RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Ballet dancer Carlos Acosta is known for powerful leaps that make him seem to fly. Those leaps have earned him comparisons with Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Growing up in Cuba in the 1980s, Carlos Acosta would've much preferred a different comparison to soccer star Pele.
The young Acosta would go on to win a top international ballet prize at 16, dance as the first black Romeo at London's Royal Ballet, and choreograph a ballet based on his childhood in Cuba. He's traveled a long way since then and it's a journey he chronicles in his memoir "No Way Home."
Home was one of the poorest neighborhoods outside Havana. His was a mixed family - his mother was white and his father black - when there was still a lot of prejudice. But Carlos Acosta remembers feeling embraced by this small world known as Los Pinos.
Mr. CARLOS ACOSTA (Ballet Dancer): People live in a sense of community. Everybody help each other. And sometimes we had rice and beans, and the neighbor would lend you some eggs; somebody else would lend you another vegetables. And then you would do the same thing for another neighbor in need. And of course there was this great place, which is called La Finka(ph), which is sort of like a forest nearby.
MONTAGNE: You call it in the book an enchanted forest.
Mr. ACOSTA: That's right, because, you know, it was natural caves that the trees will form, birds, a lot of tropical fruits, and there was a lot of legends around that place. You know, people would think that the owls were just spirits, you know...
Mr. ACOSTA: Yeah, it was magical. It was sort of like an innocence that later on disappeared.
MONTAGNE: You describe yourself as running in the streets with other boys when you were young - a ruffian within your world.
Mr. ACOSTA: Yeah, because, I mean, I didn't like school. I mean, if I would have carried on like that, God knows what my future would have been. In fact, some of my friends result into stealings and many of them went to prison.
MONTAGNE: Well, your father didn't let that happen. He was a truck driver, working class, but had wanted something for you.
Mr. ACOSTA: Because partly, I think, I was the youngest member of my family. And I was the only chance that he had to make it right, and so he wasn't going to let that chance to slip away from his fingers. So he was determined from all cost to make something good out of me.
MONTAGNE: You tell about how your father came up with this vision of ballet. It wasn't anything he had direct experience with, it was something that he discovered in a silent movie theatre as a young boy.
Mr. ACOSTA: That's right, and then he got kicked out. It was a movie theatre for white people only.
MONTAGNE: This is a little part of the description you have: he didn't know what the peculiar dance was, but the ballerinas immediately spoke to his senses as they spun around like Japanese parasols: elegant, delicate and light.
Mr. ACOSTA: That's right.
MONTAGNE: Of course you didn't really see yourself as up there on the stage with the dancing parasols.
Mr. ACOSTA: I wanted to be a football player. That's always been my ambition, but he didn't want to hear it.
MONTAGNE: So off you were sent to ballet school, like it or not. Unfortunately you had talent - unfortunately for you, I mean. At that time you couldn't get kicked out. But you tried, didn't you?
Mr. ACOSTA: I did try, but then, you know, it took me like four years to develop the passion for it, because ballet class for a child of nine, ten years old, it must be the most boring things, you know, that he could imagine. But eventually I saw the National Ballet of Cuba for the first time after four years.
MONTAGNE: Tell us about that moment, that really you embraced what it seemed everyone else knew, and that was that ballet was going to be your art.
Mr. ACOSTA: The school organized a trip for us to go and watch. And so I saw this man jump very, very high, and I realized that if I could work very hard, I could hang out in the air like this.
MONTAGNE: Which means, in a sense, at least momentarily, fly.
Mr. ACOSTA: Fly, yeah. It's, like, what they call the hanging time. You know, we have all these leaps but it's just to have illusion that you'll never come down.
MONTAGNE: Cuba always does seem to draw you back. There's this very sophisticated world that you're in, very cosmopolitan. You dance in Russia; you dance in these astonishing place; you met Princess Diana at one point. But there's this sweet story you tell about the year that you couldn't dance because of an ankle injury, and your father, who follows the African-influenced religion, Santeria, he decided someone had cast a spell on you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ACOSTA: That's right. My father is this fanatic, you know, in a fanatic way. So after you run out of explanations, you know, you also, you had to try the witch doctor. And so he decided that because I had a surgery while I was in London and that surgery didn't go well, and so he decided that I must be possessed by a dark spirit.
So he went to see this witch doctor, and the guy basically recommended that he should buy a lamb and all these animals. And so with the skin of the animals and all these things, he did this cream that I'm supposed to put on my ankle every day. So the next thing, I was wearing this cream, and people thought I had a dead rat in my ankle because of the smell.
But anyway, at the end it turned out that it was no bad spirits as such, and I had to undergo another surgery.
MONTAGNE: But came back with all your powers of dance.
Mr. ACOSTA: That's right, I came back.
MONTAGNE: Carlos Acosta came back to dance and leaped to astonishing heights, earning the nicknames the Flying Cuban and Air Acosta, which leads to one last question.
I just wondered what it feels like being there, taking flight.
Mr. ACOSTA: Well, it's a feeling of freedom, but it's a feeling of - that's (unintelligible), just freedom. I'm blessed to go out there, you know, to the stage. I've been able to be Romeo, to be one day Prince Charming or, you know, be able to personify the person that you're not. And, you know, when some people might come after the show with tears in their eyes, you know, it's just great.
You know, only with pain and devotion and all these things that we have to go every day, you achieve that.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Carlos Acosta spoke to us from London. His memoir is called "No Way Home: A Dancer's Journey from the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World."
Photos of Carlos Acosta appear to hang in the air, and read the story of the international ballet competition that would change his life at NPR.org.
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