A weekend in the world of the star crossed lovers

In 1993, when Li Cunxin was a principal at the Houston Ballet, one of the newest dancers to join the company was Carlos Acosta.

He had danced in England and won several important dance prizes in Europe, but he was still a little lost away from Cuba, his homeland. A technical wizard, Acosta had to work on his artistry and confidence, and he found a mentor, and friend, in Li.

The two dancers had much in common – both came from Communist countries, both from poor families, both worked phenomenally hard in the studio in their teenage years, both travelled abroad at a very young age and eventually both wrote their memoirs – Mao’s Last Dancer (Li) and No Way Home: A Cuban Dancer’s Story (Acosta).

Li’s book (in its 52nd imprint) was made into a movie and now there are plans for a movie based on Acosta’s story.

With Li’s ambitious project for 2014, the Australian premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet for the Queensland Ballet, he needed all the help he could get.

Enter Carlos. Li asked his old friend for a favour and Acosta obliged, dancing two performances in the season just ended.

Backstage at the Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, on Saturday morning, Li told the story of the Houston connection when he chatted to a group who travelled with me on a Renaissance Tour for a series of events – Acosta in conversation with Li, a Queensland Ballet class on stage, taught by ballet master Greg Horsman, and performances of Romeo & Juliet.

Li’s interview with Acosta at the Queensland Art Gallery on Friday evening drew a very large audience.

During their conversation Acosta told Li that his final performance the following night with the Queensland Ballet would be the last time he would ever dance as Romeo.

Before and after the interview fans queued to sign Acosta’s novel, Pig’s Foot, published in the UK late last year. His memoir and Li’s memoir were also on sale.

Pig’s Foot is an amalgam of fantasy and magical tales set within the turbulent and violent history of Cuba. Acosta wrote it in Spanish and it’s been translated into English by Frank Wynne.

Acosta seems destined to return to Cuba if only to see through his ambition to build a new ballet school there. All he needs to go ahead, as he has said, is £7 million.

A book is very unlikely to earn that kind of money so Acosta must be putting his trust in philanthropists – and very rich ones as well.

I’ve seen several R&Js in my life but nothing triggers the need for research again as knowing I’d be speaking to a knowledgeable audience on the tour group. I had fun diving back into the dance history of the star crossed lovers, from the first Romeo & Juliet ballet in Venice in the late 18th century to West Side Story and far beyond.

I rediscovered footage of the Royal Ballet’s performance filmed in 1984 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Alessandra Ferri as Juliet and Wayne Eagling as Romeo.

Ferri’s Juliet is one of the most moving and believable portrayals I’ve seen in a filmed dance performance (matched only by Carla Fracci in her interpretation of Giselle with Erik Bruhn.)

Wayne Eagling looks so young in this performance even though he must have been around 43 at the time, just a year of two older than Acosta now.

The Queensland Ballet’s season was brief but memorable, not only for the guest stars but for company dancers who portrayed multiple roles.

The young Vito Bernasconi, for instance, was Tybalt on opening night, Mercutio another night and the lead dancer in the Mandolins scene on closing night.

Matthew Lawrence danced as Romeo on opening night and Tybalt on the final night.

On both opening and closing nights Daniel Gaudiello danced as Mercutio. Playing the tragicomic role, he danced with super-powered energy and cheek, but never lost his pure line and exactitude.

Acosta, as Romeo, made every gesture count and captured the audience with his charm and charismatic stage presence. He knows, and admits, he can no longer jump as high as he did, but he can certainly still turn and traverse the stage in space eating style.

As he’s danced with Tamara Rojo as Juliet so many times it must have been a challenge to partner Queensland Ballet principal, Meng Ningning after just a few rehearsals, and while the balcony scene didn’t sizzle, the combination of her delicacy and vulnerability and his devil-may-care young man who becomes a man on the run for his life worked its magic in the bedroom scene in which their despair and fear was heartbreakingly evident.

The final performance of this season marked three significant moments – a statement of intent for the future by Li, the final performance as Romeo by Acosta, and the farewell performance (she danced as Lady Capulet) of Rachael Walsh, a principal of the Queensland Ballet since 2002.

At the curtain call, each member of the company presented her with a rose.

Walsh’s career encompassed another Romeo & Juliet when she danced as Juliet with Christian Tatchev in the production choreographed by the Queensland Ballet’s former artistic director, Francois Klaus.

Her farewell linked the past of Klaus and his wife Robyn, with the present artistic directorship of Li.

I hope she continues to work with the company in a new role. Artistry and experience like hers should be passed on to future generations.

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Daniel Gaudiello and Vito Bernasconi, Romeo & Juliet, Queensland Ballet, photo © David Kelly

Pig’s Foot, Carlos Acosta’s first novel

Meng Ningning, Romeo&Juliet, Queensland Ballet, photo © David Kelly

Meng Ningning, Romeo&Juliet, Queensland Ballet, photo © David Kelly

Janie Parker and Li Cunxin, Romeo&Juliet, Houston Ballet, 1987, photo © Jack Mitchell

Rachael Walsh and Keian Langdon, Cloudland, Queensland Ballet, photo © Ken Sparrow