Yuli Review – So Much More Than Dance

I was fortunate to pop along to the preview screening of Yuli – a beautiful and moving biopic about Cuban ballet dancer, Carlos Acosta (nicknamed Yuli by his father).

As I write this, it’s World Ballet Day. Timely.

Other than watching the trailer, I didn’t know anything about Acosta. By the time the film ended, I was a big fan. Of his talent, and his story.

Featuring Acosta as himself – as a narrator, of sorts, though largely sans dialogue – the film retells his story chronologically, portrayed as a child by the brilliant Edilson Manuel Olbera Núñez, and as an adult by the equally endearing Keyvin Martínez.

Like most good biopics, there’s much more to the story than ‘the story’. With many themes to explore, the film navigates them with care, using a range of techniques – emotive, unapologetic drama, archive footage and expressive dance sequences (that don’t feel out of place or contrived, when they easily could have). Acosta’s balletic brilliance is also showcased in the dance scenes.

As well as playing a role in the narrative, the dance sequences form something of ‘the making of Tocororo’ – Acosta’s self-choreographed, semi-autobiographic ballet.

Throughout the main narrative, the film reflects on slavery, racism, politics, relationships, masculinity, mental health, art – oh, and dance. Diverse, complex subjects. Handled beautifully.

It moves between Carlos’ childhood home of Havana, set against the socio-political backdrop of the equally complex, ever-changing Cuba, and his time in London, where he became the first black dancer to perform with the English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet. And back to Havana.

With strong performances all round, particularly from the two Carloses, and Carlos’ father, Pedro (Santiago Alfonso), there is only a tincy bit of sentimentalism – but I didn’t live through those experiences, so who I am to say?

Special nod to Núñez for absolutely nailing the stubborn ratbag kid who’d rather breakdance than ballet, with the right balance of defiance and humour.

Directed by Iciar Bollaín and written by Paul Laverty, Yuli truly is beautiful.

Balletphiles will love it. For everyone else, it’s not really about ballet anyway. But it is well worth making a song and dance about.

ps. Oh, and one thing I’m really keen to see, is the realisation of Acosta’s dream to see the restoration of Cuba’s magnificent National Arts Schools, the stunning set for some of the most memorable scenes.

Director: Icíar Bollaín

Cast: Carlos Acosta, Santiago Alfonso, Keyvin Martinez

Writers: Paul Laverty, Carlos Acosta, (based on Carlos Acosta’s biography No Way Home)

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