Ballet's leading man Carlos Acosta on success, Darcey Bussell and his imminent retirement

The Cuban Lord of the Dance has spent 2013 in Don Quixote and Romeo and Juliet, but age is catching up with him...

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Ballet's leading man Carlos Acosta on success, Darcey Bussell and his imminent retirement
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Carlos Acosta may be leaping onto our screens this Christmas, but he limps into a meeting room behind the Royal Opera House stage. The 40-year-old dancer still has beads of sweat on his brow and plimsolls on his feet as he lowers himself into a chair, wincing at the strain on his exhausted body. He may be in the latter stages of his classical career, but the Cuban is still ballet’s leading man and has just been rehearsing his latest role, Romeo, with the Royal Ballet’s new principal ballerina, Natalia Osipova.

“Oh Romeo, Romeo... what a great ballet. And Natalia is very refreshing to dance with. She has a lot of passion,” he grins. “I might have finally been tamed!”

Off stage, the dancer who once had a reputation for enjoying himself behind the scenes has also finally been called to heel, and lives in London with his fiancée, Charlotte, and daughter, Aila, who is nearly two. So, on Christmas Day, will they be watching his perform-ance in the Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote from earlier this year, which he also choreographed?

“Aila’s not very interested. Peppa Pig beats me every time! We have got her some tutus and flamenco costumes, but I don’t see a dancer in her yet! I wouldn’t encourage her if she doesn’t have the right body, but if she has the right instrument, why not? A dancer’s life is very hard, but if you’ve got a body like Darcey Bussell...”

Few dancers manage to break free from the corps de ballet to stand out as principals, let alone achieve fame beyond the ballet world, but Acosta is up there with Bussell as this generation’s Nureyev and Fonteyn.

“When I was younger, the fact that I am black made me distinct from the others. People were used to Nureyev and Baryshnikov and then, all of a sudden, you’ve got a black prince leaping onto the stage. And I jumped very high. I bring masculinity into what I do – power, force – and I am committed to really be the character I’m playing, so that people don’t just see me. Also, my story is inspirational; the fact that I am Cuban, that I had a poor upbringing. To then break through to become the principal dancer at the Royal Ballet...”

Acosta owes a lot of that success to his father, a truck driver in Cuba with a troublesome son who was the youngest of 11. Getting kicked out of school, break-dancing on the streets with a bad crowd, dragged home by neighbours for stealing mangoes... it didn’t look like little Carlos would amount to much.

“My father was the one who forced me into it to keep me out of trouble. I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer! I thought it was for girls. But one day I saw the National Ballet of Cuba and that changed my life. The main guy jumped so high and could carry the women in the air with one hand! I was 13 years old and I thought, ‘Wow – I want to do that.’”

Acosta found a motivation that drove him to the very pinnacle of the ballet world. A new Acosta or Bussell has yet to emerge, however, and he blames that on an increasingly over-indulged younger generation.

“With phones, computer games and DVDs kids are always distracted, always entertained. If you have so many other things to help you make it through life, why try hard to achieve anything? In the new generation the passion and the commitment has diminished. Everything has to be easy. And ballet is very, very hard.”

Beneath his black tank top and tightly fitted trousers, it is evident that Acosta is far from taking it easy. Every muscle is defined.

“I try to live up to the expectation of the people, but every time I go there I feel like I’m getting injured. I’m not so flexible any more, landing is hard on the ankles. I will finish this season and do one more after this, and that will be it for the classical dance. I still have a lot to offer. It’s just finding a different vocabulary that’s less aggressive. For me, contemporary is better because classical hurts too much.

“It will be sad for some people and it will definitely be sad for me, but I have to be positive. I’m still going to be performing, because when the curtain goes up,” his muscles twitch and he jumps to his feet, “I feel like a lion unleashed from his cage. Roar!” It would seem this legend is definitely not tamed yet. 

The Royal Ballet: Don Quixote is on Christmas Day at 8:00pm on BBC4