House earlier this month.

Carlos confesses to knowing little about Hendrix’s short life or his music — except, maybe unsurprisingly, for the classic Voodoo Child, which he says is “amazing”. But he believes such innovative projects are vital to the future of his chosen art form. “We really need to widen the appeal of ballet. It doesn’t always have to be about a prince or swans. You need a variety of material to reflect the world we live in. We should never stop trying to give ballet an angle.”

Although he does not say it, another reason for turning down the part of Hendrix might be that from the moment he started dancing for the English National Ballet, and later the Royal Ballet, he made it clear he did not want to be typecast or relegated to “exotic” roles because of his dark looks. That has not happened. Colour-blind casting has seen him dance — among many other roles — Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Albrecht in Giselle, and Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. He is aware he is breaking race barriers. While black dancers have long been at the forefront of modern dance, ballet has remained predominantly white. Some complain that companies are reluctant to spoil their uniform rows of white swans. Carlos sees it as more a problem of lack of economic opportunity, with many families unable to afford the cost of ballet classes in countries where they are not state-funded as they are in Cuba. He also believes there is a tendency for parents from ethnic minorities not to encourage their children to take up ballet because they see it as elitist. It is this stereotype he hopes he challenges. “I am a rare animal indeed. But I believe I am sending out the right message,” he says.

His personal ambitions again bring the conversation back to Cuba. First he plans to bring a company of Cuban dancers to perform at Sadler’s Wells. Then he will take Tocororo on tour again. He is also working on a private, longer-term project, a musical he says he will probably need to employ a team to help write and choreograph.

Like Tocororo, it will be set in his homeland, but this time it will be based loosely not on his own life, but that
of a vagrant, known mysteriously as “the Gentleman from Paris”, who became a folk legend in Havana and who is immortalised by a bronze statue in the heart of the city’s historic quarter. Even now, habaneros place fresh flowers in the statue’s outstretched hand early every day.

This “Gentleman from Paris” was Jose Maria Lopez Lledin, who left Galicia in Spain for Cuba in the early 20th century in search of work. After being wrongfully imprisoned he took to living on the streets of Havana, where his improvised speeches and eccentric habit of wearing a long black musketeer-style cloak endeared him to the city’s residents, some of whom became convinced he was touched by God.

Lledin died in 1985 at the age of 86; he spent the last 12 years of his life in a psychiatric hospital. The idea behind the musical, Carlos explains, is to structure it in the form of a series of interviews, questions posed by a journalist to the old man as he languishes on a psychiatric ward. As he talks about the project, it is tempting to feel there is, once again, a biographical element to its theme.

The scenario he paints reminds me of an earlier comment — that he grew up with many questions. Maybe they plague him still. As Carlos swings his rucksack over his shoulder and prepares to leave, he smiles ruefully. “Maybe in madness,” he concludes, “lie some answers to life.”