Ballet superstar Carlos Acosta’s retirement from the Covent Garden stage after 17 extraordinary years was slightly marred by the fact the programme he chose to bow out with – his own dance take on Carmen – was a rather patchy piece of work. For his Coliseum goodbye, he’s gone back to the pick’n’mix of ballet excerpts and short pieces he first created at Sadler’s Wells in 2006, when it had the cumbersome title Carlos Acosta with Guest Artists from The Royal Ballet, then presented at the Coliseum with a line-up change in 2008. This time round, he’s invited some new guest artists and jettisoned a Liam Scarlett duet to make room for a pas de deux from his Carmen; otherwise it’s the same show.
In truth, the dozen pieces are a mixed bag, framed with a friendly if somewhat disconcerting device – all the dancers troop on at the start in rehearsal gear, chat and go through warm-up stretches against a backdrop of backstage clutter, then the performing pair shrug on costumes and move to stage front as a black back cloth falls. This “behind the scenes” scenario is revisited between each of the pieces in the first half. It captures a sense of conviviality and also of the graft behind the sparkling finished classical ballet product. But it also means that you keep being jerked out of any suspension of disbelief, which makes these fragments harder to connect with; particularly difficult when we’re being plunged into the likes of the Winter Dreams farewell pas de deux, with its roiling passions (though Thiago Soares and Tierney Heap do an impressive job with it from a standing start).
Acosta partners Zenaida Yanowsky for the opening Agon pas de deux – a moment to appreciate the supreme care and respect with which he has always presented his ballerinas – and Marianela Nuñez in the fabulously OTT Diana & Actaeon pas de deux. At 42, his jumps are still startling and he nails every dizzying spin. His marvellous stage chemistry with Nuñez means that when he sends her into a frighteningly fast set of pirouettes, both look as though they might burst out laughing.
Yuhui Choe shines in La Sylphide’s Act II pas de deux, with a doll-like delicacy and enchanting, fluttering feet; Yanowsky’s pulsing arm movements are quite mesmeric as she gets the thankless task of performing the Dying Swan.
The second half has a jolly cabaret-style section, with Nuñez and Soares creating a teasing game of chase through an Argentine tango-inspired piece (performed to Piazzolla), then Choe playing impressively against type for a sparky solo to Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien, and finally Acosta turning his charm on to full wattage for a rendition of a staggering, ornery old drunk in Ben Van Cauwenbergh’s Jacques Brel solo Les Bourgeois. Yanowsky has a final turn in William Tuckett’s strange abstract work set to Monteverdi, a showcase for her long-limbed agility. The final Ballet Nacional de Cuba piece, a fan-snapping homage to Hispanic lines, suffers from some timing issues. The evening is wrapped up with the dancers collecting their stuff from the back and ambling off stage, Acosta the last to leave – a particularly poignant image for this, his farewell to classical ballet. He’ll be sorely missed – and deserves every moment of his standing ovation.