The Cuban is a man of many talents and endless charisma, and his partner ain't half bad either
A single light goes up on a vast black stage. At its centre, two motionless figures stand facing each other. One is a tall, blonde-haired woman in white, reed-slim, pale skinned. The other is a sturdy black man, his muscular body tightly coiled, his gaze trained fiercely and unblinkingly upon the woman.
He cuts such a familiar, iconic figure that it takes several blinks of the eyes to grasp the reality of his presence. Yes, it really is Carlos Acosta. But Acosta does not allow anyone to stand in awe of him. He may be the most popular dancer on the planet, he may possess an almost unrivalled multitude of talents – as a dancer, choreographer, producer, writer, actor – but in spite of all that, he is extraordinarily accessible.
Even when appearing on the world’s biggest stages, such as this performance at the Grand Opera House for the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, Acosta exudes a personal connection, which has the effect of making each individual member of his audiences feel as if he is dancing just for him or her. It’s called charisma.
His personal journey is well known, of course: the rebellious, troubled teenager from the mean streets of Havana, who dreamed of being a footballer but whose father sent him off to Cuba’s state ballet school in the hope of putting some manners on him.
He hated it and did everything possible to be expelled. Then the magic of dance took over and by the age of 16, he was winning major international awards and the eyes of the world were upon him. That story is etched all over his street-wise features, giving his stage presence an immediate edge and sense of lurking danger. And then he starts to dance.
For such a powerful man, Acosta’s movements are incredibly soft, smooth and apparently without effort. Every physical extension is stretched to its ultimate limit, to the final straightening of a hand or inclination of the head.
He has the perfect partner in French-born Zenaida Yanowsky, whose glacial appearance and gloriously liquid movements could not offer a more striking contrast. Together they create moments when time seems to stand still and the world to stop turning.
Premieres Plus is the latest in a series of mould-breaking dance adventures on which this perennially curious performer has embarked in recent years. It is a sophisticated, beautifully constructed set of nine dance pieces – presented here as a combination of solos and pas de deux – created by a fascinating mix of choreographers.
They include famous names like Will Tuckett (well known for his work with the Ballet Boyz), Rambert Dance Company’s Miguel Altunaga, Boston Ballet’s Yury Yanowsky (brother of Zenaida), Russell Maliphant and Acosta himself, as well as mixed media artist, Simon Elliott and the young Cuban, George Cespedes.
Separate and entirely independent though each may be, one can sense a strange kind of linkage between them, emanating from the complex opening piece Tuckett’s 'On Before', which suddenly takes on new life with the intervention of the voice of an American evangelical preacher, intoning the story of how Christ went into the synagogue and healed the man with the withered hand.
And that reference to putting life into the dead soul, that promise of grace and goodness, is revoked again and again throughout the evening, through a variety of visual and musical references to Judaism, Islam, Christianity and other faiths.
At no time does Yanowsky ever dim in the presence of her starry partner. Indeed, even in choreographic terms, this is a partnership of equals. There is no sense of the ballerina taking on all the showy business, while the male dancer is there only to support her. The two lift and support and entwine around each other in perfect symmetry and with an instinctive understanding.
They have their memorable individual moments too – Acosta in Maliphant’s masterpiece 'Two', in which Michael Hulls’s breathtaking lighting design seems to create mountain peaks and endless horizons on the Opera House stage; Yanowsky in the candlelit 'Footnote to Ashton', inspired by the great Royal Ballet choreographer Frederick Ashton’s lyrical musicality and free flowing dance language.
The evening ends with Acosta and Yanowsky’s own creation, 'O Magnum Mysterium;, danced to the strains of Morten Lauridsen’s uplifting responsorial chant, gloriously sung by the Belfast choir Capella Caeciliana.
Inspired by Catholic imagery, the two dancers create a beautiful reversal of the Pieta, with a marble-like Madonna lying dead at the feet of the grieving Christ. Finally, as the music builds, the woman is assumed, body and spirit intact, into the next world. Quite, quite stunning.