The South Bank Show: Carlos Acosta, review: from Havana poverty to the Royal Ballet

The South Bank Show has been going for 44 years, and Melvyn Bragg shows few signs of weariness. He could have thrown in the towel when ITV cancelled the series back in 2010; instead he moved it to Sky Arts and continues to produce his unshowy, intelligent profile interviews. 

I prefer it to Alan Yentob’s Imagine strand, which does a similar thing but always with the sense that Yentob is interviewing a member of his own clique, and that their conversations are an extension of a dinner party chat. 

The South Bank Show: Carlos Acosta is the last in the current series. Acosta’s life story lends itself well to a biography such as this. Born into poverty on the outskirts of Havana, his father, Pedro, was a tough man who would beat him with the handle of a machete. One day Pedro saw a silent film featuring a ballet dancer and ordered his son, a talented breakdancer, to follow that path. As Acosta explained, with generosity: “Everything came from a place of love. He didn’t want me to end up like him, a truck driver, and he knew I had a winning ticket: my talent.” 

Acosta enrolled at ballet school, which entailed 5am starts and four hours of travelling each day, and aged 16 won gold at the Prix de Lausanne. Footage of him dancing in that competition was mesmerising. From there, it was a glorious rise to principal dancer at the Royal Ballet

He retired from classical ballet in 2015 – “you can’t dance forever; I was feeling pain” – and is now artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet while also running his own dance company in Cuba. This latter part of Acosta’s career, from a biographical point of view, was less interesting than both his peak years of stardom and his early life. 

The most remarkable part of his story was his journey from Cuba, where the family barely had enough to eat, to the world of international ballet. Invited to join the English National Ballet at 18, the culture shock was immense: “I realised that they pay you via this thing called a bank. They make a transfer and give you a credit card – things you take for granted, but for a Cuban guy it was another galaxy.” 

Bragg’s questions were concise – “Can you talk a bit about the power of your father?” or “Do you miss dancing?” – yet he elicited lengthy, sincere answers from his subject. Let us hope that a new series is in the planning, because programmes celebrating the arts are vanishingly few.

Leave a Comment