Yuli – The Carlos Acosta Story
A compelling and heartfelt biopic of Cuban dance sensation Carlos Acosta, following him on his journey from roughhousing on the streets of Havana to dancing in the world's great opera houses
“It never happened, but it is all the truth.” So speaks Carlos Acosta in Yuli, a film based on the celebrated dancer, whose many pioneering achievements include becoming the first black principal (the highest rank within the company) with the Royal Ballet.
Directed by Icíar Bollaín and written by Paul Laverty (I, Daniel Blake) and Acosta himself, Yuli embraces the inescapably imperfect, creative task of self-reflection while also grounding Acosta’s story in the fraught landscape of his childhood in Cuba, taking him from the streets of Havana to international opera houses. Drenched in irresistible colour throughout, the biopic is inventively framed by Acosta in the present as he prepares a dance performance based on his life story with his Cuban company. Between these rehearsals, Bollaín weaves vibrant reconstructions of Acosta’s life.
Skipping back to before Acosta had picked up a ballet pump, we see it was his father, Pedro, who dragged the rebellious lad along to dance lessons in an attempt to discipline him (Dad was also the one to nickname him ‘Yuli’). Young Acosta is less keen, and the script doesn’t shy away from the attitudes he held as a child, protesting that he will be called a “faggot” by his friends if he does ballet. Instilling in his son their family’s history as slaves, and continually pushing him, Pedro, played by Santiago Alfonso, is a heavy, unstoppable force in the boy’s life.
Flashing between Acosta’s formative years and the dance sequences he has created inspired by these moments of his life, the mirroring effect allows the real Acosta to justify his creative decisions and to respond directly to his late father in a final, unbelievably lithe solo. This juxtaposition of the movement with the narrative has some poignant moments. In one scene, with Acosta dancing in the role of his father, the dancer portraying a younger Acosta jumps into his embrace, arms stubbornly extended rather than clasped around his father: an expression of irrational, unbreakable need.
Yuli eventually loses some of the narrative tightness that makes it stand out at the beginning, but this a heartfelt, compelling film.