Carlos Acosta, a Gothic fantasy, and the Swans

Friends and readers, you know how I like my swan themes. Readers often ask why I chose “Leonardo’s Swans” as the title to that book. I’ve always thought it was self-explanatory. Swans, like the heroines of the book, are creatures of immense grace, dignity, and power. In certain mythologies, swans represent the soul and one’s inner radiance. Swans are also associated with transformation. Zeus turned himself into a swan to seduce the mortal queen Leda. The misfit duckling of the fairy tale transformed into a beautiful swan. In “Swan Lake,” a princess and her retinue are condemned by an evil spirit to spend their days as swans until the pure love of a prince for the princess sets them free. Even though I’m now writing a Gothic novel, I am no less enamored with the myth and meaning of swans.

The other night at a dinner party, I had the pleasure of being seated next to ballet wonder and “Swan Lake” starCarlos Acosta. I had never seen him dance, though I’d heard all the comparisons to Nureyev and Baryshnikov, and that he was by far the dancer of his generation. Genial, down-to-earth, and hilariously funny, Carlos had us in hysterics as he told us behind the scene stories and acted out trying to catch a certain ballerina who had refused to rehearse. But my jaw dropped when he told me his personal story. No coddled prodigy, he was a break-dancer from Havana whose elderly father forced him to go to ballet lessons to get him off the streets.

That was when he was nine years old. By sixteen, he was on his way to an international career. It was like Billy Elliot in reverse (I must credit my friend Joe with this observation).

Carlos generously invited me to watch him perform before a sold out crowd in “Swan Lake” at the Royal Opera House on Saturday night where he was guest artist.I’ve been following ballet since I was a child, and I can honestly say that I don’t think there’s a male dancer performing today who can command the stage like Acosta. He has Nureyev’s lengthy elegance and grandeur, coupled with the muscular precision and strength of Baryshnikov. On top of that, his acting is passionate and moving. I also noticed that while he’s a star performer, he is a generous dance partner, giving the exquisite Tamara Rojo room to dazzle.

I ask you, friends—from Havana break-dancer to international ballet star—is it not the story of a swan? Carlos’ amazing journey has been published in his autobiography, “No Way Home. “ Check it out! Also, look him up on youtube.

Another unexpected pleasure of the ballet was that the second act set turned out to be a visual representation of my Gothic fantasy. With its sumptuous colors of aubergine, scarlet, black, and gold, and its immense mirrors and candelabras, and the appearance of the villain in modern Goth regalia, it was the perfect ominous setting for enchantment. The look of that set is what I want my novel to feel like—lush, romantic, fantastical, whimsical, mysterious, dangerous, and a place where anything, anything at all, might happen. An ambiance where the reader feels what the characters feel—both trepidation and thrall all at once. Translating this imagery to prose will be the challenge. But it’s nice to have exciting images to hold in my mind as I write.

On the Royal Opera House website, you can see more of these stunning sets and all sorts of behind the scene videos of getting a ballet on stage. It’s really fascinating:

Next blog: We walk through a Victorian cemetery.