Yuli is an unflinching biopic inspired by the life of renowned Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Raised by his neighbourhood in Havana, Carlos finds success when his father (played by Santiago Alfonso) notices his dancing talent and forces him to attend Cuba’s National Dance School. Despite his reluctance, he triumphs as a dancer, making history in the process.
Director Icíar Bollaín masterfully chronicles moments from Carlos’ past and present to form a different kind of biopic –– a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. Where other biopics can feel like the retelling of a story at its end, this film catches Carlos in his prime.
We begin at Acosta’s dance company in Cuba as he prepares with his students for a showcase, one that tells the story of his upbringing and rise within the dance world. We are cast back to his early days and meet a young Carlos, played by newcomer (Edilson Manuel Olbera). As the film progresses, we are introduced to Carlos as a young man (Keyvin Martínez) making a name of himself in the ballet world. The highs and lows of his career are shown to us through elaborate dance sequences from this present-day showcase. It’s all very meta. And while the intercutting has the potential to pull you away from the story, it also helps drive the emotional tone of the film.
You can certainly feel Paul Laverty‘s writing at work. Having previously worked on I, Daniel Blake, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, and My Name is Joe, Laverty admits he wasn’t sure whether he would be able to pull it off: “I have never done an adaption before and Carlos’ book, No Way Home was published over 10 years before. I felt in my bones we needed something more so I went to Havana to watch Carlos rehearse for two weeks with his young dance company. Up close, they blew my mind. […] So we thought, why not dance some of his life, and why not have Carlos play himself. Use this raw talent!”
It goes without saying that Carlos Acosta is a trailblazer. From humble beginnings in Havana, Cuba, he went on to become the first black artist to dance Romeo in the Royal Ballet in London. In spite of racial bias, he soared in the ballet world. In his career, he danced with the English National Ballet, the National Ballet of Cuba, the Houston Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. Combining grace and athleticism, he wowed on stage as a permanent member of the Royal Ballet between the years of 1998 to 2015. He later opened the Acosta Dance Academy in September 2017, further cementing his legacy.
To say he was reluctant to be a dancer is putting it mildly. He ran from his talents at every turn, preferring to be out in the streets with his friends. It is only thanks to his father’s stern discipline that he stuck with it. However, his desire for freedom and his father’s imposing will meant that there was a near constant tension between the pair.
At its heart, Yuli is a story of conflict. The conflict between father and son. The conflict with identity. The conflicting feelings towards his success… and the guilt that goes along with leaving his mother, father and two sisters behind. Where a young Carlos would choose his community over isolation dancing abroad, everyone around him sees his gift as an opportunity to escape the hardships they are experiencing living in Cuba in the 1990s.
We bear witness to one of the most difficult periods in Cuba’s recent history. Moments in the film directly coincide with the Special Period and the 1994 Rafter Crisis. The story of Carlos’ last name – taken from the Acosta plantation his grandmother used to work as a slave — is another harrowing reminder of the country’s dark past and racial divides.
The film doesn’t shy away from these hard truths. Instead, it celebrates the way Acosta has overcome his circumstances and given back to his community in the process. Just like the warrior he was nicknamed after, Carlos’ story is one of survival and integrity. Well-paced and wonderfully acted, Yuli is one poetic tour-de-force we highly recommend.
In cinemas now.