Monday, October 13, 2014

Carlos Acosta Recalls the "Clarion Call" of His Vocation in Dance


The Wild Reed series on dance continues with an excerpt from Carlos Acosta's autobiography No Way Home: A Dancer's Journey from the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World.

Born in Cuba in 1973, Carlos Acosta is widely considered the most accomplished male ballet dancer in the world. Based in London, he has danced with many companies, including the English National Ballet, National Ballet of Cuba, Houston Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. He was made a permanent member of The Royal Ballet in 1998. Five years later he was promoted to Principal Guest Artist, a rank which reduced his commitment and allows him to focus on a growing schedule of international guest appearances and tours.

The excerpt I share from No Way Home focuses on what broadcaster Alan Titchmarch calls the young Acosta's "Damascus Road moment," the moment when the rebellious teen-aged Acosta realized that his vocation was to be a dancer.

The idea of vocation interests me greatly. I've written about my own sense of vocation here, and in 2010 shared as part of The Wild Reed's "In the Garden of Spirituality" series, Parker Palmer's thoughts on vocation. Writes Palmer:

Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks – we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need."

For sure the world needs beauty, beauty that embodies and conveys the often complex truths about what it means to be fully human. I believe this is the beauty of Dostoevsky's famous line from The Idiot, "Beauty will save the world." Like so many performing artists, Carlos Acosta's profound and dedicated embodiment of his vocation brings this type of salvific beauty to the world.

In his 2009 address "Meeting with Artists," Pope Benedict XVI spoke eloquently of this type of beauty, one that he called "authentic beauty."

Authentic beauty . . . unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence.

Yes, art has the potential to connect us to the Divine Presence! This liberating truth reminds me of Rosanne Cash's words of wisdom:

The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting popular culture becomes, the more we need the truth of a beautifully phrased song, dredged from a real person’s depth of experience, delivered in an honest voice; the more we need the simplicity of paint on canvas, or the arc of a lonely body in the air, or the photographer’s unflinching eye. Art, in the larger sense, is the lifeline to which I cling in a confusing, unfair, sometime dehumanizing world. In my childhood, the nuns and priests insisted, sometimes in a shrill and punitive tone, that religion was where God resided and where I might find transcendence. I was afraid they were correct for so many years, and that I was the one at fault for not being able to navigate the circuitry of dogma and ritual. For me, it turned out to be a decoy, a mirage framed in sound and fury. Art and music have proven to be more expansive, more forgiving, and more immediately alive. For me, art is a more trustworthy expression of God than religion.

Wow! Who would have thought Dostoevsky, Parker Palmer, Pope Benedict, and Rosanne Cash would all be quoted in the same blog post? That's The Wild Reed for you!

And now I add to the mix the words of Carlos Acosta! They're followed by a short interview that Alan Titchmarch recently conducted with Acosta for The Royal Ballet. In this interview Acosta talks about his production of Don Quixote and offers cautionary words for young dancers lured by fame.

But first, an excerpt from Carlos Acosta's autobiography, No Way Home: A Dancer's Journey from the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World.

The Vocational Arts School in Pinar del Rio was a huge concrete block on the edge of the city. Its three buildings bordered an enormous interconnecting courtyard and were surrounded by stairs leading up and down to the classrooms for music, the visual arts, and ballet. It was here I discovered love and friendship, as well as other qualities that helped the boy I was become the man I am.

It was here that I found my passion for ballet.

One evening the school organized a visit to the Saidén Theatre on Real Street in Pinar del Rio to see the Cuban National Ballet perform. I was annoyed because I wanted to stay in and watch the baseball game between my Havana team, the Industrials, and the Pinar del Rio team, the Vegueros, which all the other pupils in the school supported. But I was dragged along with the rest of the group and seated next to our teacher Juan Carlos in an uncomfortable seat in the theater's third row.

My friend Rogelio and I were discussing who would lead the batters that year. Lazaro Vargas was his hero, and Rogelio always imitated his batting style whenever we played in the rough concrete sports area of the school.

We were shushed as the curtain went up. It was a slow piece. "Educational," the teachers might say; "a jewel of classical repertoire," a fan or critic might say; a load of crap, I thought.

I was calculating that by now the game would have reached the third inning. The Vegueros were leading the championship. If they lost, the Industrials would be only half a game away from first place. It was not just a game of baseball between Havana and Pinar del Rio; there was more at stake than that. My honor as a Habanero was on the line, but I also knew I stood to lose either way. If the Industrials won, then some people would vent their spite and frustration on me; if they lost, three hundred people would shout at me, "Ha, ha, ha, Havana lost the game, you're a yellow Habanero, you can't beat us 'cos we're better than you!" They would push me and tug at the neckerchief that we had to wear as part of our school uniform. I was getting frustrated just thinking about it.

I made myself watch the ballet. The ballerinas who floated across the stage as delicately as goose down distracted me from the baseball game for a moment, when suddenly a male dancer leaped across the stage and was suspended in the air for what seemed like a full minute before falling back down to his knees.

Shiiiit! I thought. How the hell did he do that? He was just hanging in the air!

Everyone applauded. I was trying to work out where the wire was, thinking the muscular guy must have been held up by something. He jumped again. It looked effortless. He did not even appear to be sweating, just smiling as he kept time with the heavenly music.

My spirits soared. I felt transported. Perhaps if I worked hard, then I could hang in the air like that!

It suddenly dawned on me why my father had been so tough with me all these years. I saw it all with great clarity. All he had ever wanted was for me to be able to jump like that! I was mortified to have caused him so much trouble. . . . But at the same time I was happy and grateful that God had given me another chance.

When we returned to the school there was a crowd of people waiting for me. The game had gone into extra innings, but the Industrials had lost 2 to 1.

"Ha, ha, ha, Havana lost the game! Yellow Habanero, you're yellow, you're yellow, you're a yellow streak of piss!" my classmates shouted at me, tugging at my neckerchief. But instead of reacting, I simply smiled and thought: One day I'm going to be like that dancer I just saw. One day I'm going to be like Alberto Terrero!

I did not give a damn about the Industrials' defeat, or the fact that the championship hung in the balance, or that my classmates were trying to provoke me. I had heard the clarion call of vocation. It was a sanctuary, a refuge that would help me bear the leaks in the roof of [my half-brother] Pedro's house, the cockroaches, the mosquitoes, the overpowering stench of the river, and the loneliness. All I had to do was concentrate on my mission, which was to dance like Alberto Terrero, the ballet dancer whom I seen fly through the air that day at the Saidén.

Up until then, I had applied myself, at best, about 70 percent. I had grown stronger, and for the little effort I put in, I had done all right, but now it was different. During the week I worked furiously, forcing myself through the corrective exercises that my teacher set for me. At the time I thought that the olive-skinned Juan Carlos, with his wiry body and his Andalusian eyes, was a brutal taskmaster, but I understand now that he was an excellent teacher. He had been a dancer with the Camagüey Ballet, but his knees could not bear the strain they were subjected to over the years, and one day they gave up and never obeyed him again. So he started again as a teacher, a little disillusioned and resentful, but still with the desire to achieve something worthwhile. His work came to be recognized in the highest educational circles in the country.

Normally, after the school lunch, my body demanded a good siesta, but now I forced it to keep working. I had to adapt my muscles to flight.

– Carlos Acosta

Related Off-site Links:
Carlos Acosta's Official Website
Carlos Acosta is the Image and Inspiration for a Dance Program – Luis Manuel Mazorra (Cuba Headlines, October 7, 2014).
Cuba’s Carlos Acosta to Promote BBC’s Young Dancers ContestLatin American Herald Tribune (October 2, 2014).
Carlos Acosta: Cuban Dancer and Novelist – Michael Cathcart (ABC Radio, July 7, 2014).
Leaving the Barre: Ballet in Crisis Over Lack of Women, says Carlos Acosta – Adam Sherwin (The Independent, July 19, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Soul of a Dancer
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
Ruth St. Denis on "Dancing as a Life Experience"
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 2)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 3)
The Church and Dance
The Naked Truth . . . in Dance and in Life
Gay Men and Modern Dance
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Dark Matters

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