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Acosta returns to America

It is a cruel dichotomy that ballet, at its finest, demands a young body and an old soul. The legendary Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta trained relentlessly to come out of retirement last year for a performance of classical works in celebration of his 50th birthday at the Royal Ballet, where he spent most of his professional career. But even he would tell you his still admirably chiseled body is more suited to a contemporary repertoire these days.

Performance

Carlos Acosta: “On Before,” mixed repertory

Place

Sarasota Opera House, Sarasota, Florida, April 19, 2024

Words

Carrie Seidman

Carlos Acosta's “On Before.” Image courtesy of the artists

His emotional artistry, however, may still be reaching its pinnacle. Two recent performances in Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast—his first in the US since 2018—underscored Acosta’s enduring ability to mesmerize and move an audience, no longer with bravura leaps or virtuosic turns, but with a physicality that comes direct from the heart.

The unusual two-nights-only tour reprising “On Before,” originally performed in 2011 with former Royal principal Zenaida Yanowsky, came about largely as a favor to his childhood friend, Ariel Serrano, and a fundraiser for Serrano’s Sarasota Cuban Ballet School. The two studied together as teenagers at the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana and have remained close through the years; in recent years, Acosta has mentored Serrano’s son, Francisco, who joined the Royal in 2016.

This time around the two-part series of duets and solos (and a short film) was performed with Laura Rodriguez, a fleet and flexible principal with Acosta Dance, the company Acosta founded in Cuba after his retirement and before assuming the directorship of the Royal Birmingham Ballet. (He still leads both companies, manages a school in Havana and is also a father of three.) Though each of the vignettes were created by a different choreographer and most were originally set on other dancers, together they combine for a darkly elegiac tribute to Acosta’s mother, who died of cancer in 2010.

Carlos Acosta in “On Before.” Image courtesy of the artists

As if to refresh the sense of loss and grief, just two days before the performances, Acosta and Serrano learned of the death of Ramona de Saa —their beloved “Chery”—the maestra who trained them in Cuba, then showed them the world beyond its borders when she chose them, at 15 and 17 respectively, to spend a year training and dancing in Italy, catalyzing both their careers.

The tone throughout “On Before” is somber and pensive; dark lighting designed to celebrate the dancers’ toned figures and elegant lines, minimal costuming (practice wear in black and white) and the artful use of overhead spots make a striking but stark impression. The narrative, if there is one, is vague and abstract, but strung together by the ever-shifting relationship of the two dancers who, from piece to piece, go from parent/child to lovers, estranged to inseparable, combative to codependent.

In the opener, Will Tuckett’s “On Before,” the dancers strike a series of frozen spotlighted poses that dissolve into soaring lifts, sweeping arms and (puzzlingly) the recorded voice of a hail and brimstone preacher shouting about the Holy Spirit. In “Sirin,” by Yuri Yanowsky, Rodriguez contorts her pliable body into knots, “crawls” on straight legs and both hands like a giraffe, or stills everything but a single limb that vibrates in a delicate quiver. The first half of the program peaks with Acosta’s interpretation of Russell Maliphant’s “Two,” originally choreographed for Sylvie Gillem in 2004, which moves toward a crescendo where his fanning arms circle so swiftly they become a sculptural blur.

Images of water play a recurrent role in the 90-minute performance, implying both a cascade of tears and a ritual cleansing. As the audience enters the theater, images of rivulets flowing as if down a window pane are projected on the stage curtain, accompanied by the sound of a steady drizzle. In the second half of the program, an audio torrent of rain followed by a clap of thunder kicks off Miguel Altunaga’s “Memoria,” a solo for Acosta that draws from both the fluidity and the guardedness of a martial artist and contains references his classical ballet past as well as his childhood days break dancing on the streets of Havana.

Carlos Acosta's “On Before.” Image courtesy of the artists

A short black and white film, “Falling Deep Inside,” features cascades of showers on naked chests, droplets flung from soaked locks of hair and bare feet stomping in puddles, a curious mix of the sexual and the childlike. It creates a diversion while the stage is cleared of dozens of flickering candles which Rodriguez hauntingly moves around to Handel’s Delirio amoroso in Kim Brandstrupt’s “Footnote to Ashton,” with an arm reaching forward boldly one moment and retracting as if from a searing flame the next.  

Throughout the evening a silent chorus of black-clad figures—here, students from Serrano’s school, as well as Serrano and his wife, Wilmian Hernández—walk in rhythm across the stage from one wing to another, seeming to serve little purpose but to underscore the funeral gloom. But their purpose becomes evident after “Hand Duets” (choreographed by Acosta and George Cespedes), in which Acosta partners a gradually weakening Rodriguez, who repeatedly falls into a slow motion back bend and eventually becomes lifeless on the floor.

A handful of those supernumeraries—in Sarasota, a hastily-assembled but accomplished group of nine freelancers—then step forward to sing Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” as Acosta collapses onto a stool, forearms on his thighs and head bowed low in a posture of profound grief. Rodriguez, echoing a ghostly “Giselle,” embraces Acosta from behind before being enveloped by the chorus and disappearing from sight.

Though he remains physically impressive for someone whose 51st birthday is weeks away and he has lost none of his charismatic magnetism, those besotted by Acosta’s athleticism in its prime might have been disappointed by this less flamboyant performance. That would be short-sighted. His passion and commitment, his generosity as a partner and a performer, and his ability to project meaningfully to the third tier has not only endured, but deepened into an artistic maturity that is rare and should be reverenced.

Carrie Seidman


Carrie Seidman is an opinion columnist and the dance critic for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Florida’s Gulf coast. A graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism and an award-winning daily newspaper reporter, critic and columnist for more than 40 years, she previously worked for the New York Times, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Albuquerque Journal and Albuquerque Tribune.  

comments

Carol Gaskin

This performance was transfixing throughout and left me utterly transported and awed. My friend and I sat in silence at the end, barely able to breathe “Wow.” The piece is deeply moving as well as gorgeous. Please tell me it was recorded so I can see it again!

Jeannette Paladino

Carrie, so glad to that. you are writing for Fjord. I was mesmerized by Carlos Acosta’s performance as well as his partner’s. They brilliantly performed choreography that was fluid yet very difficult. It’s wonderful that his friendship with Ariel has endured for so many years since they were children in Cuba. I hope he returns to America soon.

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