Yuli is the story of the life of Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, one of the finest dancers on the world ballet stage. I know of Acosta from my years working at the Royal Opera House and seeing him sweat it out in the ballet practice rooms backstage and perform dazzlingly on the stage. I have his autobiography. I’m everything bar a stalker. But having seen this film maybe now I will just need to get on a plane and go see his own ballet Tocororo - A Cuban Tale performing in Havana. Such is the power of this biopic. It packs a punch.
Director Icíar Bollaín is also a screenwriter and actress and this roundness is reflected in a biopic that isn’t just interviews and archive footage. Quite a surprising amount of the film is dramatisation but this adds a much deeper level to the story. There are two outstanding actor performances, first the youngest, an astonishing presence on screen of ten-year-old Edlison Manuel Olvera Núñez playing the young Acosta. It’s almost a wrench when the child is replaced with an older version played less convincingly by dancer Keyvin Martinez.
The most enduring presence is Acosta’s father Pedro played by Cuban actor in his first film, Santiago Alphonso. He brings a depth to the role of the father that lends veracity to the cultural background of the Acosta family with it’s Afro-Cuban Yoruba religious roots. The resulting awakening of black consciousness isn’t altogether convincingly portrayed in Acosta’s later life and choices. But perhaps that would take another film to give it due space.
The film does spend considerable time allowing us to get inside the strong and conflicted relationship between Acosta and his father. This frames one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film - the dance sequence choreographed by Acosta and performed with his own dance company ‘Acosta Danza’ in which he plays the role of his father. The boy’s young life and this formative relationship is depicted vividly and frankly and forms the centrepiece of this biopic. In painting Cuba it neither hedges around the tough brutality of life under Castro nor misses Havana’s vibrancy.
At times the background music by Alberto Iglesias sneaks in as a touch corny. But the power of the story is strong enough to carry the truth. Elsewhere the choice of music empowers the scenes - rhythmic contemporary classical sounds accompany the dance sequences, and a genuine-sounding Cuban band accompanies a street party.
And perhaps the most persuasive reason to see this film is to see the great dancer himself. Both archive footage and actual rehearsal footage of Acosta in motion show how special is this dancer. He is quite simply breathtaking. There is a beautiful pas de deux with Tamara Rojo from The Royal Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
Then the finale is told by Acosta himself with a solo performance upon his own Cuban dance academy’s stage. When Carlos Acosta dances, the world is compelled to engage with his story.