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Carlos Acosta, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Carlos Acosta, Sadler's Wells

Carlos Acosta, Sadler's Wells

Britain's most popular ballet star shows his serious, elite side

Carlos Acosta: 'nothing more magnetic exists than watching Acosta soberly correcting the image he is making'Tristram Kenton/Sadlers Wells

It‘s when you see how popstar fame can reach people with more luck than work that Carlos Acosta’s achievement in becoming a truly popular ballet star is underlined. Ballet is just the toughest discipline there is. Great elite artists and great popular artists are generally divided by an insuperable wall; often there’s a sell-out of some kind when the great elite artist achieves wider popularity, the dancer gets cocky or vulgar or goes on too long. But I have to exempt Acosta from that.

At Sadler’s Wells this week he is showing just what a ballet-dancer’s ballet-dancer he is. In an evening that looks on the skimpy side to the popular eye with only four short ballets, what you received from his performance was the serious, elite side of Carlos. We press may hark on about his hazardous upbringing in Havana, but this is a nobleman among dancers - a danseur noble, an aristocratic French term that is still an accolade for men given more rarely than the easily used “ballerina” for girls.

The pieces all counter the usual wisdom that ballet is about girls - we are still in the post-Nureyev era, when boys count more, and few have counted more around the world than the Cuban adopted Englishman. Afternoon of a Faun is Jerome Robbins’ sly observation of two dancers in a studio adoring themselves, a boy and girl, who briefly interrupt their ingrained obsession with the invisible mirror to kiss. That is, he kisses her, to her consternation. Under the seductive amusement, the dancers’ absorption in perfecting their academic line is magnetic, an insight on art. And nothing more magnetic exists than watching Acosta soberly correcting the image his dark, gleaming, muscular torso is making, stretching his legs for work, rolling in a doze of self-narcosis, hiding - almost certainly - panic that he is 36.

Usually you’ll have a ravishing girl daring to interrupt such slumbrous narcissism, but English National Ballet’s Begoña Cao, beautiful and expressive though she is of face, was not fastidious enough in her steps and shapes to match Acosta. As an evolved tribute to Nijinsky’s legendary L’Après-midi d’un faune, which was all about the boy, this demands that the girl briefly out-gun the boy.

A musical interlude, clumsily programmed with house lights up and too little prominence in the programme, meant that the fine conductor Paul Murphy and the orchestra were noisily chatted through as they played the “Frolicsome Finale” from Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, as a well-intentioned prelude to Britten’s score Young Apollo. This very jolly, Stravinskyan piano and strings score deserved something less doughily preening than the pas de deux choreographed by Adam Hougland for two more ENB dancers, Erina Takahashi and Junor de Oliveira Souza, in Smartie-coloured leotards.

Spirits revived when Acosta danced A Suite of Dances,  a sexy star vehicle by Robbins made in 1994 for  Mikhail Baryshnikov and a cellist playing Bach. Obviously female, you can tell, from the opening, where she stands with her cello waiting to take her seat, and he sprawls in front of her on the floor, legs flirtatiously akimbo, blocking her with his aura.

Here it was the appreciative Natalie Clein who stepped firmly over Acosta’s legs to commune with the more exalted spirit of Bach, while Acosta danced accompanying attendance on her. It’s physically undemanding - Baryshnikov was 46 by then - but a nice conceit to have the world-famous dancer playing second fiddle to a much less well-known musician. Clein played Bach’s cello suites as if he were Schumann, lovely, whispery, unashamedly romantic playing, while Acosta was the one who seemed more removed, upright, a faun listening courteously to music in the air. His attention to music is one of Acosta’s most charming attributes.

To end an evening with Balanchine’s great but rarefied Apollo is rare these days - it usually finds itself launching at 7.35 upon an unsuspecting audience still finding their seats. That small chamber orchestra striding off so magisterially in Stravinsky’s score demands preparation, concentration, so that Balanchine’s marvels can unfold and grip the audience with the drama of this young godlet teaching himself to become the omnipotent deity of the Sun and Art, in the tasty hands of three girls who happen to be various divinities of poetry, mime and dance.

Balanchine said Apollo was a farm boy, not some snotty prince-in-waiting, and thus Acosta played him. I haven’t seen another Apollo who has brought that opening solo with the lyre such an air of a glorious future popstar getting his first guitar, strumming it hard to test its amps.

But then there is this added dimension that he has from his perfectionist Cuban training, which is his ability to make any woman on stage with him glow. Here there were three of them, Takahashi and Cao from before, crowned by the elegant Daria Klimentova as Apollo’s pick of the crop. The audience laughed as he sliced his girls apart, all three together, then two aside, then one. That’s a great moment to laugh at, to understand that this is as much about boys and sex as it is about gods. And Acosta transmitted that, as he did the entire majestic, awed spread of the rest, riding up to Parnassus. A short evening? I didn’t notice.

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