Carlos Acosta & Zenaida Yanowsky Q&A

Carlos AcostaPhoto: Johan Persson.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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
: 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

Originally posted at

Sylvie Guillem, 6,000 miles away, Sadler’s Wells

Sylvie Guillem Evening, Sadler's Wells, 5 - 9 July 2011.  Photo: Mats Ek's 'Ajö' (Bye) by Lesley Leslie-Spinks

Where to begin talking about Sylvie Guillem? Since ascending the stage at the Paris Opera Ballet as a teenager, she has consistently surpassed all expectations. Her long career has been marked by a determination to do things her own way, leaving Paris when the company would not allow her to take up invitations abroad, and working with choreographers deliberately chosen from fields outside her comfort zone including Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan. Nicknamed Mademoiselle Non for her refusal to compromise at the Royal Ballet, Guillem now seems equally resistant to the process of ageing, a process of which her finely honed, exquisitely expressive body appears to be completely unaware.

For me, it’s not the legs so much (Guillem’s legs have always been able to flick up to her ears and pass effortlessly around her body at any angle) but the torso. There’s a moment in Forsythe’s intricate, demanding Rearray in which the dancer’s body spirals sequentially around its axis, from pelvis to head, in a fluid yet controlled manoeuvre that would challenge a much younger artist. Rearray, a duet for Guillem and her former Paris Opera partner Nicholas Le Riche, is full of such intricate moments and tiny details. Guillem and Le Riche scoop and slice the space with arms and legs, falling into momentary arabesques then darting off again across the stage with tricky little bourées.

Challenging as these rapid snatches of meticulous movement undoubtedly are for the dancers, Forsythe places no fewer demands on his audience. The choreography is abstract and academic, alternating solos for the two performers with disconnected duets, bodies inhabiting the same space but rarely at the same time. The lighting appears to be (deliberately) out of sync with the performance, revealing entrances and exits one would expect to be concealed and fading to black in the middle of busy movement sequences. It’s all very Forsythe, of course, and shows Guillem’s incredible physical form to its best advantage; but the piece is intriguing rather than entertaining, and the applause that greets the curtain call polite rather than deafening.

Better received is a revival of Jiří Kylián’s 2002 piece 27’52, ably performed by Aurelie Cayla and Kenta Kojiri while Guillem takes an offstage breather. Set on a bare stage and performed to Dirk Haubrich’s electronic remix of two themes by Mahler intercut with spoken word in German and French, the piece opens with Cayla performing a series of fluid isolations not altogether unlike urban popping. The voice on the tape rewinds, and so does she – a torso circle reverses into two sharp hip bumps, and twisted arms unwind themselves again.

The urgent mood later changes to one of contemplation; Cayla removes the top half of her costume for a languid pas de deux with a similarly topless Kojiri. Sometimes his body shields hers from our gaze, and sometimes her torso is revealed, delicate and vulnerable. Both dancers end the piece completely encased in dance flooring, which may reflect on the circumstances of performance, the all-consuming nature of dance as a profession, or something entirely unrelated. Whatever it all meant, the Sadler’s Wells audience ate it up.

Like Forsythe, Swedish choreographer Mats Ek has worked with Guillem several times previously. In new work Bye we first encounter the dancer in video form, close-up, one enormously magnified eye projected onto a video screen that doubles as a box, a door, a window onto a mysterious offstage world. In sync with her projected image the real Guillem knocks against the confines of the screen; fragments of arms and legs creep out of from the sides until she finally climbs over the top to escape.

Dressed in a funky 70s-style purple print shirt and mustard skirt (others have called this attire “middle-aged” but I’m sure I saw Fearne Cotton wearing a similar ensemble last week), Guillem shrugs and skips across the stage, flicking easily between heavy, hunched hobbling steps and freer, lighter chassés perhaps recalling younger days. At two points the dancer seems clown-like, feet to the stars, inverted on her head with knees splayed wide apart. Into the magic door-box creep other acquaintances – a man, a dog, a collection of people young and old who gather to stare at the dancer’s frolics; at the end of her sweet, sprightly jaunt down memory lane, she returns to join them. Bye is a witty, enchanting character piece that reminds us that Guillem is every bit as great an actor as she is a fine technician.

In March this year, as the dancer was rehearsing at Sadler’s Wells with William Forsythe, the North-East coast of Japan was struck by a devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami. The showcase was named in tribute to the country, and the proceeds of Thursday’s performance will go towards supporting the Japanese Red Cross. To donate, please visit

6,000 miles away returns to Sadler’s Wells from 22 – 25 September. More/booking

Originally posted at

Dance: Crossroads – Luca Silvestrini/Protein in partnership with Greenwich Dance

If you were out and about in Greenwich last weekend, you may have noticed some extraordinary goings-on taking place around the area. From aerial theatre by the riverside and dancing in the streets to outdoor dance film screenings and a spectacular celebration of world dance at Eltham Palace, Greenwich Dances is currently bringing the very best of the borough’s dance activity to the outside world; and if you looked very carefully among the 70-strong cast of Crossroads at the Old Royal Naval College on Saturday and Sunday, you might have spotted me taking part.

Crossroads is the brainchild of Luca Silvestrini, artistic director of Protein Dance, and was developed over four weeks in June with a large intergenerational cast of (mostly) local performers. The project culminated in three half-hour performances at the Royal Naval College, now the home of Trinity College of Music, and was based on the theme of travel and migration.

‘Greenwich Dance is really interested in developing intergenerational work with people of ages and also of all nationalities,’ says Project Co-ordinator Olive Kane, ‘so it was brilliant for us to expand on the work we’ve previously done with projects such as Common Dance and to bring a lot of different of people together.’

‘We have a long-term association with Greenwich,’ says Luca, who began Protein at gDA back in 1998.  ‘We have quite a lot of things in common, for instance participation and community involvement are at the core of both of our organisations.’ Protein is now a resident company at Greenwich Dance, and Crossroads is the first project the organisations have embarked upon together.

Crossroads is not, however, the first community project Luca has been involved with, and the choreographer regularly uses members of the public when researching professional theatre works including Dear Body  and the recent LOL (Lots of Love). ‘I think what’s enthused me is the sense of discovery and achievement that participants develop throughout the project. I love the energy that a large group of people can create, both theatrically and socially,’ says Luca.

One of the key aims of the project was to bring together groups of people from different areas of the community, in terms of both age and cultural background. ‘One of the many aspects I find interesting about these projects is the fact that you bring together people that are not otherwise going to come across or get to know each other, and I like to think that the arts can be a trigger, an occasion to instigate that,’ says Luca.

Certainly one of the pleasures of the project for me was working with different age groups; as an adult participant, I had the opportunity to make portions of the performance with both the older participants aged 50 and over (many of who had previously taken part in either Common Dance or NRg Time at gDA) and the younger dancers aged 5-10. The kids brought fantastic energy and a lot of creative ideas to their sections, while performing as the ‘younger self’ of an older dancer who was shaping and guiding me in a section about passing on life experience was really quite moving.

'Crossroads' Luca Silvestrini/Protein Dance in partnership with gDA. Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Part of Greenwich Dances‘I think the friendships made through the project have been really brilliant,’ says Olive. ‘We’ve had such a diverse group and for everyone to make some true friendships has been brilliant.’ Luca agrees: ‘Through this process you learn a bit more about yourself, and you learn so much more about other people, especially those that are not at your age – you can actually have moments where this is not any longer an obstacle or a barrier.’Luca feels strongly that dancers of all ages and ability are able to work together to create a high-quality, professional performance. ‘In terms of my process actually there is no difference – I think that community dance theatre can be as good as any other piece of work you go and see. I demand a professional approach from community participants, because it doesn’t matter what you can do, or what you’re able to do, what matters is how you do it. Theatre is about communication, and expressing and sending out emotions and experiences through the performance, and that’s something that any human being is potentially able to do.’

The work, based on Luca’s signature pedestrian style, used ideas of travel and transit including waiting in an airport, baggage-handling and linguistic misunderstandings, and took four weekends to rehearse. Rehearsal days were long and often problematised by the weather – one of the wettest Junes on record caused a number of on-site rehearsals to be rained off, meaning it was sometimes difficult to visualise material in the space and integrate sections performed by different groups. But the final result was definitely worth the effort and the long weekends.

The relentless rain hasn’t dampened Luca’s enthusiasm for community work. ‘I think through the theatre experience also you learn quite a lot on how you can trigger and control emotions, so that’s for me the base of why I include it, why you do it,” he says. ‘I also think you want to be able to say this project can shift people forward in terms of achieving more confidence, more technical skills, more social skills, and to achieve a closer connection to the artform and that’s also important. Participating in the project might make you think about theatre in a very different way.’

Protein will now be taking a similar project to Barcelona, working with a mixed community group on a performance at the Theatre Mercat de les Flors which will be planned next month and take place over September and October. gDA will also be continuing its stream of inter-generational education and performance work.

‘What has gone well is the fact that there is great energy,’ says  Luca. ‘I see people smiling, laughing, having a good time together. And that’s for me the most important thing.’

Greenwich Dances runs from 24 June – 3 July at various locations around Greenwich borough.
See Greenwich Dances, Greenwich + Docklands International Festival and for further details
Article published online: 30 June 2011