Carlos Acosta – Symphony Hall Birmingham; Photo Credit: Man Yee Lee. While sitting down to lunch with Carlos Acosta in the attractive canal-side area of central Birmingham, prior to an excellent matinee performance of Romeo and Juliet, he outlined plans for his first full season in charge of Birmingham Royal Ballet. Although now approaching the end of his second year as director, all of Acosta’s original proposals were delayed by the pandemic:
I joined in January 2020 when I was still touring with Acosta Danza and so I was just popping in and out of Birmingham for those first few weeks, and then the pandemic arrived before I had any chance to bond with my dancers; we were holding class remotely through zoom, which was made much worse for me because I live in a valley without fibre optic cable in our village so the internet can be very patchy. I was ‘at the barre’ one minute and then gone the next!
Carlos Acosta will partner the world-famous ballerina, Alessandra Ferri in a new pas de deux, which will be the centrepiece of a programme entitled Curated by Carlos
Carlos Acosta was an outstanding Romeo (who can ever forget his performances with Tamara Rojo, as Juliet) and so it is not surprising that his first complete season opened with three separate danced interpretations of Romeo and Juliet, beginning with the ever-popular MacMillan choreography in the UK’s favourite full-length ballet (so much so that it had opened simultaneously at The Royal Ballet); followed by a double bill of Rosie Kay’s contemporary version, created to the symphonie dramatique by Hector Berlioz, which had never previously been played by the BRB orchestra; coupled with Edward Clug’s Radio and Juliet, which places a redacted version of the story utilising just seven dancers, exploring what might have happened if Juliet didn’t die, against the music of Radiohead.
The decision to feature Rosie Kay Dance Company as part of this BRB programme gives a clear indication of Acosta’s priorities. Kay’s company is the major contemporary ensemble in Birmingham and this involvement and support shows Acosta’s intention to collaborate with other aspects of the city’s artistic life and to emphasise that BRB is firmly rooted in Birmingham’s culture and not just a touring company that happens to be based in Britain’s second city. Kay’s Romeo and Juliet is a modern narrative about different gangs in Birmingham and so embracing her contemporary ballet aligned to the BRB repertoire brings a story that speaks directly to the young people of the city. It followed on from the collaboration with Casey Bailey, Birmingham’s Poet Laureate, on Miguel Altunaga’s City of a Thousand Trades, a love letter to Birmingham, which premiered in June 2021.
As always, The Nutcracker will continue to play an essential part of the season but, this year, it will not be presented in Sir Peter Wright’s traditional proscenium production, which Acosta explained is due for a major refurbishment as “the jewel in the company’s repertoire”, but instead the company will bring an exclusive adaptation of Sir David Bintley’s ballet that the BRB has previously danced at The Royal Albert Hall, in London, which will be new to Birmingham.
“New is a theme that I want to explore as director,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m not interested in going along one path, by giving audiences what they’ve always had before,” he continued, adding “I want to retain our classical core, obviously, but also to keep people surprised and interested. It will be a risk and we may crash from time-to-time but it will be worth it.”
At 48, Acosta has not yet hung up his dancing shoes and he will partner the world-famous ballerina, Alessandra Ferri – who has just celebrated a 40-year association with The Royal Ballet – in a new pas de deux, which will be the centrepiece of a programme entitled Curated by Carlos, that will also include City of a Thousand Trades, Daniela Cardim’s Imminent and Goyo Montero’s Chacona.
Alessandra Ferri and Carlos Acosta perform the world premiere of a new duet _ pas de deux by Goyo Montero as part of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Curated by Carlos programme. Photo credit: Johan-Persson
Acosta’s own version of Don Quixote, originally made on The Royal Ballet in 2013, will come to Birminghamin 2022 (postponed from June 2020) but it will very different from The Royal Ballet’s production with a new orchestration including Minkus’Carmencitawhich will open the second act; revised choreography and new, more contemporary designs (albeit by the same designer, Tim Hatley).
“We mainly tour and so the BRB version has to be a lighter production that we can transport and utilise in a variety of theatres but it still has to have a powerful impact,” noted Acosta
He considers the second act to be the weakest link in the traditional staging: “…it’s usually when guys go out for a beer and say, ‘see you in the next act,’” he joked. At the time that we spoke, Acosta was considering countering this effect by adding animations in order to convey the madness of the Don in relation to his encounter with the windmill masquerading in his mind as a giant foe. He was also exploring the possibility of incorporating neon lighting in the costumes of the Dryads. “Simple, cultured and functional is my overall aim, so that the ballet can be easily performed in all the sizes of theatres to which we tour.”
“Don Q was my natural repertoire as a dancer,” Acosta said, adding, “the dynamic bravura dancing came much more naturally to me than the lyrical roles. It is the variation that I danced to win the Prix de Lausanne (in 1990) and the ballet that I have performed the most and with the most companies.” When Acosta persuaded the former Royal Ballet director, Dame Monica Mason, to allow him to stage Don Quixote at The Royal Opera House it had been absent from The Royal Ballet’s repertoire for eleven years. “I believe it is an essential ballet for every company,” he asserted. “You have to have Don Q in the repertoire because it challenges a company and allows all levelsto be raised since, in this ballet, there are so many dancing roles and nowhere to hide. It keeps the whole company in shape. We are athletes. We have to have ballets that challenge us.” But, he also believes that alterations should be made to the classical ballets which “…speak to who we are today”. “I want to bring modernism into dialogue with the past,” he continued, adding, “it doesn’t make sense to me to just repeat the past, we need to see yesterday with today and I try to apply this principle to my ballets – they are still ghosts of the past but I have included humanist elements – like spoken text – that show these are not just dancers but actual people. It is important to look at the classics through the lens of todayand that idea is very interesting for me to explore,” he concluded.
Acosta is impressed with the company that he inherited. “The dancers are in great shape,” he added with a confidence that is made evident through the recent award of Best Male Dancer in the 2021 UK National Dance Awards to his experienced Chilean principal dancer, César Morales (the first time a BRB dancer has ever won this award). Next year will be a big year for BRB with the city hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the anticipation of millions more people visiting Birmingham for the event. “It will be a great thing for us and we will be immersed in all the activities surrounding the Games,” predicted Acosta. He is planning a new full-length ballet, the details of which he is unable to presently reveal other than that it will be “a relevant story of today.”
Carlos Acosta plans includes an important presence online and to develop the company’s digital offer
His plans also include having “an important and decisive presence online” and he proposes to build on the experience of the pandemic by developing the company’s digital offer. He is particularly attracted to the idea of being able to stream live performances from the stage. “We have been trying to develop digital content for our platform throughout the pandemic but now that we have returned to the stage, why can’t we stream performances from Southampton, for example, which can be seen all over the world? We are a touring company but we should be able to package our performances for people who can’t be present in the theatre.”
Acosta’s new manifesto for the company is to reposition its image in terms of BRB’s importance to Birmingham and broadening its appeal to new audiences through collaborative projects and by modernising the company’s repertoire.
“I want to attract new, more diverse audiences, and I am especially focusing on young people. We will always be there for our core audience but we want to take away the stigma that ballet is old-fashioned, especially within the local community in the West Midlands. We want to bring ballets in which they can see themselves, their lives and the topics that interest them and we hope that this means they will come again and then by the third time they will be coming to see The Nutcracker.”