Carlos Acosta is one of the world's most famous and revered ballet dancers. Growing up in Cuba under Fidel Castro, the boy nicknamed Yuli was given rare opportunities to learn and grow as a performer, allowing him the freedom to work with some of the most esteemed companies around the world. In 2007, he released the autobiography 'No Way Home', which has now been adapted to the big screen as 'Yuli'. So does the film fall into the same traps as so many biographical adaptations?
Yuli (played chronologically by Edilson Manuel Olbera Nuñez, Keyvin Martínez and Carlos Acosta himself) is an average kid living in Havana and spending his days on the streets. His dad Pedro (Santiago Alfonso) has higher hopes for him though, and enrols him at the Cuban National Ballet School. Yuli resists at first, constantly skipping class and running amok, and is almost expelled. He has one last chance, and is sent away to a ballet boarding school. Here, he watches one of the older students, and is transfixed by the performace. He starts applying himself, and his dedication and natural talent lead him to international competitions and schools abroad. But can Yuli succeed with his family and his home so far away?
A uniquely told biography, the film toys with time in a ruthless manner. Jumping back and forth as Yuli develops his own ballet 'Tocororo' set in modern times, we see how his work is informed by his past. Director Icíar Bollaín (‘Flowers From Another World’) explains “‘Yuli’ deals with two realities: the past, in which we look at the childhood and youth of Carlos Acosta, and the present, in which the dancer and choreographer works with his company in Havana today. In contemporary dance pieces, we visit key moments from Carlos’ life, sometimes through rehearsals, in which we see Carlos telling a story and what he is looking to tell.”
It’s an interesting technique, but has mixed results. Penned by Paul Laverty (the man behind 14 Ken Loach films including ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’), the approach is ambitious but doesn’t entirely achieve the desired result. Where the choreography parallels the past is where the film shines; there’s so much grace, beauty and strength in the work, and the story through dance is truly mesmerising to watch. However, other time jumps aren’t so successful - hopping between locations and dates becomes confusing, and it’s all too often unclear where and when we are in Yuli’s life. The film also dwells heavily on the time before he commits to dancing, leaving the last act of the film extraordinarily rushed.
Where the choreography parallels the past is where the film shines; there’s so much grace, beauty and strength in the work, and the story through dance is truly mesmerising to watch.
We also get to see Cuba in a different light than most Westerners are used to. Within the film, we see news coverage of the country while Yuli is in London; it shows poverty and suffering, and while this may be an element of the Cuba through Yuli’s eyes, there’s never animosity or judgement. Instead, it’s a place where kids play outdoors, where friends drink and dance, and life is tough but rewarding.
In looking at the performances in this film, there’s a unique requirement to judge both the acting and the dancing. On the latter, the work is exemplary - casting Carlos himself is an unusual and fresh approach, and his skills on screen are awe-inspiring. Keyvin Martínez as young adult Yuli gives him a run for his money though, offering some impressive sequences and building the heart of the film. However, with much time focused on his early life, Edilson Manuel Olbera Nuñez is a huge part of this film, and a talented one. Having never acted or danced before, and being 10 at the time of filming, he pulls off a remarkable achievement in convincing us he is young Yuli, full of rebellious energy. Also worthy of mention is Santiago Alfonso; scoring his first on-screen acting credit as Yuli’s father, he presents a man who’s gruff, unwavering and vicious, whilst also showing great compassion and affection for his son.
'Yuli' is a stylishly shot and well-cast film, but it's not without its faults. Wonderful performances can't save the poor pacing and a confusing narrative structure. The overly ambitious script tries to portray too vast a period, and suffers from a pressured pace and perplexing timelines. It’s not exactly Carlos Acosta's life through dance, but it does showcase his talent magnificently, whilst also acting as a tribute to those who helped him get to where he is today. An intriguing yet cursory glance at a great artist.