Britain’s Royal Ballet, founded in 1931 by the Irish-born dancer Dame Ninette de Valois, is the youngest of all the great European ballet companies. But it possesses a fabled history – one that more than justifies its place alongside the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and the Bolshoi.
The company, which became the resident troupe of the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden in 1946, was a crucial force in what is often called Britain’s post-war “ballet fever” – an enthusiasm for classical dance that suffused the culture. It fostered the careers of choreographers Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, and more recently welcomed the dramatically modern Wayne MacGregor. It rode to fame thanks to the long career of prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, thriving further by way of her fabled partnership with Rudolf Nureyev in the 1960s. And it gained new attention by way of the film, “Billy Elliot,” and the Elton John musical it inspired.
The training ground for Christopher Wheeldon (director and choreographer of the new Broadway musical, “An American in Paris”), and Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, the company’s reigning star in recent years has been Carlos Acosta, one of the few Cuban-trained dancers able to maintain ties with the island after leaving to dance on the international scene.
Now, the Royal Ballet is returning to Chicago after an absence of 37 years, and will bring the Auditorium Theatre’s 125th season celebrations to a close with Acosta’s re-imagined version of “Don Quixote,” created in 2013.
A staple of the classical repertoire, this story ballet (with a score by Ludwig Minkus to be played by the Chicago Sinfonietta), follows the adventures of the bumbling knight and his ever-faithful squire, Sancho Panza. As Don Quixote embarks on a quest for his ideal woman he stumbles upon Kitri and Basilio, young lovers whose marriage is being thwarted by Kitri’s father. Of course the gallant knight is hellbent on righting all the wrongs of the world in this work that features flamboyant characters, a Spanish flair and a slew of pyrotechnic challenges.
THE ROYAL BALLET IN ‘DON QUIXOTE’
When: June 18, 19, 20 at 7:30 p.m. and June 20 and 21 at 2 p.m.
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $32 – $137
Info: (800) 982-2787;
Run time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions
Acosta, now 42, will dance the role of Basilio at Thursday’s opening performance only. His next work for the Royal Ballet – a one-act version of “Carmen” to debut in London this fall – will feature him performing Carmen’s two rival lovers, Don Jose and Escamillo. It also will mark the end of his 17 years as a dancer with the company.
Born in Havana in 1973 – the 11th child in an impoverished family – Acosta played street soccer, and excelled as a break-dancer, but as he admits now, “I was on the path to delinquency.” It was his father, an almost illiterate truck driver, who sent him to study ballet.
“I hated him for it in the beginning,” Acosta said. “But as a kid he had sneaked into a movie theater and saw a silent film in which the dancers’ tutus looked to him like Japanese umbrellas, and he never forgot it. He also thought the discipline of the [state-supported] Cuban National Ballet School, and its free lunches, were what I needed.”
It would be quite a few years (and an expulsion from that school), before Acosta came around. But while still in his teens he began winning international competitions, was invited to join the Houston Ballet, and then, in 1998, the Royal Ballet.
“I’ve been looking back at my life for a long time, especially in quiet moments, and I often feel I’ve been living a dream, a kind of miracle,” said the dancer. “But the arts are how we heal. If I had a million dollars I’d start a free school for the performing arts.”
Meanwhile, there is Acosta the storyteller, who penned a memoir, “No Way Home – A Cuban Dancer’s Story,” published in 2007, and “Pig’s Foot,” a novel, published in 2013.
And what does he say to himself before he goes onstage in the highly demanding role of Basilio?
“Ooh, it’s gonna hurt!”