El trompo (the spinning top) is an ancient toy. The Cuban saying 'you cannot dance in the house of the trompo' is a cautionary proverb: don't challenge an expert on his own territory!
A child wakes up in Havana when the engines, the repairmen and the coffee pots have already begun the chaotic rhythm for which the city is known. Wearing oversized shorts he joins friends and the old guys from the corner and challenges them to play with the spinning top. He rolls the rope and shoots at ground level. The rotation continues while he makes it jump and walk over his arms and chest. If the technique is perfect, the boy will win the ultimate contest: to keep his spinning top relentlessly rotating along its own axis.
Carlos Acosta's story is like that of a marvelous, fighting trompo with a musical ear. Everybody dances in Cuba, but only a kid from a humble family in Los Pinos neighborhood is the star of the Royal Ballet. So that's why we meet him in Havana, to 'spin' together through the origins of his boisterous career as a professional dancer, an acclaimed and award-winning legend to an increasingly global public. Carlos told his story as we walked among people who stop in the street to embrace him. Beyond his skin you feel the potent mix of long wings and deep roots that define his art.
Tell us about your first memories of dance.
It was the 80s, a time of disco music without discotheques. One day I left the bathroom and saw my sister dancing in the mirror. I started imitating her and she began to take me to street parties. That's how we heard Flashdance and Michael Jackson's Thriller. We blocked the street with garbage cans and installed a tremendous soundsystem. I was the youngest of the gang and they called me 'El Moro de los Pinos'.
And how did you come across ballet?
The gang wasn't just about dancing, and the risk of me becoming a delinquent was high. My father was a truck driver – he spent a lot of time out of the house and was a very, very severe guy. One day he heard a neighbor say that ballet gives you fierce discipline. Right away he grabbed me and took me to an audition. None of us knew for sure what ballet was, but I just hoped that they wouldn't accept me.
A lot of time had to pass before I truly found my vocation. Back then, ballet was the most tedious thing in the world for me. I dreamed about soccer and breakdancing. Then my family problems got worse: my father had a traffic accident and spent two years in prison and my mother suffered a stroke. My 15-year-old sister took care of me. I became a problem pupil and had to continue my studies in Pinar del Río ballet school. They gave me a two-year scholarship until I got my degree. It was during that period that I first saw a performance by Cuba's National Ballet. When I saw a man execute an extra-ordinary jump I suddenly understood the purpose of what I was doing. Slowly, I discovered that people started to respect me for my art – I wasn’t a lost kid anymore – and a cycle of new sensations began.
When I returned to the school in Havana, no-one could understand how I had progressed so much in such a short amount of time. There I was seen by the teacher Ramona De Saá who decided to take me to the Teatro Nuovo di Torino in Italy. Once there she prepared me for the Prix de Lausanne, the most important competition for young dancers. I won and my career took off. I prepared myself for the Paris Grand Prix, and won that too. 1990 was packed with my personal successes, and thanks to that the life of my family changed – we started to have appliances.
Throughout most of your career you were based outside of Cuba. Did you feel nostalgic?
I already knew what nostalgia felt like from my time at Pinar del Río, when I barely saw my loved ones. But leaving Cuba wasn’t easy. First I was in Houston, then I went to London, where I became the principal dancer and youngest member in the company. In the beginning I crashed, with the weather, with a hard language. I could not even go to the movies. I felt isolated.
You danced on every stage, and now you are also on the internet and YouTube… What do you think of this?
In my day, to see someone dancing you had to move or passively rely on what the traditional media presented. YouTube is an awesome thing. You can watch Baryshnikov on an iPhone in the palm of your hand while you are training. I do not mind that people upload my performances on YouTube – I don't even know where some of the things they've uploaded come from. When I do a performance, the next day there are already fragments of it on the web. I am a public figure and I don't just belong to me anymore – it's inevitable, and I can't stop it.
People can learn from me and they can also slander. Discussions about me are passionate. I read the comments – even the most rude, or those that come from people that don't have the right knowledge. I want to know what people think. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I read things that raise my self-esteem. I also see that there are people who do not like what I do for many reasons, perhaps because they don't understand me or perhaps because they have prejudices. For example, there is a stereotype of how Romeo looks. I think that at the level I have reached I have been the first to open the door for people to see a Romeo for these modern times, where the world has been mixed and melted.
You are also a choreographer and you know how to make things seem different. Let’s imagine a recipe for keeping creativity alive.
I want to conquer new territories. I want to get up every day without repeating myself. I just did a controversial show in London, in which I appeared on stage wearing just jeans and tennis shoes with a little bit of virtual reality. People were expecting Carlos Acosta in tights, dancing Giselle, and they thought I was wasting my talent. I want to explore because in that way I can also discover myself. Miles Davis was once asked why he no longer played the music that made him famous. He just answered: 'Because I already have.'
I want to get up every day without repeating myself.
Carlos Acosta, 37, Havana, Cuba
Our meeting ends at the restaurant of the tallest building in Havana. It was an afternoon of changing skies. We saw the rain arrive, birds fly away; up in the clouds we saw the sun shine through to stain the sea into different blues. Those who were with Carlos on this August day felt nostalgia follow their good-byes, and knew that their only cure could be to run and watch him dance.