Ballet took Carlos Acosta from the slums of Havana to superstardom on the stages of the world. But when his company Acosta Danza makes its Singapore debut at the Esplanade's da:ns festival next month, it will be Cuban influences that shine brightest.
The annual dance festival by the Esplanade will run from Oct 10-20, with Acosta, who rose from poverty to become the first black principal dancer of the Royal Ballet in London, as one of the headlining acts.
It could be in the music, Acosta says, or in the dancers' natural movements, already infused with sensuality and the heat of the Caribbean.
"I try and use Cuban composers and artists where possible," says the 46-year-old in an email interview, adding that the choreographers he works with also try to "bring an element of something Cuban" to their pieces.
Born the last of 11 children in an impoverished family, Acosta dreamt of being a footballer but was sent to ballet school against his will by his father, a truck driver who hoped that dancing would keep his youngest son off the streets and out of trouble.
"It's more likely that without the chance I was given in ballet, I would be driving taxis in Havana or God knows what," he says.
His rise to fame was meteoric, especially in a time when non-white dancers were rarely elevated in the ballet world.
At 19, he was told that he had a "difficult colour for ballet".
"Maybe that comment made me want to prove myself more," he says.
"But outside of Cuba I have been very lucky and never really felt held back by the colour of my skin."
Earning comparisons to ballet greats such as Rudolf Nureyev, Acosta joined London's Royal Ballet in 1998 and became its first black principal dancer, as well as the first black Romeo in Romeo And Juliet. Last year, he had a movie, Yuli, made out of his life.
Next year, he will take over as artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
"I don't have so much time to dance these days, but I miss it and feel so alive when I am on the stage," says Acosta, who is married with three daughters.
"I enjoy the challenge at my age of getting into shape for a role, but without the pressure that I used to have in my ballet career."
During Acosta Danza's debut in Singapore on Oct 10 and 11, he will make a rare onstage appearance in Mermaid, a duet created for him by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Another duet about a mythical creature, Faun, is inspired by the 1912 ballet L'Apres-midi d'un Faune (Afternoon Of A Faun) by Russian legend Vaslav Nijinsky.
The other two works on the programme are Paysage, Soudain, La Nuit (Landscape, Suddenly, The Night) by Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg, a playful piece set in a field at twilight to the rhythms of the Cuban rumba, and Alrededor No Hay Nada (There Is Nothing Around) by Spanish choreographer Goyo Montero, set to spoken poems and jazz songs by Spain's Joaquin Sabina and Brazil's Vinicius de Morais.
Acosta believes the dance world is more diverse now and audiences are much more receptive to black and mixed-race dancers.
"The problem is that in the ballet world, there is not a huge pool of black dancers to choose from in the schools. We could do more to encourage them to study or make it more financially accessible for people."
He set up the Carlos Acosta International Dance Foundation in 2011 to train dancers from disadvantaged backgrounds for free.
"I love being able to bring more art to Cuba and broaden the horizons of the people there who have not had the opportunity to travel as I have. I want to give back in the same way that my country gave to me." – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
For more information on the festival, go to www.esplanade.com/dansfestival.