The Cuban dancer Carlos Acost speaks about performing with the UK's Royal Ballet on its first visit to his home country.
Life in motion
The Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta speaks to Richard Holledge about growing up in Havana, performing with the UK's Royal Ballet and the dance company's first visit to his home country When Carlos Acosta dances, he takes off on an arc of muscular perfection that reaches for the heavens. He's sublime. But pensions ... they can bring a man down to earth. "I'm a freelancer," says the Cuban superstar. "I don't have a pension. I may be a guest artist here or there but I am still freelance, so property has to be my pension. I like owning properties because they help to make the money grow even with this global financial catastrophe."
Maybe it is something to do with his tough childhood in Havana, for he has built a portfolio of properties in his homeland and in London. It is as if he is protecting himself against the lonely insecurity of his early years, when his truck driver father, determined that his son should escape the drudgery and dangers of urban life, sent him packing at the age of 16 to the New Theatre Company in Turin, Italy.
Acosta spent an itinerant decade performing with the English National Ballet in London, the Houston Ballet in the US and, in 1998, the UK's Royal Ballet. Last month, he brought the Royal Ballet to his homeland for a week-long tour, the first visit to Cuba by a major dance company in 30 years. "Houston was all right but I would not live there now," says Acosta, now 36. "I was very young, just 20, but the dancing was what mattered. I grew there as a person and a dancer but I was longing for a home. At times I have hated the desolate life ballet gave me."
Perhaps it is no surprise that the ballet he created, Tocororo: A Cuban Tale, is about a young boy who leaves his family and home in the countryside to find a new life in a city. But the fame he has fought and suffered for has its compensations. Acosta now shares a house in Havana with his father and family, and owns a glamorous beach house 20 minutes from the city. His eyes light up when he talks about it.
"The beach house is in Santa Maria, which is a popular resort with a long, maybe 10-mile, beach. Basically, it was in ruins. There were lots of houses left abandoned when the wealthy fled to the US after the revolution in 1958 and the state didn't know what to do with them. They didn't have the money to rebuild them so they were left to fall down. "I started from scratch. The house had only one door frame. There were piles of tiles and tangles of piping. It had nothing. I expanded it so now it is a really big five-bedroom house, all en suite, with a swimming pool and lots of terraces. It's a big place."
Residents have become used to seeing him drive his 1958 Austin Healey ("I love it, love it") into Havana's old town, where he and his family live in the Los Pinos district where he grew up. "I don't want anyone to exaggerate my life then but it was really humble, really simple. We were living in one room with one bedroom for everyone to share. "I was the last one to be born. My father had left his first wife. My brothers were much older and they were never around. It was just my mother, my father and two of my sisters and me. At some point we were more because my grandmother, my aunt and my cousin came to live with us while they were waiting for their papers to go to Miami. There was one bed, so we had to sleep on a sofa or on the floor. Often, I just squished up with a sister.
"Yes, it was poor but our level of poverty was not so severe." His connection with those days is still intense. "I hope to shoot a movie in Los Pinos based on the book I have written about my life there, possibly in the same house so that the neighbours can benefit from it; we will repair their houses as we film. The whole process is important, so if anyone benefits from the filming it will be them. My old school is really struggling. They have no sound system. They have nothing, so I hope I can help them, too.
"I spend a couple of weeks there at a time and I stay a lot with my dad during the day because my activities are in town - giving classes and auditions - and I hang out with my nephews and my mother. I make sure whenever I go there it's not work-related because my career is here in London. When I'm there I go to a festival or I might dance but only for a day or so. It's more relaxing. It's a holiday."
When he first moved to London, it was to a flat in Pimlico but Acosta knew a small Cuban contingent in Islington and eventually moved there. "I had a two-bedroom garden flat in Clerkenwell. Two years ago I bought a terraced house in Islington with four bedrooms and a roof garden. It's old and very comfortable and just around the corner from Sadler's Wells Theatre." Then he joined the property boom by buying a flat in a development called the Angel Waterside off City Road, which he rents out. When he paid £380,000 (Dh2.3 million) for it in June last year, the market had yet to collapse.
He is philosophical about buying close to the top of the market: "I rent it for £400 (Dh2,450) a week and make a slight profit, which covers my mortgage." The dancer, who has just appeared in one of 11 short films entitled New York, I Love You, finds life in London "comfortable". His family come to visit and he enjoys the local bars such as the Cuba Libre, where he meets fellow Cubanistas. He enjoys the walk along the Regent's Canal to a pub for a very English roast lunch and potters around in the antique shops of nearby Camden Passage.
But he is still restless. He still talks of "being caged" and "dancing myself free". "I like to be in motion," he says. "I have to have something to do with my brain. I'm always thinking. I want to do it all and don't want to miss a thing. Then what happens is that I have a week off with nothing to do and I don't know how to relax. I feel I am supposed to do something all the time. "Maybe I should buy another property. I'm working on it. I'll tell you in five years."
Does he see his properties as a symbol of his success? "I do it because it is a good investment," he says. "Later on, in six or seven years when I have no career, I know that I will be taken care of." He talks with the air of assurance one would expect of a man whose name can fill a theatre but there is often a hint of the insecurity that haunted the young man who danced himself free from poverty.
"I have pictures of myself around the place because I have to remind myself who I really am." He laughs but he is only half joking. "I have them everywhere because they bring back memories. It was hard being so young when I left home. So hard to make sense of everything." One thing is clear. His head might be checking on the property market in London but his heart is in Cuba, where he plans to settle and start a dance school when he stops dancing professionally.
"It's home," he says simply. "It will change now with Obama in the White House and the barriers will start coming down. You should go there before it changes. Before it all becomes like McDonald's."