Carlos Acosta: A Leap into the Unknown

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY OLIVIA ARTHUR / MAGNUM FOR TIME

Beauty in ugliness Acosta is leaving ballet for the freedom of modern dance

It is Carlos Acosta's 37th birthday, and the greatest ballet dancer of his generation — a man dubbed "Air Acosta" for his legendary leaping ability — is pleading with me to hold our interview on the ground floor so he does not have to walk up a flight of stairs. "Seriously, man," Acosta says in his Cuban-accented English. "I don't think I can make it."

An aging ballet dancer cuts a particularly tragic figure and, grimacing as he settles into his chair, Acosta says he can sense that his time for performing the great virtuoso roles of classical ballet — Albrecht in Giselle; Romeo; Siegfried from Swan Lake, a part he revolutionized as the first black man to play the prince on the world's major stages — is almost up. When pressed, he says he suspects 2012 may be his final year at the Royal Ballet, where he is the principal guest artist. But Acosta is convinced that the end of his ballet career will mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter. Now he is hard at work reinventing himself as a choreographer and modern dancer, shifting to a type of dance that is more fluid and easier on his body. On July 28, Acosta stars in Premieres, a show at the London Coliseum that combines ballet and modern dance — and allows him to start moving away from the form that has made him famous. "When you put on the white tights, and you see some other 20-year-old kid leaping about, you ask yourself, 'Why would I carry on? I've done it so well, for so long.' When is it time to say, 'Enough'?" he asks. "I'm battling with myself all the time."

In the past half-century, ballet has produced only a handful of incandescent stars. Like his predecessors Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Acosta has, for the past 15 years, set the classical dance world on fire. When he burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s, ballet lovers were ready for a dancer with a regal bearing and a demotic charm. "I've still got it. I can still deliver," Acosta says proudly. And he's right. His body still retains the equine beauty that made him an international heartthrob and superstar a decade ago: the long neck, the meaty haunches, the sculpted abdomen that protrudes slightly, like a thoroughbred's powerful belly.

But while he may look the part, Acosta is ballet's reluctant idol — astonishingly talented in an art form with which he has never felt fully comfortable and that he has long fantasized of abandoning. "I'm not a ballet dancer," he says. "It's never been natural for me, and I've often thought of quitting. But something has always driven me on."

Acosta's success in one of the most elite of arts is an unlikely one. The son of an impoverished truck driver, he grew up in a Havana slum in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with a dozen other family members. His strong-willed and at times abusive father enrolled him in ballet school at age 9 in the hope of combating Acosta's truancy and his habit of stealing fruit from his neighbors' yards.

Young Acosta dreamed not of ballet, though, but of soccer stardom, and many years into his career he continued to struggle against his talent, even as he found fame as a principal dancer with the English National Ballet, the Houston Ballet and, later, the Royal Ballet, where he debuted as a 25-year-old in 1998. Throughout his career, he split his time between opulent opera houses in Europe, Russia and the U.S., and his home in Cuba, where his father — who follows the Afro-Cuban religion Santiera — would treat his son's minor injuries and aches by slaughtering animals and sometimes spreading the blood over his joints.

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