19th century ballet had no qualms about favoring the ballerina over the danseur. The bulk of the classical repertoire seemed intent on relegating male dancers into partnering or brief virtuoso solos tailor-made for a particular dancer (think Cecchetti‘s Bluebird). But the 20th century saw balance restablished with a generation of danseurs like Nureyev and Baryshnikov following in Nijinsky’s example and reclaiming back the spotlight. Royal Ballet Guest Principal Carlos Acosta, one of the most popular classical dancers around today, has carried the male dancer manifesto into the next century. His blend of jaw-dropping technique, sparkling bravura, with added Latin charm seems to captivate audiences beyond the ballet regulars, drawing crowds into sold out performances.
In his latest show Acosta sets to explore the role of the male muse in ballet, focusing on such strong danseur roles as evening opener Afternoon of a Faun. Clear of nods to Nijinsky’s original scandalous, sexually powered version, choreographer Jerome Robbins’s version uses Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to frame an encounter between two dancers in a ballet studio. They observe themselves and each other in the mirror as they go about their daily exercises. Although this mirror effect will be lost to anyone not sitting at stage level, this is a great opportunity to see a subtler side to Acosta, without the outrageous leaps and turns that so define him. Instead we get charm, exhuberance, a true sense of intimacy (which is sometimes lost in larger stages) and chemistry with his partner Begoña Cao (ENB).
Young Apollo, created by Adam Hougland for the Manchester International Festival precedes and opposes Balanchine‘s Apollo. It showcases young, up-and-coming Junor de Oliveira Souza (ENB), a talented Brazilian with legs that stretch on forever. Junor alternates bursts of solo dancing to match Britten‘s soaring music with an athletic pas de deux with Erina Takahashi. Their ever changing bodies and the piece’s contemporary vocabulary at points reminded me of McGregor sans tech paraphernalia.
A Suite of Dances, originally created by Jerome Robbins for male superstar Baryshnikov, sets itself the almost impossible task of matching ballet to music by Bach. In one corner renowned cellist Natalie Clein plays selected movements from Bach’s cello suites. In another, a blasé Acosta, dressed in a strange combo of red tee and bright orange trousers, responds to the music, feigning improvisation. As he tries, in vain, to impress the cellist with his moves he dishes out dazzling grand pirouettes and tricky beaten steps (let us not forget who this piece was originally created for). In a final desperate attempt he cartwheels towards Natalie who remains resolutely indifferent, unlike the audience who reacts with thunderous applause.
Evening closer Apollo sees Acosta alongside the similarly proportioned ENB trio of Daria Klimentová, Begoña Cao and Erina Takahashi, respectively, muses Terpsichore, Polyhymnia and Calliope. Acosta might look more Herculian than Apollonian but his moves are godlike and virile, with elegant lines that stretch and linger on Stravinsky‘s score. If the purpose of the evening was to explore the male muse, no other work would have been more fitting. Acosta owns it, he knows it and so does his adoring audience.