CARLOS ACOSTA CBE ‘IN CONVERSATION’ WITH JANE PRITCHARD MBE 29th April 2021 via Zoom
Jane began by reminding us that last year she interviewed Kevin O Hare (who danced with Birmingham Royal Ballet and then became Director of the Royal Ballet) and this year it is Carlos Acosta (who danced with the Royal Ballet and then became Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet): a pleasing pattern.
Carlos Acosta began his time as Artistic Director of BRB in Jan 2020 and then lockdown happened – how has the last year been for him and the company?
Carlos explained that he has always tried to give 100% whatever the challenge. “The pandemic hit us and I had to move quickly to try to find a way to preserve the finances of the company and at the same time engage everyone artistically. So I planned a very eclectic programme where we could perform in theatres and go to somewhere else in the community to perform elsewhere, as our base the Hippodrome was shut down for a while.” Carlos went on to explain that an artist needs motivation for their mental wellbeing. The company started to build a relationship with the Birmingham Rep and they operate differently to the Birmingham Hippodrome and offered some performance dates. “That lifted our spirits. I spoke to William Tuckett and asked him to create Lazuli Sky for the pandemic. That kept me motivated to bring new repertory to the company. We put out a piece called The Swan with the screen in three parts within two or three weeks of the pandemic starting: we had never live-streamed before, we were learning all the time.”
Does this mean that in the future he will be looking at digital alongside live performance as part of his programme?
Carlos confirmed that this will be the case. “I honestly think digital is here to stay; the whole world is online. It offers us access to different markets we don’t usually reach. Touring is the thing we do, so we could use that circuit once we have the digital capability to connect with different audiences. At the same time, nothing is going to top the live show, that is the main goal. Streamed shows must not compete with the experience that you get live.” Carlos explained his thinking that they may in the future be able to position the camera in new places from where audiences could see the piece in a new way, giving them a original feel, a different experience. “The camera can go to different angles and perspectives. It could be very good to minimise that gap between the audience and the show, and financially it could be viable so my vision can become bolder.” Although Carlos recognised that the live theatre has certain constraints and characteristics, he is sure that digital technologies could offer a way to be inside the piece which then operates around the spectators.
He had wonderful plans but it’s all had to change – what are his current plans?
Carlos explained that BRB are working on two world premieres and one UK premiere in a Triple Bill called Curated by Carlos for the Rep in June. City of a Thousand Trades, choreographed by Miguel Altunaga, focuses on Birmingham, the city that is home to BRB. “I met people within the community and ballet was seen as from the past. I want to prove them wrong, it doesn’t have to be yesterday. It’s a love letter to a city with a rich industrial past that has been built by immigrants.” Imminent by Daniela Cardim, with music by Paul Englishby requires the orchestra to be in a different place as there is no pit at the Rep; and then Chacona is by Goyo Montero and set to music by J. S. Bach, with violin, acoustic guitar and piano played live on stage. “It’s a strong but different triple bill; and it will be streamed as well. Then comes David Bintley’s Cinderella for 2 weeks at the Rep and then Plymouth. After that, we will be casting and staging Radio and Juliet, a Slovenian ballet by Edward Clug and set to the music of Radiohead. There are only 7 dancers and it will speak directly to the demographic in Birmingham and is aimed at those aged 25 and younger.” Plans for the Hippodrome will involve a large-scale production which suits the scale of the theatre. Thinking further ahead, Carlos explained that plans are still being formulated, but 2022 will be a big year for Birmingham, which will be hosting the Commonwealth Games. “It’s my first real season, we are already working on that.” BRB are also planning a Romeo & Juliet festival in late 2022, and Carlos explained that he is interested in programming around a theme. “So, as well as the Kenneth McMillan Romeo and Juliet, we will have a hip-hop version set in Birmingham and Radio and Juliet. You attract different people to one common subject. We will have a Radio and Juliet installation for people to discover.” Not everything will be new of course. “Obviously it will be The Nutcracker then, back at the Hippodrome – we couldn’t do it last year and lost £1M. Then I’m going to do a new Don Quixote for the company, and this one will feel much lighter than the Royal Ballet one. I wanted to bring that to the company as it’s a very important ballet that BRB doesn’t have. And it keeps the company in shape, everyone. We’re working on rights and logistics to complete the season, but it’s looking very exciting.”
Carlos has his own company as well as BRB: how would he describe the relationship between himself and the Artistic Directors he worked for?
“These are people I admire and blindly trust. They have given me something unique and some very vivid memories. I will mention Monica Mason because I realise how difficult it is now to be in that position; sometimes as a dancer you just think about yourself, that everything goes around you. As Artistic Director you need to think about everyone. My first Director was Ivan Nagy who hired me from Cuba for ENB when I was 18.” This made Carlos the youngest ever Principal Dancer with ENB. “He used to do my make-up and made sure I looked all right. To me, that meant the world. All these huge stars, but he had a lot of time for me. That boosted my confidence. Then later at ENB I worked with Ben Stevenson who transformed me into a Prince. He cast me as Romeo even though I don’t think I was ready for that, but it meant the world to me that he thought I could do it. And then eventually Anthony Dowell; it was a difficult time then as the company lost the use of Covent Garden which was being refurbished. We were going around the world trying to find a place to perform. I remember La Fille Mal Gardée in the Royal Festival Hall with no rehearsal. I wanted to retire because I danced so badly trying to find out where things were. Then we moved back in to the Opera House and things got much better. He gave me Giselle straight away. Then, later on, Monica Mason gave me Romeo and Song of the Earth. When I work with people, those are the images I think of. Now our generation is the link with those people and we are responsible that these traditions live on. That is how you guarantee the essence of the tradition of classical ballet.”
Does Carlos enjoy coaching?
“Yes, it’s probably the thing I enjoy most. I remember what it feels like to live on stage. I want my dancers to breathe the role not project an illusion or an image. No, you are the role. I am the spectator as well now, I want somebody to make me dream.”
Are there works from the past that he would look to revive?
“Yes definitely. Right now I have to make a shift about what ballet means to the people of Birmingham. Obviously we’re going to bring Cinderella and Don Quixote as I mentioned. I am looking forward to bringing projects like Mayerling, it’s hard-core and provocative, it’s a great way to say ballet can be anything. And Swan Lake for sure, the heritage ballets are always going to be there, we’re not going to turn ourselves into Rambert, but we have to package the product to be more appealing. Then if I sign up for another four years, well I love Balanchine, I love Ashton, but first I need to gain momentum.”
How do Carlos respond to issues around diversity?
“I think diversity is a great thing, but I am very fond of saying that talent and excellence comes first. You look for talent wherever they are. I had an amazing ride in this country. Role models are important and before me there were only a few from other ethnic backgrounds. Now we have more, like Brandon Lawrence for example. In Birmingham, we are in one of the most diverse cities in the UK. Diversity is not just about ethnic groups but also disability and gender, all of that. Disability: we have Freefall Dance Company but I want more. We are working on diversifying the orchestra which is all white. I’m not keen on pockets of diversity, that doesn’t achieve integration, I’ve been in conversation to make it all more now, like the world as it is.”
What about his other company, Acosta Danza?
“At the moment they are waiting for the Cuban government to let us in the studio. They haven’t done what we have done here. I spoke to the Minister of Culture to say they have to let us train. But Cuban people are so resilient, they are used to one crisis after another. I’m pleased to announce that we’re going to Spain in the Autumn and then in Feb 2022 UK, Paris and Amsterdam. The company is my baby, the legacy I leave behind. I love Birmingham, but if I do it wrong they can kick me out. In Cuba that’s my life, and I really feel for those dancers. We have something really meaningful going on in just 5 years. We have two world premieres as soon as we are able in a programme called 100% Cuba: choreographers, musicians all Cuban. You know who I am, I always try to share my roots. I think there is a space for it; we are launching the career of young choreographers. We have a young talented choreographer called Norje Cedeño doing a piece, the closing number, about Cuban culture called Hybrid. The choreographer of Satori, Raúl Reinoso, is doing another new piece called Liberto about runaway slaves. Then we have other pieces, so we hope to come to the UK with that next year.”
Does Carlos dream of taking BRB to Cuba?
“Oh yes but we need money. In 2009 when Monica Mason kindly allowed us to take the Royal Ballet to Cuba it was thanks to a dear friend of ours, a sponsor. I’m in conversation with the Minister of Culture. You don’t get the money back from the box office there and we need to get there and so on. I dream every day about that. I want to throw the biggest party you’ve ever seen as well.”
Has he written another novel after Pig’s Foot?
“With three kids no way, but I will eventually. It takes years but I have it in my head. At least one more book.”
How has the BRB company changed over the last year, how are they finding things and coping with the pandemic?
Carlos explained that it is to be expected that when a new Artistic Director arrives, some people will leave and other new appointments will be made. “When a new Artistic Director comes you expect changes. I didn’t find the best work ethic when I arrived, the classes were not compulsory. But the company is the dancers, so they have to be motivated. So I gathered everybody and said ‘Who is with me and who is not? It’s going be hard, but when we get there, it’s going be amazing.’ So you have to give people a chance to leave but my surprise was they are really ready for it. New dancers are joining and it keeps changing. I want magic from everyone every time, I know the level I want to reach. You have to be really clear about what you want and where you are going.”
Susan then passed on some questions from the audience:
What dancing is Carlos planning to do. Is he going back on stage?
“Yes, soon, in July. It’s On Before, a homage to my mother who died in 2010, I put the show together then but I’m reviving it for a small UK tour. Enough to get the body going. I have that urge still and I’m doing the workout every day so hopefully in July I will be ready.”
What is talent as far as dance is concerned?
“It’s a big combination: musicality, personality, creativity, how you interpret the music. But,, within the company there are levels and everyone is important – you could be the most amazing Mercutio but not necessarily suited for Romeo. Everyone plays a role. Someone might never dance Giselle but they could be the most amazing Bluebird ever seen.”
What does Carlos hope Guest Artists will bring to BRB?
“They will bring new perspectives, they will inspire the dancers. You get used to the dancers you see each day at class. To bring new talent keeps you edgy, on your toes. All that nervousness is very helpful for the company. I don’t want the company to be a local phenomenon, I want them to be international. I think safe is bad, it’s the end.”
Carlos was a subject for Portrait Artist of the Year; how was that?
“It was very different. I learned a lot from the artist; I always thought that you had to model an idea for them but I found he wanted me to be comfortable so he could capture my soul, my essence and then draw it. I didn’t see that coming. He created a painting that was very dreamy, I learned a lot. It was really wonderful.”
Will BRB appear at the ROH?
“We would have been there about now because I wanted to make it happen and I was in conversation with Kevin. We were going to be there with Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty and make a big celebration for the 30th anniversary of the move to Birmingham. It is sad that it didn’t happen. The pandemic changed all that and now, maybe, it will be 2024, but we’ll get there.”
A three-part question: will digital work in future cover backstage perspectives, what is the chance of seeing BRB dance Bejart and will there be more projects like Ballet Hoo!
“We’re already in conversation to do something similar to Ballet Hoo! But bigger and national, which will be like a quest. I want to create a ballet about heavy metal, Black Sabbath is from Birmingham and it was invented here. I want to get the essence of that but have it played by a Sinfonia.” Carlos was unsure whether new perspectives on performance could include backstage – it would probably depend on the crew. As to whether we might see Bejart in the BRB repertoire: “I love Maurice Bejart and it’s a big crime that this generation don’t know who this genius is, his work’s not been seen here since 1999/2000 or so. His choreography is so difficult to get.” However, Carlos completed his response by listing several other works and composers that have not been seen here or been unjustly neglected and which he hopes to add to the repertoire.
The conversation closed with thanks from Susan on behalf of everyone present.
Report written by Chris Abbott and approved by Carlos Acosta
© LBC 2021