YULI. Starring: Carlos Acosta, Keyvin Martinez, Santiago Alfonso, and Edilson Manuel Olbera Nunez. Also, Laura De la Uz, and Yerlin Perez. Directed by Iciar Bollain. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 111 min.
This Spanish-British autobiographical movie tells the story of the life and achievements of 46-yr. old Cuban dancer, Carlos Yunior Acosta Quesada. It stars Carlos Acosta himself. The film’s title, Yuli, is the nickname given to Carlos by his father.
Yuli was Principal Guest Dancer with the Royal Ballet, after being its permanent dancer from 1998 to 2015, and was the first black dancer to perform most of the company’s signature ballet roles. The Royal Ballet offered him lead roles for over a decade. Comparisons with Rudolf Nureyev are inevitable, especially when Yuli received Gold Medals and Grand Prix Awards across Europe. He was the first black dancer to dance Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” for the Royal Ballet in London.
In this film, Yuli is shown dancing some of his most famous roles with brilliance. The film mixes drama, dance, fiction and reality and presents Yuli as an artist trying to make sense of his life, especially his upbringing which transformed him into the quality artist he is.
The film cleverly intermixes dancing with the story of Yuli growing up in Cuba, beginning with his rise to fame with the Cuban National Ballet, which made him its Principal Dancer in 1994. He now performs with his own dance company, Acosta Danza, which tours internationally. The film shifts between the different stages of his life, and various actors and dancers portray him at different stages. Keyvin Martinez, who is a dancer in Acosta’s own company, plays Carlos as a young-adult, and Yuli plays himself mainly, but not exclusively, through archival, dance footage which gives the movie a high level of authenticity.
Yuli was born into an impoverished family on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, and was pressured to pursue dancing by his loving, but excessively determined, father, who recognised his talent, as did his mother and teacher. His father thought that ballet school would teach Yuli discipline, but also provide him with a daily meal.
The film is particularly well crafted. It makes excellent use of footage of Yuli’s actual performances to illustrate his grace and power as a dancer, and the dance sequences are extremely well integrated with the drama that unfolds. This gives the movie strong emotional power, and Yuli’s rag-to-riches story never detracts from his artistry as a dancer. Across time, the viewer is exposed to issues related to race and colonialism, and to how childhood dreams come with difficulty to be realised and fulfilled. Its various themes are captured well and sustained forcefully and movingly.
The mix of themes and the way in which they are explored gives the film vitality. Yuli’s father, Pedro, is impressively captured by Santiago Alfonso, and a young rebellious Yuli is acted particularly well by Edilson Manuel Olbera Nunez. At one point in the movie, Yuil organises a stage show to express the story of his childhood that displays highly creative choreography - Acosta assumes the role of his father, and dances a pas de deux with a younger version of himself.
At the dramatic core of the movie is the volatile relationship of Yuli with his father. Yuli is beaten by his father behind a closed door; the father recognises his son’s talent; his discipline is especially hard, yet Yuli’s artistry grows. The film is partly biographical and partly interpretative, and allows Acosta to narrate his life through dance and words. The choreography of the dance sequences is excellent, and the quality of Acosta’s artistry as a dancer is never left in doubt. The film is also clear of some of the issues that complicated dramatic enjoyment of past dance movies, such as “The White Crow” (2018), which focused on Rudolph Nureyev.
This is an enjoyable, reflective, dance-drama movie, that is well-directed and acted, and it is vibrantly brought to the screen by female Spanish Director, Iciar Bollain.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released October 31, 2019