They call him 'Air Acosta'

With his pyrotechnic feats, charismatic sex appeal, Carlos Acosta makes audiences and critics swoon

Dancer Carlos Acosta as the Nutcracker Prince in Houston Ballet performance of "The Nutcracker." Choreography by Ben Stevenson. 

Dancer Carlos Acosta as the Nutcracker Prince in Houston Ballet performance of "The Nutcracker." Choreography by Ben Stevenson. 

Geoff Winningham

The Wortham Theater's Green Room is a crush of nervous little girls, well-dressed men and slightly flushed women clutching programs and nudging themselves closer to Carlos Acosta, the man in white tights signing autographs.

They're on a tingly, post-performance high, having just watched him dance Basilio in Houston Ballet's Don Quixote, where a good number in the packed house gasped, grabbed their armrests and finally launched themselves from their seats to bellow "Bravo!"

Some of them cried.

The ballet neophytes say they've never seen anything like it. The aficionados begin their assessment with these three words:

"Not since Baryshnikov."

"You've heard of Air Jordan? We call him Air Acosta, "

Daisuke Sato, Acosta's friend from Cuba, is telling a young fan.

Opera has its Pavarottis. Classical music has its Midoris.

But the closest thing to a pop star the ballet world has now is an aging Mikhail Baryshnikov, who passed his pyrotechnic prime a decade ago.

Enter Acosta, who could become the first MTV-era ballet wonder boy. Besides combining breathtaking athletic feats with perfect classical form, he's probably the only dancer of his stature ever to win a break-dancing contest, or to salsa the night away in dance clubs and play basketball in his spare time. He's got a stage presence to die for and a wink that makes women weak in the knees. If Madonna ever works her way through bullfighters and basketball players to ballet dancers, surely Acosta will be her man.

"For the last some number of years, dance has been missing the media stars -- Nureyev and Fonteyn and Makarova and Baryshnikov -- who got carried on news shows, nationwide news shows. We don't have anybody like that right now. Carlos has the potential to be that kind, " says C.C. Conner, who recently left the Joffrey Ballet in New York to become Houston Ballet's managing director.

At 21, Acosta has already had his share of triumphs and setbacks. And while he has pockets of fame around the globe, a combination of events has landed him -- for now, at least -- in Houston, where he remains relatively unknown to the world at large.

In the Green Room, the autograph-seekers press toward the quiet star politely signing programs for little girls, while mothers with Instamatics seal the moment with a flash. He smiles as his fans tell him quietly but urgently -- as if they're worried he won't believe them -- how wonderful he is.

But right now there are other things on his mind. As soon as the shot of cortisone wears off, the pain in his ankle will make it impossible to even think about dancing for a while. He's facing another operation (he's already had two), and he misses his family back home in Cuba desperately.

"When I told my mom I'm going to have surgery, she almost went crazy, " he says." "Come home, ' she said. "I'll take care of you.' "

Three days before his surgery, a photographer is posing him in front of his poster of Vaslav Nijinsky, the ballet sensation of the 1910s (famous not only for his extraordinary leaps but also for ending his life in an insane asylum). In the poster, Nijinsky wears the costume for "La Spectre de la Rose."

"Have you ever seen it?" Acosta asks. "It's a beautiful ballet."

He starts to tell the tale about a girl who falls asleep and dreams about the spirit of the rose. The spirit -- the male dancer -- flies in through the window, he says, starting to move around his living room, telling the story like an adult reading a fairy tale to a child.

In his black shorts, black "Si Por Cuba" T-shirt and bulky black sneakers, he looks more ready to shoot hoops than embody the spectre de la rose.

"It's a little odd, because it's like this, " he says, flicking his wrist and fluttering his arms. "But it's really hard.

You're always jumping, jumping, jumping, and always with the arms, " he says, fluttering them again and clunking around lightly in his big shoes.

He comes to the end of the story, when the male dancer leaps out of the window, and the girl wakes up and realizes it was all just a dream.

"Whoa, " he says, flexing his biceps and a big grin. "You feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger when you're done."

His shy, princely reserve is dropped outside the theater.

He's got an open, quickly flirtatious smile, and he greets his guests and friends with back-slapping gusto, talking to his roommates in Spanish, his girlfriend in Italian, and anybody who doesn't know either in English, with a proficiency, he says, that varies depending on how he wakes up in the morning.

In addition to his reputation for making women swoon, testimonials of his humility are routinely volunteered, and ballet members and staffers are nearly giddy at his demonstrative lack of ego.

"For someone who dances as well as he does, he could really be a brat, " says Lauren Anderson, his Houston Ballet partner in "Don Quixote."

Inell Dyer Klein, a Ballet Guild volunteer familiar with what goes on in the company, says, "He recognizes, I think, that (his talent) is a great gift that he is to share with everyone generously, and it is just that, a gift, and not something that makes him morally superior. So while he has great dignity, he is also very humble in that way."

Carlos Acosta was the youngest of 10 children growing up in a rough section of Havana when his father, a truck driver, enrolled him in a ballet school at age 9 to get him away from his friends.

"My father took me to ballet, " he says. "It bothered me.

It didn't bother him.

"I said "Ballet? What are my friends going to say?'

"And he said, "Ah, your friends, look at them.'

"I said, "I want to be like a normal person.' And he said, "You call them normal?' "

His father thought his friends -- who skipped school and stole fruit to sell, among other offenses -- were a bad influence on his son. And when he heard about a school attended by a neighbor's daughters where the students got ballet lessons, academic studies and a free lunch, his father signed him up. Not that it did much good.

The teachers would call his father and ask, "Where is Carlos?" The young Acosta was more likely to be out kicking a soccer ball or spinning on his back break-dancing than standing at the barre in a pair of ballet slippers.

Finally, when Carlos was 13, he was kicked out of the school.

"My father said, "You embarrass me, and I'm too old for that.' "

Go to Villa Clara, the school in Havana told his father, they'll take him. So Carlos and his father took the train to Villa Clara, several hours away, where Acosta could start a new life at a new school. But Villa Clara had never heard of him and didn't have classes for someone at his level. So father and son spent two days in the Villa Clara depot waiting for the next train back to Havana, which was probably the low point in what would end up being a career.

His father remained undeterred. He found yet another ballet school, this one in Pinar del Rio, also several hours from Havana.

They didn't want to take Carlos, either. His father pressed.

"They said, "OK. Tell you what we're going to do. We'll take him for a tryout for one month, ' " says Acosta. "And I thought, "If I do something wrong now, my father's going to kill me.' "

So, determined to stick it out, he found himself starting to like it. A year later, he was executing moves the teachers at Pinar del Rio had never seen a 14-year-old do. When he was 16, his teacher, Ramona de Saa, took him to Italy to dance with the New Theater in Turin. That year he won four international competitions, the most prestigious being the gold medal at the Lausanne competition in Switzerland.

The New York Times wrote about it on Jan. 29, 1990:

"Although the audience at the semifinals and finals is asked not to applaud after each contestant, Mr. Acosta's bravura in an excerpt from "Don Quixote, " rendered with his typical joyfulness, provoked an ovation even at the semifinals."

The "Don Quixote" -- or "Don Q, " as the dancers call it -- pas de deux is a standard-bearer for male dancers. Filled with humongous leaps and difficult combinations of turns, its Spanish flavor makes it the perfect showpiece for sexy machismo.

Says Anderson -- who was so mesmerized by Acosta's solos in "Don Quixote" that she'd find herself about to applaud before realizing she had to get onstage herself -- "That boy was born doing "Don Q."

His moves are spawning a new vocabulary among balletgoers.

One "Don Quixote" watcher called a first-act jump the "Velcro, "

because he was so still at the peak of the jump, it looked as if he got stuck on Velcro in the air.

Then there's "that jump that comes out of nowhere" and scatters the corps de ballet in Act One. Even Acosta doesn't know what to call it.

"Several people independently have called it a helicopter move, " says the Ballet Guild's Klein. "I asked Ben Stevenson what he called it. He thought for a minute, and he said, "A lethal weapon.' Then I asked (ballet master) Oscar Escauriaza what he called it. And he said, "A parachute.' "

"Oh, that, " says Acosta, grinning. "I don't know. In rehearsal I just did a simple jump in passe. Then, on the first night of the performance, I did that."

While many male dancers land the big jumps and turns with hokey, self-satisfied flourishes that beckon applause, Acosta lands as if doing a jump that nobody has ever seen before were the most natural thing in the world -- nothing to fuss over, he seems to say; why look, here's another one.

What makes Acosta a phenomenon is that while many dancers have one strength, he has them all. He starts with a body perfectly suited for classical ballet: a long neck, long legs and arms, lean -- not chunky -- muscles and highly arched, pointed feet.

"He's that kind of dancer that not only has this incredible technique -- with that kind of dancer you see some step you've never seen before, some jump in the air that's got a new twist to it, a new turn to it -- but he's got really beautiful, refined technique and real stage presence, too, " says Houston Ballet's Conner. "But it's not at all circus tricks with bad form; it's gorgeous dancing with wonderful form."

A lot of dancers can zip through a pirouette of five or six or more quick revolutions. But to do them slowly and in perfect position -- and then to follow them with other complicated turns -- is the hard part. What's amazing about Acosta's moves is not that he does them. It's not even that he does them perfectly. It's the lustrous artistry and shading at the core of every move.

"A lot of people compare dancers to athletes, and I don't like that comparison at all. Only when art is involved -- and music and the role and the line and movement -- does it really make sense. If it's just someone jumping up and down then it doesn't mean anything, " says Houston Ballet's artistic director Ben Stevenson.

"What's unusual is to have someone with both abilities.

What's more, to the sum of technique and power technical ability, the other dimension is the indefinable one: star power, charisma, "

Stevenson adds.

"To me, his extraordinary thing is his ability to glow."

So if he's so great, how come the last time the New York Times -- the paper of record in the ballet world -- wrote about him was five years ago? And how come a call inquiring whether they ever heard of him to American Ballet Theater, America's great importer of international star power, got this response from a secretary taking a message: "Carlos, what was his last name?"

One reason, perhaps, is a combination of his youth and the amount of time he's spent on the bench.

Acosta is still five years younger than Barysnikov was when he came to the United States in 1974. When Acosta danced in Italy, he was still in high school. He spent a year in London, at the English National Ballet, when he was 19, but suffered from a bone spur in his foot a good deal of that time and underwent surgery to have the spur removed. He returned to Cuba, and his foot continued to bother him. Eventually, he had another operation. He missed an entire year of dance. When he healed, he danced with the National Ballet of Cuba. But he wasn't going to get international attention in Cuba.

When he toured Spain with the Cuban company in '93, the Spanish media raved about "the Cuban phenomenon, " and it was soon after that tour that Stevenson arranged for him to come to the United States.

Since then he's been in Houston, where the ballet seems content to let good local reviews and word of mouth spread his name. And while Houston will draw national critics for a big premiere such as Houston Grand Opera's "Harvey Milk, " a Stevenson reworking of a classical ballet standby draws attention only from the local press.

Conner, the ballet's managing director, says he's too new to the company to comment on the marketing of Acosta in particular, but that in general a ballet company has to be careful about how it publicizes its stars.

"One can get their priorities kind of screwed up if it becomes a situation in which you're so dependent on selling the star name that people have the opposite reaction. They don't realize how good the company is if the emphasis becomes so strong on "this person is the star.' Then you end up with the problem of being disappointed that they aren't seeing that one person.

"We had a couple calls of somebody saying, "We're not getting to see Carlos. We never get him on our subscription. Our night doesn't get the right people.' And in fact that's not true."

When Stevenson is asked if he's concerned about another, bigger company luring Acosta away, he says, "Well, that could very well be. I think more important is going on developing the company and not worrying about one person. Whether Carlos stays or goes is something that time will tell . . . When you get someone that's incredibly talented, you can't hold them in on a rein."

Donald E. Baxter, a Houston orthopedic surgeon with a lineup of sports celebrities on his patient list, has been treating members of the Houston Ballet for a decade.

He didn't want to operate on Acosta.

"I wanted him to keep dancing and just leave him alone -- because he'd had two previous operations and that's not a good sign in itself -- and I said, "Carlos, you just have to dance, you're so good. You brought the house down opening night of "Don Quixote."

You're unbelievable. You're the Baryshnikov of the future, ' " I said. "Keep dancing.'

"And he looked at me, and he said, "I can't.' "

One problem for the doctor was he didn't really know what the problem was. "It wasn't real evident on the MRI, " he says.

He pinpointed the painful spot on Acosta's ankle, marked it and then started the operation not knowing what he'd find. He found a loose piece of bone.

"What this bone was doing was rubbing on a nerve and causing the nerve to be unbelievably painful. So we made a small incision, and just when we got down to the nerve, I said, "I'm gonna look under this nerve, where it's hurting.' And as I retracted it, I moved his ankle and I saw this loose bone sort of move.

"And I said, "Ahh.' I had this relief, and the wind went out, and I said, "Whew, we found the problem.' Then we carefully lifted this little critter out. And when we did that, I said, "I think he's OK.' "

The condition that caused the bone to form and dislodge is a form of osteochondritis, common in runners and jumpers, he says, because of the force they put on their ankles.

Baxter says he doesn't know whether it was something that was missed in Acosta's previous surgeries, but he thinks this post-surgery prognosis is a good one.

"I'm thinking he'll be back going strong again and should not have restrictions, and we're thinking in about three months, hopefully, he'll be ready to roll, " he says. "I don't think the chance of this happening again is too great."

Because of Acosta's talent, Baxter was considerably nervous before the surgery, although he'd been through that type of tension before.

"The other time that happened was when I treated Joachim Cruz, who won the Olympic half-mile. He came to see me when he was 19, and I went in. There was a little bone spur rubbing on a nerve in his foot and he couldn't run. So we took this little bone spur off. And I was in Los Angeles and watched when he came around the turn and won the gold medal in the Olympics -- you think that's not dramatic? So I feel the same way about Carlos as seeing Joachim Cruz win that half-mile in the Olympics. That's what's exciting."

Three days after surgery, Acosta seems to be in a good mood, unconsciously flexing and pointing his good leg while he sits and hopping up on his crutches to plug in a videotape of his break-dancing performance in Houston Ballet's "Nutcracker."

Many companies have a tradition of ending their long "Nutcracker" runs with a wacky version on the final night. Some though, including Houston, have stopped doing it, believing ticketholders wanted to see the same "Nutcracker" everybody else saw.

But on the last night of Houston Ballet's '93 "Nutcracker"

season, instead of the little children who run out of Mother Ginger's huge hoop skirt, Acosta came out by himself dressed like Michael Jackson. The ballet orchestra switched from the sugary Tchaikovsky score to a hip-hop percussion groove, and Acosta moonwalked and spun on his back. Once again, he brought the house down.

Now he's got a couple of months to kill without much to do except wait for his ankle to heal and start physical therapy.

Compared to his life in Cuba, where electricity is routinely rationed with daily blackouts, he's living in luxury here. He shares a sunny apartment in the Greenway area with Houston Ballet soloist Jose Herrera and his wife, Sonia. He's got movie channels, a VCR and remote control in his bedroom.

(The first time he saw such electronics was at 15 when he performed in Mexico. "To be in a room like that, watching with a control. I thought I was God.")

But Acosta didn't leave Cuba for the amenities.

"I always wanted to have an international career, but nobody would see me in Cuba."

He does not count himself among those who have fled in recent years for political or economic reasons.

"I can understand them. You have the right as a human being to choose the place you want to live. But for me, I don't want to stay here with my family there and not be able to see them anymore.

It's sad, because I really like my country."

He recently became a permanent U.S. resident, but he retains his ties to Cuba and plans to visit when he can.

The last time he was home was about six months ago. When he goes back, he still sees the friends that his father tried to pry him away from.

"I always see them in the same place . . . and they say, "Oh, do you remember when your father would scream, where are you?'

Because my father used to beat me up. Now they say, "Thank your father for what he did for you.' "

Because of his surgery, he's had to pass up guest appearances this spring and summer at dance festivals in Moscow and Spoleto, Italy, and with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany.

He may tour with the Houston Ballet to China in July if all goes well. If the ankle progresses more slowly, he probably won't be onstage again till the fall.

Still, he doesn't seem bitter or frustrated by the setbacks.

His dream has always been to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, where Baryshnikov danced with the American Ballet Theater. And for now, he seems to think he's on track just by being here in the States and dancing well.

"I never thought this fast to be here. I never dreamed about that. So it was a miracle. I was really lucky. I think even if you work hard and you have talent, you always need -- like in Cuba there are so many talented people, but they are still waiting to get out -- you really need a piece of luck."