Born in Havana, Carlos Acosta first came to the UK in 1991 to dance for the English National Ballet and later returned to join the Royal Ballet in 1998.
One of the few ballet stars to enjoy recognition outside the field of dance, and known for his expressive performances in dramatic roles as well as his technical virtuosity, Acosta is considered by many to be the greatest male classical dancer of his generation. Following his directorial debut, Tocororo – A Cuban Tale in 2003, he is now working together with fellow Royal Ballet Principal Zenaida Yanowsky on Premieres Plus, an evening of modern solos and duets extended from the Premieres showcase that toured last year. Lise Smith caught up with the pair in rehearsal to talk about the development of the show – and their adventures in contemporary dance.
Can you start by telling us what audiences can expect from Premieres Plus?
Carlos Acosta: Premieres Plus is really an experiment. As I’m moving on in my career, I feel the necessity of trying and doing new things, so for this I’m collaborating with many choreographers. I want to sustain the whole evening with just two dancers, and make these existing works into a sort of journey. What you see is two characters, sometimes they are in one space, sometimes they are doing solos separately, there is a hidden narrative. As an audience, you have to come up with your own story, and that for me is very interesting.
Zenaida Yanowsky: I would say the audience should expect Carlos and Zen! Because if they expect tutus and toe shoes, wrong; if they expect contemporary, you know, we are not Rambert, so they have to expect Carlos and Zen. We’ve chosen the pieces we liked, and it really shows you our personalities. I think that really comes across.
We haven’t often seen you perform together previously – why did you decide to work together on this project and how has the experience been?
ZY: I’ve known Carlos for a long time, I love dancing with this man, it’s just wonderful. We don’t get much chance to dance together because of the height; mainly, we’ve done quite a lot of Balanchine together. The connection is very easy and I feel the energy that we have is very similar, and at the same time we are very different dancers with the same energy, so I think we cohabit quite nicely.
CA: Well, Zen is the loveliest person, it’s impossible not to love her! I invited Zen because I believe she’s a dancer that could move very easily between the classical repertoire and also contemporary. She’s a great mover and I always knew that she could be the ideal partner for this evening. She has this abandonment, she’s very free and loose, and she understands exactly how to hold an audience. These are qualities that I admire, and that’s why I selected her for this.
Take us through some of the works that will appear in Premieres Plus.
CA: I tried to choose different choreographers that I have already a relationship with for one reason or another, and that would relate to the outline of the evening that I wanted to create. I really like Sight Unseen by Ed Liang because there’s a line that divides the stage, and at first it seems like a solo because we are divided by the line of white. At some point the light that divides us disappears, finally we see each other and the rapport begins. The music is really beautiful, it’s very melancholic. Throughout you see the dancers and they haven’t met, and then finally they come together in that duet and that’s quite powerful.
Russell Maliphant’s Two (created on Dana Fouras and usually performed as a female solo) seems an unusual choice for a male dancer. What was the particular appeal of this work?
CA: I’ve seen Two on numerous occasions, and it’s completely different from all the things that I have done before. The thing that attracted me is the simplicity. It’s about eight minutes, for a solo it’s very long, but you don’t move, it’s just in one square; and to still be able to hold the audience and the tension, all you do is move one arm here, or the head, and there’s this sense of anticipation -something great’s gonna happen! And it’s very minimalistic, so simple. I saw Sylvie [Guillem] do it for the first time and I thought wow, if we made that more masculine it will be something great. It was always something that I really wanted to try.
The programme also includes Miguel Altunaga’s male solo Memoria – what drew you to this work?
CA: Zen gave me the idea of inviting Miguel. He has such a wonderful way of moving, so much knowledge about movement. It’s completely based away from the classical language. You have contemporary pieces that are still within the vocabulary – feet, kick, do a tour and so on – although it’s contemporary it’s still classical-based. And this is completely floorwork and undulation, a lot of tai-chi, and capoeira.
It really is a big challenge for me. It’s a new technique you have to spend years to achieve and I’m trying to achieve it in a few weeks. I’m trying to present myself in a way that people don’t usually see me; and the more you try new styles, the more tools you have, the more you grow and the better dancer you become, that’s the idea.
How does the live choir inform the show?
CA: I really like choirs, I think that [Kenneth] McMillan also shares that, he puts choirs in pieces like Requiem, Gloria, and Song of the Earth. The singing is very powerful, it surrounds the whole evening with a touch of classicism within a contemporary evening and that’s what I like. There are so many classical elements that you could incorporate in a contemporary evening, without detracting from the actual movement, the sense of modernism that you want to give, but at the same time bringing to the evening a soul, an emotion. And I think that’s what the choir does.
ZY: I like the impact of mixing both art forms. You realise that actually their singing is so powerful, it’s as powerful as us dancing, and so when you mix them together it’s just such a lovely feeling. They go hand in hand.
You both come from outside the UK, is that something you feel you have in common?
CA: Yes, of course, I come from Cuba and a big part of the Cuban race is Spanish, and that also makes everything more easy – we just speak in our mother tongue and it’s the same humour. These things also affect the dancing in a way because I think it’s just more connected. Zen and I, we both understand the music in the same way, the message that you try to give to the audience is the same, when you look at each other you know what she’s transmitting and you’re so in tune, I think it makes things easier.
What do you enjoy about living and working in London?
ZY: London is such an amazing city for the arts, it’s constantly buzzing. You can’t really get bored, it’s all so available. So for work, London is amazing. But it’s a little too big for socialising! We Mediterraneans and Latins are very sociable and we need friends and family around, it’s very important I think. And so London is a little bit big for those sorts of thing, that’s the only thing that I would say.
CA: After 13 years, this is pretty much my home but I always have something special for Cuba. It’s what gives me an identity; my heart is always going to belong to Cuba. And also my family are there, the people who have seen me grow older. But London gave me an education, made me grow. It’s a place also that embraces culture; I’ve never felt a foreigner here. If you want to go out on the street and walk around with green hair or with a tattoo you can, and you could have any sex preference and you’re still welcome. It’s not like this anywhere else and we are really lucky to be here.
What are your plans for the future?
CA: Well, I like to do everything you know, I have no limit! I don’t put a limit on myself, I always try to get involved with projects that test my imagination and creativity because that’s the only way to say alive. I am a dancer, but I am an artist, I feel the need of the impact of art and being motivated by something else. So yes, directing, collaborating or being part of, a full evening of art, that’s something I definitely want to keep doing. Contemporary for me is a logical [next step] for a ballet dancer because it’s easier in a way, it doesn’t strain your body as much. So definitely if you want to be on the stage and be an artist, contemporary is the way to go. I admire the work of Sidi Larbi [Cherkaoui] a lot, we have already had a meeting and this is somebody I would like to collaborate with.
ZY: I agree with everything he said actually. I try to keep very open-minded to new projects, new things that come my way. I think I’d like to work with more theatre directors doing dance if possible. I love Theatre de Complicite and so I really would love to work with Simon [McBurney]. And I would love to work with Richard Jones [theatre and opera director], every time I see him and everything that he does, I always wish I was in it. I always wish that he would direct a ballet. I mean I know it’s hard, but I don’t think it’s that hard – they do it in the opera, why not in the ballet? You could just rejig, rethink the whole process.. I like him a lot as a director. I wouldn’t say no if he ever asked me!
CA: I had a meeting yesterday, somebody had this idea, he’d like me to direct an opera! It sounded crazy but then I thought why not? And I said to myself well, we’d be be able to have this platform and invite people from a non-opera background, we can bring our input and get something fresh, something unexpected. It’s very interesting, things like this – and why not?
Carlos Acosta – Premieres Plus
London Coliseum, 27 – 30 July, 7.30pm. Tickets from £10
0871 911 0200 www.eno.org
Originally posted at www.londondance.com