Javier Torres In Conversation with Graham Watts

February 13, 2024

The Chair of the London Ballet Circle, Susan Dalgetty Ezra, warmly welcomed Javier Torres to the evening’s In Conversation. Born in Cuba, Javier trained at the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana and danced in Cuba for several years, following this with twelve years performing with Northern Ballet here in England. After a brilliant career on stage, he is now Managing Director of the Acosta Dance Foundation. This evening he would be talking with well-known dance writer Graham Watts, who Susan also warmly welcomed.

Graham opened the conversation by asking about Javier’s introduction to ballet. There was no tradition of dance within his family although both his parents were involved in the Cuban cultural scene – his father a theatre director and his mother a radio actress. Javier has a sister and a twin brother, whose existence was in due course to prove significant! 

Javier had no interest in dance until he was 11, when it was stimulated by a visiting ballet company. He describes being mesmerised by the movement, the lights and the glitter of the occasion, telling his mother that he wanted to be a dancer. As he and his twin always did things together, both boys went on to audition for the Cuban National Ballet School. His brother passed the audition and was offered a place in the school; Javier himself failed….  However, that little difficulty was resolved because Javier was able to pretend that he was in fact his brother, and thus take up the allotted school place! Javier explained that the audition had not been a terribly formal process, which was why he was able to get away with it. The training at the school was tough as he had to compress two year’s work into a single year, and the deception was soon discovered. However, by then Javier had been in the school long enough to show that he was clearly able to cope with the work.

What was the Cuban school like? There were just two small studios at the side of the main theatre in Havana. Cuba was and still is a poor country and the conditions were not good. Food was limited; there was often no fuel for the bus which ferried them to and from their dormitories every day. The school was very large: at one time there could be as many as 4000 students and hence the competition to succeed was intense. Nonetheless, the Cuban background and training produced many excellent dancers, and without doubt the work and discipline shaped the way he is today.

Javier was then asked about transition to the company; with so many potential professional dancers graduating how were individuals selected? In his final year at the school there were 16 male and 22 female dancers – and of the 16 men Javier always considered himself to be the least gifted. From this group 11 men, including Javier, and just three women were chosen to join the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC). He worked hard, however, such that just two years after joining the company he was promoted to soloist and later was the only member of his group to attain the status of premier dancer. Quite an example, noted Graham, to other dancers who may have initially suffered failure! Tenacity and determination, said Javier, are essential qualities; he took his work very seriously and it clearly paid off. 

Javier said that his rise through the ranks was assisted by the renowned dancer Alicia Alonso who, although elderly and with very limited vision, still directed the company. He acknowledged that she provided the essential leadership which had helped him to develop as both a dancer and an individual. Although a communist (Cuba being a communist country) she had enormous humanity and a great understanding of people. 

He went on to relate the story of the bus which before and after work was supposed to shuttle between the studio and the dancers’ homes, but which often did not appear. At that time in Cuba one did not raise issues or complain about things which did not go right. Nevertheless, Javier plucked up the courage to approach Alicia and explain the difficulties which the situation raised. She made no comment but next day there were two buses waiting for the dancers. On another occasion she had touched his face and hair – as she sometimes did in order to connect with people – and told him that he was handsome. 

After these incidents he had never feared her and they came to develop a good relationship. In fact, during his time in the company Javier found himself more and more acting as a conduit between the dancers and Alicia. That, said Graham, may well have been your introduction to the role of a manager. Javier agreed, saying that was probably true although he hadn’t thought of it that way before. 

The repertoire of the BNC was huge and the number of productions enormous. In one season he may have appeared in seven or eight different shows. You couldn’t hide away, said Javier, you had to constantly push yourself because you knew there were 10 or 11 dancers behind you keen to take your place. He described himself as a ‘two pirouette’ dancer; not someone who wanted to show off his ability to turn and jump. It was the artistry encompassed by the role which he considered important, and he paid tribute to Alicia Alonso for encouraging this aspect of his craft. 

The classical canon predominated in Cuba, but the company also staged works by more modern choreographers such as Neumeier, Cranko and Petit. In this regard Javier noted with particular affection Antonio Gades’ Blood Wedding, the show which really introduced him to narrative ballet. He took on the role of Leonardo as a result of injury to another dancer, performed it, and from then on always danced it while he remained in the company.  

He remained with the BNC for a decade but then got the urge to move on. He wanted to try other styles of dancing and see how other companies worked. In addition his family had left Cuba and he felt that he was on his own in the country. He approached Alicia who agreed that he should leave the company – provided that he would return for the international ballet festivals which she organised every year. 

He guested with Northern Ballet Theatre, now Northern Ballet (NB), for a year and David Nixon, Artistic Director at the time, then invited him to stay on for a further year as a premier dancer. And one year became another, so that by the time of his retirement from active performance he had been with the company for 12 years. 

In his time with NB he learned what he described as ‘a hell of a lot’. He completely fell in love with narrative ballet. The essence of the drama drew him in and he experimented more and more. He took part in every work which David created and overall was very happy. Javier believed that it was the intensity of research which David encouraged which made working for him so satisfying. It allowed the dancer to be absolutely confident in his movements, and in all the gestures inherent in the part. 

In addition he described David as having a good understanding of what it was like for an ex-pat premier dancer coming in to the company, and what compromises must be made. A ‘love / hate’ relationship was how Javier described the interaction between a dancer and their director! When he arrived in Leeds Javier himself had no English, joking that, as they were in Yorkshire, nor did the rest of the company…   NB supported him in useful ways, for example by finding hotel accommodation. It was all very different from Cuba, where such facilities are provided free by the state. He had never before had to live within a capitalist system. 

He did not feel that his first two years with NB had been easy. The relationship between dancer and coaches was quite different from what he had experienced in Cuba. Javier described it as ‘more like school’, where individuals had to follow a set path. In Cuba he felt that individual dancers usually had more freedom to express themselves. Nevertheless he had tremendous success and Graham read out some comments from dance critics, for instance that his performance had been ‘nothing short of mesmerising’. Did he read critical reviews? Of course, said Javier, although he tried hard not to be depressed by a poor review; he respected the opinions expressed and tried instead to learn something from them.

Towards the end of his active dancing career he had, of course, to consider what to do next. The liaison role with Alicia back in Cuba had given him an interest in the wider aspects of the profession, especially the dynamics involved in running a company. He had seen the benefits of effective leadership and the good it provided for the company as a whole. Accordingly while at NB he made a deliberate choice to study for a BA in management and leadership. That was not easy and he might sometimes be finishing off an assignment while making himself up for a show. And then came the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, and while all dance activity was suspended he was able to complete an MBA in just 18 months. 

Gaining these qualifications, he felt, opened doors to the next stage of his career. It provided the confidence required to retire from active performance and move on. Nevertheless, it was a big step to take. David Nixon, while completely supporting his decision, had to rather ‘force’ him into it by setting the date for his final performance some months ahead of time. 

His last performance with NB had been in Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova in May of 2022. It had been a wonderful evening, with a total of 73 of his relatives and friends, including his very first teacher in Cuba, present in the audience. He had ample time to rehearse the role, was very comfortable in it, and described the evening as ‘magical’. 

Graham then noted that as well as being a top-flight dancer, Javier has many other strings to his bow; at various times he has produced shows, acted as an agent, been a CEO and an operations director….   He asked whether Javier was now employed full time with the Acosta Dance Foundation? Javier agreed that he was, but Carlos was certainly allowing him to further his career by trying other possibilities. For instance, he set up and managed a small agency providing just six clients an opportunity to build their own business plans. He thoroughly enjoyed seeing their strategies develop into something real. His current clients were mainly Cuban dancers; ballet is international and he believed cultural diplomacy to be important.

And so the conversation turned to focus on Javier’s latest venture, managing both the Foundation and the Acosta Dance Centre. Carlos Acosta, who he had known for years, had called him to talk about his new ideas while Javier was still dancing with NB. Eventually, after several more calls, they agreed to meet at the premises in Woolwich at which Carlos was starting his new venture. He realised how passionate Carlos was about the possibilities for the new organisation; how he wanted to bring the best of Cuban dance to the rest of the world. Javier fell in love with the project and agreed to become its Managing Director, starting at the beginning of June just three weeks after his final performance with NB.

Javier explained that a strategic plan is in place with a number of initiatives being very actively pursued by the charitable Acosta Dance Foundation: 

The Acosta Dance Academy, located in Havana, offers a three-year training programme for talented professional and semi-professional dancers who would otherwise have no opportunity to study. The costs, including accommodation,  are all met by the Foundation. The course can lead to employment in Acosta Danza, the ballet company run by Carlos. Although nominally based in Cuba, because of the economic conditions in that country the company now spends much of the year here in the UK. In fact, because of the wealth of talent, a second company (Acosta Danza Two) has now been formed in Havana.

A digital platform for dance, to be called Acosta En Casa, which will include an archive of Carlos’ work together with many other topics such as interviews with dancers, choreographers etc. The content remains to be finalised but it will also introduce and document the work of the Centre; it is aimed to go live in 2025.

The Acosta Dance Centre itself – the lovely old building in south London which would form a tangible centre for all the activities of the Foundation. 

The Centre hosts a range of educational and community programmes introducing students to the rich legacy of Cuban dance. The programme for the new Acosta Advanced Training Hub replicates the work of the Academy in Havana in offering a three-year course based in the Cuban curriculum and aimed at nurturing young talent. Because of the cost of the exercise – as in Havana every aspect of the course is provided at no cost – the number of students is limited to ten each year. Although, said Javier, because of the quality of the applicants they have accepted 13 students this year….   

Choreography was not being ignored; every year the Foundation offered a 12-month Choreographic Fellowship to assist and develop individuals with a range of interests and experience, such as researchers and both new and established choreographers. 

Both Graham and Javier agreed that the ‘Acosta Brand’ was very much alive and well. As well as being Artistic Director at Birmingham Royal Ballet, the man himself was a polymath able to pursue and influence all manner of dance related activities. With so much to do, presumably he left Javier more or less alone to manage the centre in Woolwich? Not at all, said Javier, he will call me maybe three times during the day. Nevertheless he clearly had confidence in Javier’s ability, because he gave him every freedom to develop his own ideas.

Graham asked whether individuals could help in offering support for the Foundation. Javier welcomed this and invited everyone to visit the websites. The building was old, Grade II listed, and cost a great deal to maintain. The Centre encourages visits where its day-to-day work could be on show; tours could include, perhaps, an exhibition and a rehearsal of Acosta Danza, to be followed by afternoon tea. The Centre was located next door to Woolwich Works, the new cultural hub for south London, and there would be collaboration whenever possible.

In concluding the evening, Susan, as Chair of the London Ballet Circle, thanked both Javier and Graham for their in-depth exploration of Javier’s extraordinary career, culminating in these new initiatives for the Foundation. There was obviously so much going on in Woolwich, and the conversation had provided us all with much to digest. The evening had been both instructive and entertaining and she thanked both contributors most warmly. 

Written by Trevor Rothwell. Approved by Javier Torres and Graham Watts.

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