Carlos Acosta

Dance | On Before by Carlos Acosta

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, July 3rd

I used to despise tennis. It was a reaction to what I perceived as the upturned noses of post-colonial snobbery; Wimbledon and its whites, Roland Garros and its jeering, each Grand Slam becoming a goldfish bowl of a snide, condescending national stereotype. But now I understand the greatness of the greats. Genius, like that of Roger Federer, drew me in. Now Wimbledon, at its halfway stage this year as I write, does not make me think of squawking old Tories and buck-toothed royalists, but reminds me of Nobel Prize-winning novelist JM Coetzee’s musings on Federer in a letter to American novelist Paul Auster in 2009:

It seems to me that two thoughts go through my mind as I watch: (1) If only I had spent my adolescence practicing my backhand instead of … then I, too, could have played shots like that and made people all over the world gasp with wonder. Followed by: (2) Even if I had spent the whole of my adolescence practicing my backhand, I would not be able to play that shot, not in the stress of competition, not at will. And therefore: (3) I have just seen something that is at the same time both human and more than human; I have just seen something like the human ideal made visible.

‘… I have just seen something like the human ideal made visible.’ It is impossible not to hear Coetzee’s words on Federer ring in the air when watching Carlos Acosta on stage, especially at this time of year, when Federer is powerfully gliding on air at Centre Court every other day.

Coetzee goes on with increasing pertinence:

What I would want to note in this set of responses is the way in which envy first raises its head and is then extinguished. One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him, and one ends up neither envying nor admiring him but exalted at the revelation of what a human being—a being like oneself—can do.

Carlos Acosta is a great, there is no doubt about that, and in offering a critique of his work it becomes apparent that several avenues are open to the writer. Does the writer reach for sublime descriptions of his technical prowess? – faultless as he is in this 90-minute compendium; does the writer ask how Acosta’s movement can raise the spirit, elate, how the very otherworldliness of his movement simultaneously enhances and contradicts what we think we know, as casual observers of its accomplishments, of human physicality? Does the writer try and evaluate him in the context of sentiments such as Coetzee’s? What Acosta broadly evokes in his performances, is awe, but this awe is made up of myriad details. Carlos Acosta, with his art, his movement, can move you to laughter, to tears, to a higher place. It is revelatory. Here, in the extremely moving first segment, ‘On Before’, set to the affecting loops of John Adams’ ‘Christian Zeal and Activity’, Acosta and partner Zenaida Yanowsky intertwine with elemental force and fragility; in ‘Two’ Acosta moves with the power and grace of an earth god, he is chiselled from rock, carved in ruddy light. Acosta as lava flow. When it stops, applause follow audible gasps from the audience.

Carlos AcostaThe first half (‘On Before’, ‘Memoria’, ‘Sirin’, and ‘Two’) is a tightly conceived medley, each piece exploring ideas of boundaries, of isolation, and of need. Yanowsky, child of Paris’ Yanowsky school in more ways than one, is the perfect mirror for Acosta. Her solo ‘Sirin’, a piece created specifically for this tour, is an unexpected highlight that sits well-weighted between Acosta’s two jaw-dropping solos.

If the second half suffers from a lack of such conceptual cohesion, then it is slight, and it is a comment more on the standards hit in the first. The entire show is never less than interesting, thoughtful, dynamic and emotive. Yanowsky’s second solo, to Handel amongst candlelight in ‘Footnote to Ashton’, is a little frayed, but it shows some marvellous and amusing riffs from Kim Brandstrup’s choreography. And it looks great; a pure gothic mystery.

The most tedious nod to the unimaginative footprints of contemporary dance comes in the swift introduction to the video installation piece ‘Falling Deep Inside’, but this ‘I-love-you-I-hate-you’ blip only serves to enhance the passion and ingenuity of everything else around it. Simon Elliott’s slow-mo video, cast onto the front screen of the stage, is another unexpected highlight. Shot at 800 frames per second, the film purports to be an exploration of the ‘tensions that exist between two lovers’. But it is fascinating beyond this rather mundane premise; the muscles ripple and convulse – in the context of the sometimes claustrophobic lighting of the other pieces, this is an invitation to the joys of inner space. If Carlos Acosta makes us wonder what the human can do, this is a minute examination of the mechanics – the god broken down.

The final act, a subtle and sensitively tumultuous chorus from a rather ghostly Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Chamber Choir, is a tidal rendition of Morten Lauridsen’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’, adding a fitting cinematic element to the tying-up of themes. By the last moments, the battles to understand the boundaries of human interaction unravel and elation settles to a more satisfying version of hope. Carlos Acosta is a visionary, and the lessons taken from a show like this are profound ones. Throughout, light acts as a source of imprisonment, and by the end it seems that light and dark are indeterminable; Acosta understands that to be great, to be alive, is to move beyond, behind, between such perceivable boundaries. And Coetzee comes back again: one starts by envying, and moves to admiration, and ends up neither envying nor admiring him but exalted at the revelation of what a human being—a being like oneself—can do.