EVEN WHEN HE’S STANDING STOCK-STILL, Carlos Acosta’s body seems on the verge of movement. His shoulders are thrown back; his head and backbone meet in graceful equipoise; the muscles in his thighs and calves stand out in supple definition. He appears utterly relaxed and at the same time ready to spring upward in one of the extravagant leaps that so electrify audiences. Since 1993 the sexy young Cuban has been a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, garnering bouquets from the critics, who call him “spellbinding” and compare him with Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And as each performance has trumped the previous one, the question at the back of everyone’s mind has been, “How long can Houston keep him?” The question was answered—at least for now—when the Houston Ballet and London’s Royal Ballet entered into an agreement earlier this year to time-share Acosta’s talents, an arrangement accorded only top dancers. Considering that the 25-year-old dreamboat could have decamped altogether, his decision to maintain his Texas ties is a testament to his loyalty. It is also a tribute to the Houston Ballet as a talent incubator. Indeed, Houston is where Acosta became a star.
Today Acosta’s performances are hailed as miraculous; when he was an urchin growing up in a Havana barrio, stealing mangoes and break-dancing in the streets, the miracle was getting him to practice his pliés and pirouettes at all. “I thought ballet was for sissies,” he says. “I wanted to be a soccer or baseball player. Ballet was slow; it was boring.” But Acosta’s truck-driver father was determined that the youngest of the family’s eleven children was not going to end up poor. Ballet academy was free in communist Cuba, and Pedro Acosta signed the boy up when he was nine. Carlos hated it. “I had to get up at five, go to school, then take three buses in the afternoon to get to ballet,” he remembers. He was so tired that he would often fall asleep on the way there and wouldn’t get back home until ten or eleven at night. Lots of times he went fishing instead, but he had so much natural ability that he could skip classes for weeks at a time and not fall behind.
Acosta might have goofed off indefinitely had he not attended a performance by the National Ballet of Cuba when he was a teenager. It turned his attitude around: “When I saw all the jumps and turning, I said, ‘Wow! I want to do that.’” From then on, he practiced like a madman, winning a bundle of prizes in international competitions and leaving home on a special artist’s visa to join the English National Ballet when he was eighteen. It was in London that he first met Ben Stevenson, the director of the Houston Ballet, who says, “I was won over by his talent. He had a natural joy of dancing that was very contagious.” After a year back home with the National Ballet of Cuba, Acosta joined the Houston Ballet as a principal dancer in 1993. When he traveled home to visit friends and family, he found that he had become something of a national hero.
If the alliance gave the Texas troupe a spectacular new star, it afforded Acosta the expertise of a renowned teacher. When he arrived, says his girlfriend, former Houston principal dancer Tiekka Schofield, “He was a big, athletic, explosive dancer.” Stevenson groomed and tamed his abilities. He taught him that dance is not about how high you can jump—well, maybe partially; a guy needs applause—but about making that jump look effortless. Stevenson also urged him to get inside the characters he played, to communicate with the audience. Acosta muses, “One day you’re a prince, the next day you’re some wild and primitive creature. Those hours that you are onstage, you really are that character.” Stevenson is pleased with the progress of his prize pupil, crediting him with having grown enormously as an artist.
Audiences will see that maturity and finesse this month when Acosta returns from London, where he is now based, to dance the part of Frederik, the hero in Ben Stevenson’s ballet Dracula. In March he will be back for the romantic classic La Sylphide . After that, who knows? Houstonians hope they have not seen the last of their adopted son but realize that he may be floating away. For his part, Acosta says, “A natural gift is a responsibility; you have to share it with everybody. At the same time, I love Houston Ballet. This company has been like a family to me.”