Saturday, December 15, 2018

Carlos Acosta's 2007 memoir is titled "No Way Home" but with the 2018 film "Yuli," he may just have arrived!

On a trip I made to Havana just over 10 years ago in the summer of 2008, I attempted to track down and interview Cuban ballet sensation Carlos Acosta, the author of the deeply moving and personally revealing memoir, No Way Home. Though Acosta then lived most of the year in London, a mutual friend had given me his Havana address and tipped me off that he was then visiting his family there. After making my way under Havana’s scorching sun to his newly renovated Nuevo Vedado house, I was greeted at the doorway by one of his associates and led through an elegantly shaded patio into the tastefully decorated front room of his spacious home.

Disappointed to learn that Acosta was not in, I proceeded to leave my business card with the hope that we could meet later. However, before turning to leave, my eyes finally adjusted to the muted light inside the cool, dark living room and I suddenly realized that sitting directly in front of me in a wooden rocking chair was an impossibly old, rail-thin, charcoal black man who could be none other than Acosta’s father Pedro.

Photo of Pedro Acosta by Ted A. Henken.
Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to talk with the man who was surely Acosta’s greatest single influence (if often vividly described in the book as a fierce disciplinarian), I quickly introduced myself saying how I felt that I already knew him through having read his son's memoir.

“You must be very proud of Carlos’s accomplishments and happy that he thought to dedicate his memoir to his family, even singling you out as, ‘one of the greatest men I have ever known’,” I asked.

At this, 90-year-old Pedro did not respond but instead began to smirk at me. Taking note, I jokingly reprimanded him, saying, “Your son has achieved great things but don’t you think you were just a little too harsh on him all those years, always telling him to forget his home and family and focus only on achieving his goals as a dancer?”

As I said this, the smirk on his face slowly grew into an electric, ironic grin, as he leaned back comfortably in his rocking chair and spread his arms out wide as if to say, “Nothing in this life comes without hard work and sacrifice. Look around and you can see, at long last, the result.”


What follows below is the book review that I wrote following that visit. It was first published exactly 10 years ago in The International Journal of Cuban Studies (Volume 1, Issue 2, December 2008). I'm republishing it here since few people ever read it then in that low circulation, hard to access academic journal (!) and also because I recently looked it up in the archives of my laptop and reread it given that it is the basis of the new film "Yuli" (directed by Spaniard Icíar Bollaín and staring Acosta himself), which just premiered in Cuba at the International Havana Film Festival.

One major, bitter irony is that while the film did premier in Havana this month, the book on which it is based has never been available to Cubans on the island - still 11 years after it was first published to rave reviews in Europe. For more on that controversial saga, see this excellent article from Havana Times by Maykel Paneque, "Cuban Dancer Carlos Acosta in the World of Alicia Alonso."


Carlos Acosta. No Way Home: A Dancer’s Journey from the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World. New York: Scribner, 2008.

First published in the United Kingdom in 2007 under the title, No Way Home: A Cuban Dancer’s Story (and translated from the original Spanish by Kate Eaton), Cuban ballet sensation Carlos Acosta’s deeply nostalgic autobiography was released in the United States in May, 2008, with the subtitle, A Dancer’s Journey from the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World. This dramatic new subtitle of the American edition captures Acosta’s successful journey from poverty and obscurity on the outskirts of revolutionary Cuba’s capital to wealth and fame in cities as diverse as Milan, Lausanne, Houston, Tokyo, Paris, Moscow, New York, and London. However, the underlying message of his engaging and intimately reflective coming-of-age story is more accurately captured by its heartbreaking, three-word title, No Way Home.

Though there does not yet seem to be a Spanish language edition of Acosta’s memoir in print, “No hay regreso” is the way a Cuban might translate No Way Home.

[Note: There is now an Amazon digital Kindle edition of the book available in Spanish. Entitled, Sin mirar atrás: La historia de un bailarín cubano, this Spanish language edition is being published or re-published - it seems - to coincide with the release of the film "Yuli"]

For example, the slang Cuban expression “no tiene regreso,” is frequently used among Cuban émigrés in the United States to describe someone for whom the experience of exile has been so harrowingly transformative that the person in question “can never go home again.” Since, as with Acosta, even if they do make it home again physically, home is no longer the home they left behind, and they are not the same person they once were. Thus, while Acosta’s rags-to-riches story abounds with the many details and dilemmas specific to the Cuban diasporic experience and to his own impoverished Afro-Cuban family background and revolutionary generation, it is his constant focus on the personal and emotional price of his success and his tragic inability to ever fully recover the past – to ever go home again – that makes his tale a compelling, universal one.

Throughout the book, the portrait Acosta paints of himself is that of an insecure and almost paralyzingly lonely boy from the wrong side of the tracks who succeeds in turning himself into a world-class dancer and a confident and accomplished young man. However, in order to reach his artistic destiny, he must first pass through an often awkward and solitary adolescence, endure his father’s strict discipline and emotional impenetrability, abandon his childhood dream of being a football star like his hero the famous Brazilian Pelé, and slowly loose touch with that part of himself he most values: his easy intimacy and emotional connection to his family. However, while he succeeds in this Herculean task through a combination of raw talent, an iron will power and work ethic, making the best of revolutionary opportunity, and the loving if often insensitive guidance of his disciplinarian father, each success only serves to make him ever-more aware of the bitter price of his ticket to fame.

Despite his steadily increasing success, Acosta’s battle against insecurity and nostalgia continues to haunt him well into his professional career. At one point toward the end of his first year as a dancer in the Houston Ballet, Acosta finally figures out the source of the anxiety that had been plaguing him. Since arriving in the U.S., he had managed to make good friends, achieve professional success, and even fall in love. However, he had not succeeded in pushing out of his mind his deep, almost suffocating fear of living a life without roots. Suddenly, with his defenses down and his nostalgia on the rise while watching the Gregory Nava film, “Mi Familia,” about the hardships endured by multiple generations of a Mexican immigrant family, Acosta is overcome by “a terrible fear that […] I would be a foreigner for the rest of my life.” As a result, he resolves to abandon his promising career abroad and return to the familiar and protective cocoon of his family in Los Pinos, the humble Havana neighborhood where he grew up.

Each of the numerous times Acosta comes to this decision, however, he is rebuffed by his father, who repeatedly gives him the stern advice, “The only way you’re going to help your sisters, your mother, and all of us, is by being the best dancer you can be. […] Forget about everything else and concentrate on your career. It’s not only what you owe yourself, it’s what you owe us, the ones who didn’t have the luck to be born with your talent.” Later, his father advises him, “Don’t give in to nostalgia. Forget everything. […] Men are born into the world to fulfill their destiny, and yours isn’t here. We’re the ones who were born to live and die in Los Pinos. Your future lies elsewhere. However much you want to, […] never look back.”

Toward the end of his tale and during a particularly wrenching family crisis when his sister has attempted suicide due to her chronic suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, his father makes him promise to follow the path of “great men” and never be distracted from achieving his goals. Though Acosta manages to keep this promise to his father, he later tearfully rebukes him after Pedro tries to convince him that the fate of great men is to “belong to the world,” arguing, “Your art is your house, my son.” Carlos agrees that his success has assured him that he will have many fine houses [much like the largely empty one in Nuevo Vedado where I met his father], but he says, “all I really wanted was a home.” However, his years of travel plagued by chronic nostalgia have only taught him the bitter lesson that “a house is not a home.”

That his struggle is as much an emotional one against the ghosts of his past as it is an artistic one to master the proper techniques of classical ballet is most clearly expressed late in the book when Acosta has a chance sighting of Baryshnikov while performing at a benefit in New York City in 1996.  Instead of praising him for his signature artistic achievements, Acosta admires and identifies most closely with Baryshnikov for “the courage he showed in swapping the certainty of his old life for the uncertainty of a new one, knowing that by doing so he could never go back.”

Thus, for Acosta, Baryshnikov is both an artistic muse and an emotional mirror – a reflection of his own inner turmoil over what he had to leave behind to fulfill his destiny. Others marvel at the outer trappings of Baryshnikov’s success. Acosta marvels at the inner triumph of spirit few others can see, since few others but he have experienced it personally. Later that same day, when observers see Acosta dance, they marvel at how he is “Just like Baryshnikov!” However, for Acosta, his most important similarity to the great Russian dancer is not in their accomplished interpretative ability or seemingly effortless technique, but in the fact that they are both permanent foreigners, always exiles, “not afraid to burn [themselves] in [their] efforts to reach the sun.”

One minor, frustrating shortcoming of the book is Acosta’s decision in a number of instances to share with us only part of his story – perhaps with the calculated aim of preserving his tenuous ability to periodically return to his homeland and see his family. While the book is clearly more of a personal and artistic memoir than a political one, when Acosta does touch on political matters his opinions and criticisms of Cuba’s authoritarian system (and the authoritarian functioning of some of its cultural institutions) are more often implied than clearly stated.

For example, in a chapter dedicated to one of his mentors, Ramona de Sáa (known to all by the nickname Chery), Acosta celebrates her brave decision to arrange his contract with the English National Ballet without the prior approval of the Cuban authorities. As a result, “When Chery got back to Havana, she was accused by the directorate of the Cuban National Ballet of acting irresponsibly by exposing me, so young, to the brutalities of capitalism. Her detractors said I would be sure to undergo an irreversible ideological subversion and that foreign influences would undermine my Cuban identity.” While Chery ultimately prevailed over her detractors with her reputation intact, Acosta’s description of this episode shows his preference for oblique sarcasm and satire over direct criticism and denunciation.

This tendency is even more evident in Acosta’s descriptions of his relationship with the most important and powerful figure in the history of Cuban ballet, Alicia Alonso. “Alicia is a legend,” Acosta writes, “she is a figure of such importance that her power could be compared to that of the president. One word from Alicia can change your future.” While Acosta is careful never to openly criticize such a concentration of power in a single person, he does make clear that his future, like that of all Cuban ballet dancers, rests in her hands.

In one particular instance, for example, he must gain her blessing before signing a contract to dance with the Houston Ballet. However, his cryptic and abbreviated description of this tense, life-changing meeting only hints at Alonso’s haughty, belittling bearing and thinly-veiled racism, leaving the reader confused and unsatisfied. But, alas, cryptic communication and self-censorship among artists and intellectuals is one of the pernicious hallmarks of the Cuban Revolution's infamous "Política Cultural," first established by Fidel himself in his 1961 "Words to the Intellectuals."

In the end, even as Acosta’s beautifully written memoir recounts his professional development and mounting artistic success, it succeeds as a powerful work of autobiography because it does so through the prism of the personal sacrifice, emotional trauma, and almost paralyzing loneliness that accompany him, haunting every step on his journey. Again and again throughout his Horatio Alger (Billy Elliot) tale, Acosta finds that his artistic achievements are often overshadowed, very nearly eclipsed, by an almost palpable, aching nostalgia.

While standard-fare memoirs of “escape” from Cuba often suffer from the facile assumption that all good things go together and are available only beyond the shores of this poor, “imprisoned” isle, Acosta’s memoir succeeds due to its commitment to painting a fiercely honest, personally searing, and politically complex portrait of his homeland where success beyond Cuba is always paid for with a deep sense of loss and gnawing nostalgia for what was left behind – the life taken from you, the life you did not get to live.

In Acosta’s case, this nostalgia is for his rough-and-tumble yet dignified, idyllically remembered childhood; for his sense of belonging and rootedness in his homeland; and, most importantly, for the closeness and intimacy of his increasingly distant, conflict-ridden, and tragedy-prone family.

*Copyright for this work is held jointly between Ted A. Henken and the International Journal of Cuban Studies under a Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative 3.0 License   

*An earlier version of this review was published in IJCS, Volume 1, Issue 2, December 2008.