By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES – In Cuba, you don’t have to be a fan of ballet or have seen a single show to know who Carlos Acosta is.
In the mid-’90s, ballet fans here knew all of the company’s gossip (and those who didn’t, made it up). They spoke about a black dancer who was “the best”, but wouldn’t make it in Cuba because “you know black dancers don’t get a chance here”, or “because you know the lady [referring to Alicia Alonso, founder of the Cuban National Ballet Co.] doesn’t like black men.” Or “this black man is being called the best Cuban dancer of all time, he won an extremely important competition and the lady had to sit down and swallow it.”
This extremely important competition (or rather one of them) was the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne. He also won the Grand Prize at the 4th Concours International de Danse de Paris biennial competition and the Prize at the Vignale Danza in Italy. These were the three he won in 1990, but he has a long list of awards under his belt.
Other urban legends surround the figure of Carlos Acosta, for example: when he was already a dancer at the Royal Ballet in London and came back to Cuba on a visit, a policeman stopped him and asked to see his ID. The special treatment police officers normally reserve for black people.
And it is the life of this man, one of Cuban’s most internationally acclaimed dancers, that makes the plot of Yuli, a movie by Iciar Bollain (Spain), which was presented during the recent edition of the Havana Film Festival. The movie is inspired by Carlos Acosta’s auto-biographical novel, “Sin mirar atras” (No way home in the English edition).
I was at a disadvantage compared to my fellow Cubans because of something I considered a privilege ironically enough, back in 2016. Sin mirar atras was scheduled to be launched in Cuba in 2016. However, the book wasn’t presented for some reason that no one ever explained to people who went to get their copy at one of the Book Saturdays in Old Havana. I hadn’t gone to that book launch because I had already read the book… in English (No way home). A friend had lent me a copy that had been signed by Acosta himself.
Having read a book before watching a movie based on that book is always a disadvantage because we hope to see it reflected on screen as it is. We hope that this moment and that moment make it and we have expectations which are impossible to meet because you can’t squeeze a 500-page book into 108 minutes of film. Plus, the person making the film based on a book is also an artist and as such, they interpret it with their own creative license.
Yuli focusses on the struggle that begins in Carlos’ childhood and endures even when he is a famous dancer. On the one hand, you have him and his reluctance to be a dancer; on the other, you have his father Pedro (Santiago Alfonso) who does everything he can to stop him wasting his talent.
The young Carlos in his childhood is embodied by Edilson Manuel Olvero, in his youth by Keyvin Martinez and as an adult by… Carlos Acosta, who dances in several scenes where dance intertwines with the story.
Even though it is a real pleasure to watch Acosta dance and there are some great moments of choreography when Carlos Acosta displays a great level of performance (which is what maybe led him to be nominated for the Best New Actor award at the Goyas), if I’m being perfectly honest these choreographies are maybe too much and you find yourself asking what they bring to the plot exactly.
In spite of some disappointments with the script (which won Best Screenplay at the San Sebastian Film Festival), such as the sequence to do with showing Cuba in the ‘90s, which was too charged for me, and leaving out some parts of the book, I was moved by Yuli and I enjoyed it most of the time. I wasn’t the only one. The audience watching it at the Yara movie theater on Saturday Dec. 15th, gave it a standing ovation. The same thing has happened at other screenings of the movie in Havana and the San Sebastian Film Festival.
As well as Carlos Acosta’s nomination (I personally believe young Edilson Manuel Olvera’s performance was much worthier of an award), Yuli is being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Direction of Photography, Original Score and Sound.
As well as former dancer of Cuba’s Danza Contemporanea company and choreographer for Tropicana, Santiago Alfonso, great actresses were cast such as Yerlin Perez (Yuli’s mother) and Laura de la Uz (Chery, Carlos’ teacher). Actors Carlos Enrique Almirante and the omnipresent (in every Cuban movie at the moment) Hector Noas, play such insignificant roles that it gives you the impression that the director has made every effort just to get them a spot in the movie.
Yuli is a film you shouldn’t miss. The story of a black child, the son of an uneducated truck driver, who becomes one of the most renowned ballet dancers in the world, even against his own will, undoubtedly sparks interest. But, I recommend you also read “Sin mirar atras”, if it is ever published in Cuba, or look for it abroad.