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'Carlos Acosta -
    Tocororo A Cuban Tale'

The Producer's Diary...

Andy Wood's diary on the coming together of 'Carlos Acosta - Tocororo A Cuban Tale'

by Andy Wood



Carlos Acosta
© Asya Verzhbinsky

Tocororo show details

Acosta in reviews

'Tocororo' reviews?




In Cuba ballet is working class football. Since the revolution up until the present day the state has made massive investment in ballet and baseball. A few years ago when the Buena Vista stars presented their film at Havana's Cine Chaplin, Fidel was expected to be there and the talk was of a reception planned Chez Fidel. It never happened. The Baltimore Orioles were in town that weekend playing the national side at baseball and it was no contest for Fidel's loyalties. Baseball got the supper, music didn't.

On 15 February, 2003 it's a different matter. Carlos Acosta, Cuban working class ballet personified is in town. Carlos commands the world's stages like Patrick Vieira. The eleventh child of a lorry driver whose dad made him dance is premiering his first choreography in the nineteenth century splendour of the Gran Teatro de La Habana and el maximo lider is in the front circle.

I first saw Carlos Acosta dance in the back room of a pub in Brixton four years ago. Every other Sunday the unsuspecting landlords hosted a Cuban bembé in the backroom. It was an informal gathering of Cuban expatriates and musical fellow travellers. Some nights the place was packed and bottles of rum circulated under jackets (probably the reason why the pub lost interest) as the crowd warmed up to Afro-Cuban call and response to the saints in front of an elaborate altar. The night that I saw Carlos dance, there was nobody there. I turned up late and there were two drummers, Carlos and me. Now here we are in Havana putting on the show of Carlos' life in anyway you choose to interpret that.

 


This diary's author and the producer of Tocororo, A Cuban Tale - Andy Wood
© Nick Awde


The second time I saw Carlos dance was a year later at the Opera House in Covent Garden in the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake. The same power, technique and self-possession as in Brixton. By now I was working on his project, his beautiful dream - Tocororo A Cuban Tale. I think Carlos has had the dream for a long time, it's developed in rehearsal rooms around the world in the spaces between other shows, it's been dreamt in four star hotels from Tokyo to Dallas. Carlos left home when he was 13 to study dance in a residential college in the west of the island, he left Cuba when he was 16 and started winning competitions. He's got a skill which is matched by a streak of perfectionism and another of charisma. This skill has taken him around the world and now is bringing him home again. The skill is completely in him but is apart from him - he can do all the galas, all the Giselles but as he has got older a gap has emerged between what he is good at and what feels good to do.


Christmas 2000, Carlos and I are in New York. >From an early stage it seemed that it might be easier to raise the money to make the show here. We're in the Half King bar (owned by the man who wrote The Perfect Storm) mid-morning. There's just Carlos, me and the people from UCLA in Los Angeles who are, at this stage, our intended co-commissioners. They've set up a meeting for us on the fringe of an arts conference so that we can pitch the show. The only problem is the cold, the snow and the fact that of all those US arts venues invited only the man from Arizona is here. Carlos does his pieces in the bar - be pitches the show (and dances part of it too). It's fine but with only one venue present, besides Los Angeles, it's pointless too.


January 2001. A fortnight later, I'm back in New York, Carlos is in Havana, I'm doing the pitch on the edge of another conference. Better turn out this time 20 people from Berkeley to Florida. With Carlos not there though people can cut to the chase. What exactly has he choreographed before? Lots of leads, lots of cards, lots of phone calls, lots of e.mails. Maybe it's going somewhere but nine months later after September 11 nobody's going out in the US anyway and our friends in LA are spending the money that could have been our commission on shoring up the shortfall in their budgets created by tumbling attendances.

Carlos' star is burning brighter. Maybe we can make it in London. We start a series of meetings at the Festival Hall. I like it there. We do lots of shows there and it has a strong track record in getting audiences for Cuban shows and it can be the right kind of democratic people's palace for this show. The breakeven point in our budget though looks remarkably close to the market value of my South London home. Through a series of meetings we take a scalpel and then axe to the show budget. When we started trying to raise the money for the show two year's before we were looking to create it in Havana but on UK or US budgets. Now necessity means that we'll have to call in all the favours that we can, create it with a lot of Havana co-operation just in order to get it made. The scalpel and the axe reveal a more petite budget lurking within and one that suggests a different route.

Carlos had initially been put in contact with me by Sadler's Wells. He'd approached them about the project and they had told him that producing a show (raising the money and overseeing it over time) was not what they did. Since I had just produced a Cuban traditional dance show with them (the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional), they suggested that he talk to me. After two years of not getting the project off the ground we went back to the programmer, Alistair Spalding, at Sadler's Wells with our new slimmed down costs and struck a deal to present the show there. Full circle but maybe the better for the detour.


April 2002. I'm in Havana together with Carlos for the first time. My first chance to see how we're going to put the show together here. From the beginning Carlos has intended a company of 17 dancers, hand-picked Magnificent Seven style, in Havana by himself. Additionally there will be a live band of five musicians to perform the score written by Cuban composer Miguel Núñes. Salvatore Forino is our designer, based in London, he's just been out here before me working on the initial designs.

Carlos has been edging towards an accord with Danza Contemporanea, the Cuban National Contemporary Dance Company. They have a very strong stable of dancers and can provide the legal structure for us to obtain a theatre for the premiere in Havana. Also crucially, in a country where artists are in great international demand, if we can agree things with DC then we know that the dancers coming to rehearsals now in April will remain on contract with Danza Contemporanea and still be here when we come back in December to rehearse. If we assemble the company from nothing ourselves then there's no guarantee that anyone can afford to hang around between our rehearsals.

 


Carlos Acosta in the rehearsal studio
© Asya Verzhbinsky


Carlos is testing Danza's dancers through a series of daily classes. Meanwhile I'm being tested by their management team upstairs. A mutual liking for strong coffee is a good basis to begin but does nothing for their understandable suspicion that a producer from England can pay them more than he says he can. To advance things, back in London, I really need a contract signed with Danza before I leave but the final meeting on my way to the airport resolves nothing. Carlos drops me off at the airport and we're both low.


May 2002. Carlos has gone on from Havana to New York. A new contract with American Ballet Theatre, and a triumph. The New York Times Culture Section gives him the first 4 pages for an in depth interview which ends with him announcing the creation of his show for Sadler's Wells. I get a call from New York's Lincoln Center Festival who I had been trying to get to take the show prior to the Wells with not much success. The same, valid, question about his choreographic experience. The same answer - it's an adventure. Carlos is creating something new which only he can make - it draws on his ten years as one of the world's leading classical dancers and a lifetime immersed in Afro-Cuba. It's going to be great but you've got to keep the faith - it's what he was built to do. A month before he had been a lesser quantity with his US profile built in Dallas and Houston now he's a star in New York and maybe we can make it there after all.


October 2002. Carlos is back in Havana, from a stint at London's Opera House, for a gala performance at the International Ballet Festival. It's a rare chance for the Cuban dance audience to see him. For them he's still more the snotty kid of ten year's ago and they've come with a "go on, impress me" attitude. He does.

December 2002. It's happening now. Rehearsals have begun at Danza Contemporanea's space out by the Plaza de la Revolucion. After much editing the contract is finally signed. Carlos has assembled the rest of his dancers, Alexander Verona from the National Folkloric Company is to play Moro the Afro-Cuban foil to Carlos's classical solos. Alexander has a real earthy solid presence which balances Carlos's classical technique. We're still short a female lead but Carlos is testing new options most days. There's a sense of something going on. The day before I arrive Danny Glover has sat in on a rehearsal and while I'm there Chucho Valdes (in whose honour the jazz festival is being held around town) pops in to check it out.

Carlos in the rehearsal room works incredibly fast. He can do what he does because he only has to be shown or told anything once to retain it - something that applies in any work situation. He's working with a very talented group but none as fast as him. He is stretching the Danza Contemporanea dancers in ways that they haven't been taken before but which they are happy to follow. "Show us your medals" is what old players say to new football managers but everyone knows that Carlos has the medals and can jump higher than any of them - something the young dancers encourage him to do in the breaks. They also show him their moves which can just about match his breakdance spins and one of them has a running horizontal roll that seems to threaten his career every time he does it.

Up until now the show has all been inside Carlos. Now we can see what he meant. I make a note to tell Salvatore the designer back in London to reinforce the gussets. The style is hard, fast and physical but with a strong grounding in Afro-Cuban drumming and dance.

A better flight back to London today than last April. This show has been a constant background in my life for four years (and in Carlos's for much more) finally it's happening and the sense of forward movement is tangible. The last meeting with the Cuban team this time is in fast food place opposite the comedy club where our production manager has his day job. In Havana we now have the assistant director, the marketing man and the production manager. It feels right and it feels like the right team. Carlos's own youthful success means that he is confident in the input of a young team both on and off stage. Carlos is almost thirty but most of his chosen dancers are ten years younger. For me, after 16 years of working with ageing Cuban musicians, it's a fresh breath to work with people younger than my tattoo.

Back in London in the middle of December and Salvatore, the designer, is doing the shopping for the show while all around it's Christmas. On January 2 he comes to the office with all the fabric we need. An initial thought had been that the materials would be bought in Havana but now we're told that "there's nothing in the shops" and that's not really a figure of speech. The fabric and Salvatore, along with the elastic, the buttons, the thread and even the pins are shipped in quick succession.

Havana in January 2003 feels freezing even after London. I'm wearing jackets that I hadn't intended to put on until I got as far back as Madrid. Carlos and Salvatore meet me at the airport. Carlos gives me his bed in the house that he provides for his father, Salvatore has the spare room. We start work at 7.30am - five hours after I've landed. As a dancer manager Carlos has to do everything and know everything, which tends to mean now that days begin as the sun comes up and end with meetings that start at ten o'clock at night. It can't be right that I've got his bed, I move out to a flat next door to the National Ballet after a couple of nights. Leafy with parrots in cages in the shaded alleyway approach, spoilt by dog shit everywhere.

Heriberto Cabezas, head of marketing at the Ballet Nacional is our guide through how to create this show within the Cuban system. Like all others working on the production he's of Carlos' generation and knows precisely how things happen, or don't, in Havana arts. My new flat is opposite his office and round the corner from Tecnoscena where Salvatore is supervising the making of his costumes.

Tecnoscena is one of two making-houses within a block of the National Ballet's base. It's got a skilled, but un-motivated staff many of whom aren't keen on taking egg-sucking lessons from Salvatore. Linares, our local production manager, presents me with a bill calculated by Tecnoscena. It's ten times what I'd been told to anticipate which means ten times beyond my budget. Cuba operates on a dual economy, pesos if you're Cuban and dollars if you're not. The economy takes its lead from tourism where increasing numbers of tourists shore up the gap left by the loss of the Soviet Union's sugar subsidy and cheap oil. Tecnoscena, working for Cuban performing arts companies is working mostly in the peso economy. They know they can charge us in dollars for the work but don't have an easy benchmark by which to assess what to charge us. Salvatore and I sit down with the departmental heads, I explain that what they want to charge us isn't what we expected. We will see.

 


Carlos Acosta and the company in Tocororo - A Cuban Tale
Photography by Laurie Lewis ©


Carlos Repilado, our Cuban lighting designer, is meanwhile trying to find some lights at the Gran Teatro Nacional in Parque Central. It is a beautiful theatre, built in 1837 by the Italian ... and allegedly the site of some of the earliest experiments in telephony. It has taken me $79 on a 15 minute call to London to find that nobody at O2 knows why my mobile doesn't work here as it should.

The Gran Teatro is an imposing building on the main square in Old Havana, next to the Capitolio (A lookalike for Washington's Capitol but Cuba had it first). It's the oldest surviving theatre in the Caribbean - turrets and angels on the top. Backstage its dust and boards and looks like the kind of place where a young Cliff Richard would say "Hey kids lets do the show right here."


10 Feb. 03
Off the plane at 10pm. Third time back in Havana in six weeks, it feels like commuting. Straight to the theatre. Everyone is leaving at 11pm following the first day on stage here after the two months of rehearsals in different studios around town. The performers are all getting on the bus that we've hired to get them home - in Havana relying on public transport would mean many people missing rehearsals or arriving very late. Accommodation for me and Salvatore is fixed on this instant. Our intended apartment fell through yesterday but this is better. A flat on the start of Obispo across the square from the theatre. Great location. We flip a coin for the rooms and Salvatore thinks I have exploited his lack of currency knowledge when I get the room with the balcony (and the window), with the view of illuminated sign in front of Hemingway's second favourite bar La Floridita. Salvatore and I drop my bags and walk down Obispo to the Cathedral Square, last open remnant of what was proclaimed as a 24 hour area a couple of years ago. When the state runs everything a 24 hour city isn't a response to the market but rather a decree that can, and did, change over night. Nice rum till 1.30pm which is the best way to counter jet-lag and to find out what I've missed.


11 Feb. 03
Theatre early - only person in is Carlos Repilado the lighting designer, looking down his lighting bars and wondering how he's going to light anything with less than half the promised lights. The Arts ministry had told us in early January that we could borrow the lanterns from another theatre across town. El Gran Teatro has a fantastic new Japanese sound system but Teatro Mella on the other side of town has the fantastic new Japanese lights. Unfortunately last week we learned that these lights are on a different power phase and incompatible. I got an e.mail from Carlos Repilado on the Friday afternoon before I left London asking if I could bring 20 lanterns (as well as the lighting gel I was already planning to carry). I said no - apart from the weight and the uncertainty about whether I would be able to carry them back it would have been another unrecoupable cost. The deal in Havana is that I pay for everything but get no money back from the box office - fine if its costumes we can then take to London but not an investment if its renting some new lanterns.

Instant mayhem on Mr Acosta's arrival backstage. Carlos now has a BBC1 camera crew glued to him and this adds an extra level of hyperactivity to everything. If Carlos wants to turn quickly in the corridor then camera, sound and director have to swing round fast in his jetstream. Carlos just got off a flight from Boston (via Canada) at 2.30 this morning so we have a cocktail of a late night, a long journey and the first morning in the theatre. A crazy situation but with no money coming in for us from the impending Havana performances he's been dancing for a week in Boston the week before the biggest opening night of his life.


12 Feb. 03
Costumes should arrive from Tecnoscena across town. Some of them do. Of the 20 pairs of shoes ordered though apparently only one pair is ready. The musicians all have new suits but they don't look like new suits because all the dry cleaners in Havana have no dry-cleaning fluid and consequently have shut down. Tecnoscena have no means of pressing them. We'll sort something out with a big hotel on a big iron.


13 Feb. 03
The ramp to bring a 55 Buick into the theatre is being built up the six foot drop from the street to the double doors at the rear of the stage. It's planned as the entrance for the dance chorus and Carlos's idea is that the car drives up to this doorway with its headlights shining across to auditorium into the balconies opposite. It's an idea that he had when he first looked at the theatre for this show but I'm fairly sure that when he initially saw the doors at the back of the stage he assumed that they were at street level and didn't see the drop. The car weighs a very literal ton and the ramp is being made from two solid looking bits of metal but these are being rested against some cross hatching nailed together from recycled timber. The engineer says that he will put supports under the ramp but then suddenly someone is driving the car up the thin ramp anyway. A ton of metal on top and, with the car sitting there, the crew now decide to hammer in the supports underneath. I express my concern to no effect. I ring Carlos, who is in his car with a camera crew he sounds interested but not worried.


14 Feb. 03
TV wars. For as long as there has been the idea of making this show here there has been the idea of a television documentary. Old Havana and young Carlos is a match made in TV Heaven. We've plumped for BBC1, after Mr Yentob and Mr Bragg went head to head, but as of last week a US crew are on the scene looking to squeeze in a bit of this show into a public service epic on Cuban dance. A nice idea if everyone is happy but today I have to remove film from US crew's camera as they have broken agreement not to film the "BBC exclusive" dress rehearsal. The bloody car is on bloody ramp again. The second time up today and front wheel drops through the plywood veneer on top but is still supported by the driftwood frame. Bad that it dropped, good that it didn't drop that far. The car owner has been in earlier, yesterday's nervous driver was his mechanic. The owner is nervous, I'm nervous. Nobody else is. In Cuba, where of necessity life is about making do and getting by, there can be no doubt that you will make a ramp work out of driftwood because if not there is no chance that you will get anything better to make it from. It's all about hope and faith.

In the dress rehearsal, now with 6 dancers in the car and me in the stalls, the car appears in view up the ramp from the street and then rolls gently back down. No more cracks in the ramp though. I still don't manage to see a whole run through as urgent discussions with DC manager drag me out of auditorium.

Dress rehearsal, says Carlos is much better than yesterday - which I had missed - but this increasingly technically heavy show looks like it needs a couple more technical rehearsals (which we don't have) in order to be ready. We still don't have all the shoes.

Early evening and all the shoes have arrived but Carlos snakeskin pair look almost ruined after one rehearsal. Carlos's sister takes the costumes home to wash.

Back down Obispo for dinner with Salvatore, Heriberto and Magaly the shows marketeer. Magaly says there are tanks on the streets of London which appears as an inversion of the normal developing world stereotype. We have a Valentine's dinner (no option it's the only menu today) in sleepy Old Havana and the tanks roll in London. Marketing a show in Havana is a strange business. Our original plan had to been to hire six billboards (the kind that normally feature giant pictures of Ché) on prominent junctions in the city and paint them with show ads. Now we've abandoned that idea but there are no leaflets, no posters, just a TV ad but it's on the one TV channel and editorial in all the papers. Will it be enough to fill a 1200 seat theatre for a fortnight.


15 Feb. 03
Our opening night. I wake soon after six. Cold again, and worried. Worries about money, the bloody car and possibly no shows in Brighton in the summer before London as the chorus dancers have been double-booked into Seville. Sitting down at the budget in the early morning sun is reassuring - it feels like doing something about it rather than just worrying. Really it's just worrying.

Our production manager asks me to bring in five bottles of rum for the technicians. It's tradition he says. Don't open them too early I say. At five I get a call from the theatre saying that it's crawling with secret service and all the cars parked in front are being moved. It's not certain but this is the best indication that Mr Castro is going to be in the house.

Heriberto and Magaly handle protocol it's spelt with a capital P round here and Heriberto's early concern has been to get the show on the map with the "Havana Jet Set" - a lovely term from a bygone age of international innocence. I'm told that if the president doesn't come I can sit in the front of the balcony. If he does then there has to be at least one line of Cuban nationals between any foreigner and him and I'm at the back.

8.28pm and Mr Castro enters the building, just after the man from Sadler's Wells who landed in Havana with ten minutes to spare and who is suitably impressed by the late arrival. Enthusiastic applause from the audience and the ten TV cameras focussed on the stage swivel to catch the leader taking the applause then his seat.

 


Carlos & Veronica
Photography by Laurie Lewis ©


What's the show like. Well ten times better than the last dress rehearsal but other than that incredible in many ways. The car even gets an "oooh" when the stage doors open and it rolls up without rolling back. The maximum leader talks all the way through. He has the director of the national ballet school sitting next to him and they are enthusiastically discussing the unfolding action. Salvatore sits next to me two rows behind and he wants to shush him. I suggest to him that he has been chancing it with his backdrop depiction of Che Guevara and that drawing attention to himself is perhaps not wise.

Afterwards onstage the maximum leader is doing a meet and greet. I get pulled towards him by Carlos - he's shorter than I thought he would be and very quiet. But he's just pacing himself as the handshakes and the conversation extend longer than the show itself. But it's all good stuff, an acute dissection of the show from a very sharp minded critic who caught all the musical and cultural references and asks to meet specific members of the cast. "What does a producer do?" he asks me, "Couldn't somebody Cuban do it?". I hadn't expected him to be here and I hadn't expected to meet him.

Everyone who wants to meet him from the show does. Miguel Iglesias, director of Danza Contemporanea the national contemporary dance company whose dancers we have borrowed, has a particularly long innings. Something more significant is maybe happening. The national ballet school a couple of blocks away has 12 immaculate full size studios with sprung floors and immaculate sound systems. Our last month of rehearsals were hosted here. Danza Contemporanea, where rehearsals began, meanwhile has a picturesque space with palm trees outside of the broken windows in a building behind the other, modern, national theatre building out of town. It's got overflowing toilets and a broken parquet floor which would be put to shame by the facilities at my daughter's south London church hall ballet class.

Carlos Acosta the Cuban classical dancer bar none of his generation, the greatest Cuban dancer since Alicia Alonso matriach of the Cuban Ballet Nacional, has created his first show back in Havana. But it's not a ballet in any conventional sense. It's a fusion that only he could make (a line we have pitched to so may theatres down these recent years but nonetheless true) which takes his training and his experience on the worlds great stages but then brings it home and puts it together, in a contemporary dance framework, with the Afro Cuban street dance that is the real dance beat of Havana. In Havana Carlos could have done anything - a chosen son who had never really left but had so seldom danced here. But what he had chosen to do was to create a show which says - look at this dance, this is my dance, this is our dance. Here is ballet and here is our dance and see they have the same value.


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