Laura Rodríguez and Carlos Acosta

Carlos Costa - On Before

Birmingham Hippodrome


In each generation ballet, as in many fields of human endeavour, finds its superstars, the special ones, the names that transcend the world of dance and sees them soaring into the world of celebrity.

They are the Vaslav Nijinskys, Rudolf Nureyevs, Mikhail Baryshnikovs and, latterly, Carlos Acostas, dancers who took the art to new levels and new audiences.

Acosta, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet since 2020, is at an age - he is 51 in three weeks - when, had he been a star footballer he would be, by now, a pundit at Sky making guest appearances in charity legend matches with dad’s telling sons what a great player he used to be.

Yet here he is, on stage, performing, with all the grace, elegance and emotion that has been the hallmark of his career. True there are no athletic leaps or gravity defying flights, the stock in trade of the classical ballet dancer, but as Acosta explained in a short Q&A after the performance, he wanted to explore other ways of dancing, telling of his feeling that classical dancing could actually constrain you, restricting you to dancing in a box.

Classical ballet's sheer demand for athleticism is also a restriction imposed by nature with the ever increasing years a constant companion through life although you get the feeling Acosta will still be appearing on stage when choreographers are having to work a Zimmer frame into their works.

On Before is his homage to his mother who died in 2010, and, along with his truck driver father, she was the major influences in his life as a ballet superstar, Havana’s own version of Billy Elliot. Acosta was the youngest of 11 children in a poor family, growing up with no toys, often shoeless and in danger of drifting into real trouble in the backstreets of Havana – so his parents packed him off to dance training at a state run school to learn discipline . . . and get a free lunch every day.

It was a decision Acosta admitted he hated in the Q&A, but he came around leaving the Cuban National Ballet School with maximum qualifications and a gold medal.

The homage is not his life story in some sort of Acosta bio-ballet, but a chance to explore new works, to introduce new choreographers, to create dance outside Acosta’s classically trained box.

Choreographers include the likes of Russell Maliphant, Kim Brandstrup, Will Tuckett, Raul Reinoso, Yury Yanowsky, Miguel Altunaga,  Beatriz Garcia and George Céspedes along with Acosta himself.

The result is a series of pieces high in sensuality, emotion and moments of passion, that fusion of feeling that can create love or hate.

Dancing with Acosta is the delightful Laura Rodríguez, an original member of his own company, the internationally acclaimed Acosta Danza, which he founded in Cuba in 2015.

The programme opened with Tucket’s On Before, a sensuous pas de deux, which also introduces Ex Cathedra as a sort of dance Greek Chorus, a procession of bodies circling and criss-crossing the stage masking scene and mood changes. 

The world renowned Birmingham based choir, under its artistic director and conductor Jeffrey Skidmore comes into its own in an a stunning cappella singing of the final piece, O Magnum Mysterium, Morten Lauridsen’s setting of a Gregorian chant to Christmas dramatically lit which left Acosta sitting alone on an empty stage.

The pieces mixed relationships with times of solitude, love with hate and times when passion overwhelmed the dancers and even included a film, from Estudio 50, full screen on the vast Hippodrome stage.

It gave us our two dancers in slow motion, close up, showing all the pain and ecstasy emotion and passion can being to lovers.

Acosta provided his own moments of magic with, for example, Maliphant’s Two, which showed a mesmerising interaction between the fluidity of movement of the human body allied to changing light and sound.

There were also moments of quiet reflection such as the opening of act two with Footnote to Ashton, inspired by the works of the late celebrated choreographer Frederick Ashton set to Aria: Per te lasciai la luce from Delirio Amoroso: Handel’s Italian Secular Cantatas.

As she glided around massed banks of flickering candles we saw what a wonderful dancer Laura Rodríguez is as she made the huge Hippodrome stage her own.

As a pairing Acosta and Rodríguez made you believe, creating shapes and forms with movement that defied human logic, dancing almost as one.

Contemporary dance has many elements, there is the vision and inspiration of the choreographer, then the interpretation and emotional investment of the dancers and finally, and perhaps most important of all, the understanding or at least feeling it creates in the audience.

There is no narrative, no story to follow, just movement, passions and emotions to absorb to create your own version of what is being portrayed, an audience of 1,600 or so creating 1,600 versions of what they had seen.

It is all helped by music which varies from disturbing deep bass throbbing to Gregorian chants, early 18th century Handel to modern day triphop. Then beyond the sound is the dramatic lighting from Chris Davey leaving dancers highlighted, silhouetted, backlit . . . using light as part of the fabric of each dance.

The result is a performance that is spectacular, mesmerising and quite beautiful to watch. Acosta pays his dues to classical ballet with his guidance and leadership of BRB, but as a dancer he is finding new directions for that talent of a generation he represents.

To 07-05-24 

Roger Clarke


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