Since the first momentous news arrived in my inbox from the Belfast Festival at Queen’s that Carlos Acosta was going to be gracing the stage of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, I have been very, very excited and telling everyone that I could think of, that one of the greatest, if not the greatest, male dancers of our time, was going to be performing here. I have set up this blog largely, I feel, we have, in the last number of years, lost a lot of our ballet tradition. I hope that this visit will re-ignite our love of ballet and we will continue to attract big names and big companies. We are all painfully aware of the squeeze and cuts to Arts funding but hopefully through innovative programming and use of social media and blogging, we will again see an influx of stars from the world of ballet like we did at the close of Belfast Festival 2011.
Lazy journalism often tags Carlos Acosta with the term, “Cuban Billy Elliott”, but those who saw Carlos Acosta at the Grand Opera House can definitely attest to the fact that this was no fictional character but a ballet megastar with a career at the highest level sustained over many years at one of the World’s top companies, who only accept technical and bodily perfection from its’ dancers. For this tour, Carlos Acosta is partnered by another Royal Ballet Principal, Zenaida Yanowsky, whose performance as the Red Queen in the company’s first full-length narrative ballet in twenty years, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, was one of the highlights of the performance. Zenaida is one of those dancers who is long of limb and can often find it difficult to find a suitable partner who can match her en pointe height but that is obviously not going to be a problem this evening and the contrast between the two dancers is stunning but very complementary and effective, especially as they come out at the start, Carlos dressed all in black and Zenaida dressed all in white. The relationship in the dance begins with him looking in longing at her prone figure on the ground and then the scene appeared to rewind to show us the beginning of the relationship in turmoil and to me, it seemed to represent a very turbulent relationship but when the other partner is gone, the realisation comes that he can’t live without her. The partnering in this dance was to set the pattern for the rest of the night and the contrast of light and dark, strength and femininity, between the male and female was most clearly marked and effective here. The second piece saw Carlos dancing solely to a paired-back drum and bass track, the beat marking the tempo which at times was fast and furious and again, evoked strength and power and showed the amazing physical presence that Carlos Acosta has, more so than when he is hiding behind, somewhat, a character role. The third piece saw the floor handed over for a solo performance by Zenaida in a piece choreographed by her brother, or I assume this is her brother as they share the same surname, born in the same place and both cite training at their parents’ Yanowsky School. The change-over was choreographed by a small moment where they danced together with Zenaida dressed in a slightly Halloween-looking, full white leotard and started with the movements of a bird or I thought looked like a breath of air and this is how she danced, so light and smooth that she looked ethereal and sylph-like, just a wisp and the movement was so fluid that it looked at times that she was not made of muscle and bone but sinew only. The final act of a short-ish first half, saw Carlos in a solo piece that he danced largely in a square of light to the front of the stage. This piece was choreographed by one of the leading choreographers of modern ballet, Russell Maliphant, originally for Sylvie Guillem which it must have gone through a metamorphosis as it brought out again the strengths of Carlos Acosta and that is his physical presence and strength, ending with the arms and legs whirling around so quickly in the square of light towards the edges of the circle that it looked like one continuous movement going round in a circle of light. In this dance, the light became the partner. The audience were so rapt, we didn’t really want the atmosphere that had built up, to end.
One of the most poignant of tonight’s offerings started the second half with the stage edged with rows of lit candles and the piece was entitled, Footnote to Ashton in tribute to the founding choreographer of the Royal Ballet who was probably the founder of ballet as we know it, in the UK. This piece took the more basic, elemental movements of ballet and was incredibly moving with the Belfast’s own, Cappella Caeciliana singing the music of Handel. The next piece was probably one of the most interesting and featured the dancers naked forms, on video, using water as the setting and focusing on the musculature and power of the dancers’ bodies, that at times were seen to slap their own and each others’ faces and then their bodies fused and merged whilst the under a waterfall of heavily falling water. This was a real stand-out piece, especially as it involved not a lot of dancing or the dancers performing live on stage.
The next three works were to end the programme and saw the dancers on the stage. The contrast between the two dancers was again transparent but also tremendously effective, with Carlos in black and Zenaida in a little white dress and they are an amazing pairing. They were so in tune and the lifts were mesmerising and so secure and, at times, Carlos carried Zenaida on his shoulder without being held and in fact, with arms aloft, it showed the strength and power of the dancers but also the balance and security that they have. The programme ended with the choir, that until now, had sung back stage but at times, wandered on to walk through the stage lights or to peer into black holes, created by the lighting, came onto stage. Carlos and Zenaida danced, mostly to the side of the stage, in a kind of coda or reprise of the first work and was choreographed by the dancers themselves. However, as much as I loved this dance, I was very disappointed by not seeing the dancers enough and it ended with the choir taking most of the stage and covering Carlos at one stage to take Zenaida away with them to the back. The choir were magnificent and the piece was so evocative that it was deeply moving but was a quiet ending, rather than a big bang which was in contrast to the fireworks going off around the city. The performances were effecting, wistful and sometimes romantic rather than wham bam although there were moments of high drama and combativeness between the dancers.
I cannot understate the contribution that Carlos Acosta has made to the evolution of ballet. There have been dancers that before have come from extreme poverty and broken out of a totalitarian regime but the physicality of Carlos Acosta combined with the highest level of technique, makes him one of the best male dancers, in the league of Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Since the Royal Ballet stopped touring the UK in the late 90s, the Belfast audiences have been thrilled by the smaller, regional companies that can be fabulously innovative but I hope that the success of this performance and the reaction from the audience that saw sustained standing ovations on each evening, will see Belfast back on the map for the top ballet performers, if not by the Royal Ballet itself and what I would really love to see is Northern Ireland’s own Melissa Hamilton, welcomed back to Northern Ireland for the heroic welcome that she deserves. My lasting memory though of this performance will be Carlos Acosta’s smile, as he took his bow to a rapturous applause which is about a mile wide and lit up the Belfast skyline better than a thousand fire-works.