HAVANA, March 18th Dance on film can have many functions. It might act as a showstopping decoration to the drama (most movie musicals), a shorthand for its protagonist’s obsession or madness (Black Swan, The Red Shoes) or a blunt tool for illustrating cultural difference (Step Up, Save the Last Dance and every other ballet-girl-meets-hip-hop-boy movie).
But, aside from Jerome Robbins’ masterpiece West Side Story, it doesn’t often work as a narrative device – an alternative script. That’s how it functions in Yuli, a new biopic of Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta, by Spanish director Icíar Bollaín and writer Paul Laverty (I, Daniel Blake).
In Yuli (the title is Acosta’s father’s nickname for him), the concept sounds overcomplicated: a biopic played in flashbacks, mixed with real footage of the dancer on stage, framed by the conceit that “current” Carlos is creating an autobiographical dance piece in which he also performs as his own father. But it works. It really works.
The story is familiar from Acosta’s autobiography, No Way Home, and the many articles over the years chronicling his rise from impoverished Havana childhood to the Royal Ballet’s first black Romeo (and then choreographer, producer, author, actor and company director).
As well as showing the blossoming of Acosta’s precocious talent, it captures the pride, frustration and contradictions of living in Castro’s Cuba; the harrowing decisions to be made between freedom and family. The struggle sometimes just to live and eat. And yet, as his beloved teacher Maestra Chery says, where else in the world could a kid like Carlos experience the riches of an education at one of the best ballet schools, for free?
Edilson Manuel Olbera Nuñez is excellent as Carlos as a boy, inhabiting both the slightly lost kid breakdancing in the streets and, in one simple pose, the instinctive self-possession, the proud carriage of head and beaming beatific smile that made Acosta such a princely danseur noble.
Santiago Alfonso plays Acosta Sr, a man whose insistence on ballet being his son’s future is matched only by Carlos Jr’s ambivalence – seeing ballet as the thing that takes him away from his family rather than his ticket to a better life. You can’t help but think of another sorely talented but indifferent dancer pushed by his parents’ dreams, Sergei Polunin. But his story, so far, has had a rather different trajectory.
As well as the crumbling majesty of Cuba’s National Ballet School, Yuli also makes a feature of the vaulted brick domes of Havana’s abandoned National Art Schools, an institution Acosta has been campaigning to rebuild for some years now. This won’t damage his case.
Elsewhere, the dance scenes express the hustle of London, Acosta riding high on, and bewildered by, his rising profile. One early duet revisits a tender memory (or is it fantasy?) of his father planting a seed of ambition, guiding him to his destiny. The film gives clarity and context to the dance, while the dance gives the story texture, a touch of the intangible and a chance to luxuriate in the moment.
Film can be the most literal of the art forms. It generates a complete and recognisable world (not always, of course, but it can). Dance is the opposite, we always have to suspend disbelief. But in Yuli, the two complement each other, to warmly tell one of ballet’s great modern success stories.