Review: Carlos Acosta - The Classical Farewell - Royal Albert Hall

Performance: 3 - 7 October 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 4 October 2016

Carlos Acosta in 'The Classical Farewell', Royal Albert Hall, October 2016. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 3 October

The cavernous, circular envelope of The Royal Albert Hall is both absolutely, fabulously right for this unique occasion, whilst also being a largely inappropriate venue for the scale of the events taking place on its stage. It is a place most popularly known for the pomp and ceremony of the annual Last Night of the Proms and this familiar association with happy goodbyes – in the certain knowledge of a return, next year – carries over to a farewell to the classical dancing career of Carlos Acosta. It is, however, far too large an internal space to capture the intimacy of a dance gala, largely featuring duets, solos and the occasional piece of furniture.

Acosta is one of the very few in that rare breed of male dancers whose celebrity transcends the art of dancing. People, who have never seen him dance, know his name and something of his rags-to-riches back story, as the eleventh – and last – child of an impoverished Cuban family. He’s not just a dancer, of course; Bloomsbury having published his debut novel, Pig’s Foot, in 2014. He even has a brand with an impressive logo in a figurative line drawing of a faceless Acosta flying through the air against the background of an orange disc. This might be “a farewell” but – thankfully – in no way are we seeing the last of Carlos Acosta!

At 43, he is giving up the classical repertoire but he will continue to dance; taking a leaf from Sylvie Guillem’s book by focusing on contemporary works, although he will also choreograph and direct, primarily through his own dance company, Acosta Danza, which, he says, will be dedicated to presenting ‘future generations of inspirational Cuban dancers and choreographers to the world’.

In truth, this celebratory programme shows that the great dancer has already more-or-less said goodbye to classical ballet, since the only classical piece that he performs is the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, fashioned from his own production for The Royal Ballet, and – as Basilio – partnering that same Kitri from the world premiere, Marianela Nuñez. He demonstrated the kind of assured partnering skills that ought to be captured as a masterclass for aspiring young male dancers and still scythed through the air with explosive speed in Basilio’s variation. His jumps may not possess the elevation of old but Acosta still spins with extraordinary force and precision; not to mention, with charm and charisma that is undiminished by the Royal Albert Hall’s gargantuan space.

The audience is certainly not short-changed with Acosta opening and closing each act, venturing onto stage for no less than six muscle-sapping performances. Three came from the unique neoclassical style of the Kenneth MacMillan repertoire: opening act one with the pas de deux from Winter Dreams (also danced, tenderly, with Nuñez); and act two, with the ‘suicide’ scene from Mayerling (opposite Laura Morera as Mary Vetsera); and finally, the Offertoire and Pie Jesu from Requiem, danced exquisitely with Yuhui Choe. The Mayerling scene seemed inappropriately placed, opening an act, rather than ending the ballet (and it was unfortunate that the lighting clearly showed Acosta’s shadow firing the revolver into the air, thus ruining the illusion of suicide). It was, however, beautiful to see (and hear) the back-to-back extracts of Requiem and Gloria (another wonderful MacMillan ballet, danced outstandingly by Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano). Neither ballet is generally seen in such a gala context and it must be a tribute to Lady MacMillan’s high regard for Acosta that her permission was given for their use.

Nuñez returned to partner Acosta in the ‘around the world’ pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Apollo. And, in a nod to his future direction, Acosta’s final turn was in the street-flavoured solo, Memoria, by fellow UK-based Cuban dancer, Miguel Altunaga, which was made on Acosta back in 2011. This had been preceded by the evening’s premiere, Anadromous, a powerful duet made by the young Cuban choreographer, Raúl Reinoso for Luis Valle and Gabriela Lugo to dance. Earlier, these dancers – also from Havana – had slithered their way through the passionate Golden Slave pas de deux from Scheherazade.

Also filling in the gaps between Acosta’s several shifts were five dancers from The Royal Ballet. Sarah Lamb gave an ethereal, fluttering performance as The Dying Swan and partnered rising star, Valentino Zucchetti, in the energetic syncopation of Balanchine’s Rubies duet. Zucchetti and Yuhui Choe gave a delightful interpretation of Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody pas de deux; and Zucchetti also performed the supporting role of Bratfisch in the Mayerling scene. The remaining piece was another from MacMillan, the evening’s dominant choreographer, in the ubiquitous bedroom pas de deux from Manon, rather hesitantly performed by Hirano, opposite a beguiling Morera.

The show’s high production values match the elegance of the venue with every piece performed in correct costume, employing the appropriate props and furniture, and enjoying comprehensive lighting (designed by Chris Davey), which is needed to make the performances visible to an audience that is – mostly – an unusually long distance away from the action. Best of all is the close attention paid to the music with a large orchestra stationed above the stage, conducted by Paul Murphy, enjoying scintillating solos from Robert Clark (piano), Rowena Calvert (cello) and Gina McCormack (violin). Rimsky-Korsakov’s music for Scheherazade was a special treat in this setting, lusciously and delightfully delivered. A superb, magical bonus came from the 40+ members of the Pegasus Chamber Choir for the choral excerpts of Poulenc (Gloria) and Fauré (Requiem).

Acosta was notably overcome with emotion at the curtain call (without a curtain), perhaps triggered by one audience member loudly bellowing “Thank you, Carlos”, as his concluding solo came to an end. As a gala celebration to close one important facet of this great guy’s career, it is a well-deserved, well-constructed and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Continues at the Royal Albert Hall until Friday 7 October

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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