Dancing through life

Carlos Acosta on ballet and biopic Yuli

by Amber Wilkinson

Carlos Acosta and Icíar Bollaín. Acosta: 'It was the most enriching experience of my life but traumatic'
Carlos Acosta and Icíar Bollaín. Acosta: 'It was the most enriching experience of my life but traumatic' Photo: Amber Wilkinson
Director Iciar Bollain and screenwriter Paul Laverty take an emotional approach to the life of world famous ballet dancer Carlos Acosta in biopic Yuli, which is based on the Cuban's memoir No Way Home. The film focuses on the dancer's childhood and, in particular, his relationship with his father, who was the driving force behind his ballet, an ambition which, for years, Acosta refused to embrace. Although showing some of the 'stories' of his childhood - and there is a nod to the fact that all memories are created to an extent - the strength of the film lies in the way dance is incorporated to emphasise Acosta's more abstract emotions, including fear, loneliness and lust.

Speaking at the press conference in San Sebastian, the 45-year-old, who also plays himself in one part of the film, said: "It was the most enriching experience of my life but traumatic. I had written a book to free me from my past and I was reliving it again. Iciar and Paul were cheering me on - it's a film with a lot of integrity."

The film shows Acosta as a reluctant and rebellious student, but he makes no bones about what it takes to ultimately succeed.

Paul Laverty and Keyvin Martínez, who plays a younger version of Acosta in the film
Paul Laverty and Keyvin Martínez, who plays a younger version of Acosta in the film Photo: Amber Wilkinson
"Dance us almost a religion - it's eight hours a day, even Saturdays, it's not necessarily paid well," he says. "Our health is on the line for the benefit of others, That's the battle of the mind and body. The mind dominates and blocks pain. Ballet is anti-anatomic, it goes against the anatomy of the human body. This brings along a lot of consequences. I've had about five or six surgical operations, for example. But at the end of the day, when you're living on stage, it's addictive it's marvellous. I try to keep dancing because it's something that's really beautiful. Through just movement, people come up to you almost crying because of motion. That's priceless."

In addition to telling the story of Acosta's roots, the film is stitched into the social fabric of Cuba, with archive footage showing people trying to flee the economic crisis during the 'special period', at a time when he, ironically, was desperate to return home.

"With Cuba," he says, "everyone knows it's gone through any transformations from the 1980s. I remember in the 1980s when there existed all the citizens street parties when all the citizens cleaned and there was a committee to make sure what suburb was the most beautiful and they made sure the lawn was cut and the kids played sack races and singing competitions. And that's the environment that I was brought up in.

Iciar Bollain's Yuli
Iciar Bollain's Yuli Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
"Then the barbarian period, the collapse of the communist system - what we call the 'special period'. They were very tough years with almost 20 hours a day with no electricity for example, and that brought the exodus in 1994, when people went out to sea. Now Cuba is still mutating and still transforming its new constitution. I imagine over time things will go the way they go but it's still beautiful to see despite all of this transformations a very strong community spirit still exists. The neighbours help each other and the kids can pay out on the street without any problem. That eclecticism of races which has managed to achieve a great level. You see a mixture of races and this has been achieved by this philosophy of art is for everyone independent of whether you have money to pay for it or not."

And as for his advice for youngsters with dancing aspirations, he says: "I see this film as a testimony to ' Yes you can'."

He adds: "If you get involved in this world, it's a lot of work to be able to be able to fly and to jump with your muscles and to turn into the sun so that you shine so much that you cannot be ignored. The most difficult thing is, despite the pain, to maintain that spirit alive."

We also spoke to Laverty and Bollain about the film and will bring you the interviews soon. The film screens at Glasgow Film Festival this week.

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