Families can be complex. Some are chosen. Some are not. Some are loving and nurturing, others more hostile–in a divided time they are one of the most unifying aspects of humanity–whether separated, splintered or together, everybody at some point originates from a family. Through that, everybody bears the cross of those that came before them. Whether willingly or unwillingly, pieces of our ancestors live on from generation to generation. Carlos Acosta believes that. 

It’s why the Cuban-born ballet legend, now 51, has come out of semi-retirement to dance once again. His show, On Before, came to Sarasota in April, the lone U.S. stop on his tour. Performing the intimate two-person ballet, constructed as a tribute to his late mother, is how Acosta can feel his family best: with their past living on through his present. “Death is very important, it’s a part of life, but it’s the journey toward death that you’re invested in,” says Acosta. “But there is also something to learn about death, being that essentially you never leave, because the information that you give others lives on. We think about when the information that lives in us, you can trace it back to people that you never even met.”

Acosta, born in Havana, Cuba in 1973, is in the twilight of his career, at least when it comes to being on stage. He still cuts a striking figure, his body lean, lithe and athletic, but 28-plus years as a professional ballet dancer takes its toll. So much has been done, from rising to prominence with a Gold Medal win at the 1990 international dance competition Prix de Lausanne to dancing with the top ballet companies in the world, including the Royal Ballet in London for 17 years. He’s the director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, the founder of Havana-based ballet company Acosta Danza—he’s an author, actor and a father to three. He’s paved the way for so many, becoming the first POC male dancer to play lead roles at The Royal Ballet and is a sterling product of the Cuban National Ballet School. But paving the way takes time and at 51, Acosta’s days on the stage are numbered. Each performance inches closer to what will be his last.

It’s fitting then that On Before made landfall in Sarasota. For one, Acosta is close friends with Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, the co-founders of the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School, which presented the show at the Sarasota Opera House. Additionally, On Before is the most personal and vulnerable work Acosta has ever created—for a man staring down own mortality as a professional dancer, performing an intimate ballet that deals in themes of love, loss and death is par for the course. On Before stars Acosta along with Laura Rodriguez from Acosta Danza. Backed by a choir dressed in all-black, the pair transform themselves through various duets and solos: at times they are doomed lovers or a mother and son, all up to the interpretation of the audience. “There is a sharing of the space of two people, a male dancer and a female dancer. They are sharing the space where sometimes it can be interpreted as the mother and child or as lovers and it gives me an opportunity to dance with my mother so to speak,” says Acosta. “Every time I dance in this show I feel her presence and it’s a way of always having her live on. For me it has this very, very emotional connotation, especially in the time where I am in my career, being on stage is a luxury for me nowadays.  It’s unusual for me at the moment.”

On Before features a collection of nine pieces from contemporary choreographers —a few of them being specifically designed for the program—woven together to create a story, that is, in Acosta’s eyes, up to the audiences’ interpretation. The choir, dressed in all black, represents death, binding the production together into a continuous piece as opposed to a stretch of segmented works that follow each other. “In the story, the narrative is told in retrospect. It’s a full circle journey. So the beginning implies with the imagery that we give the audience that there’s a story waiting to be told. Then you start to tell the story, which is very open to interpretation,” says Acosta. “There are no bows the entire show, it’s a continuous thing. You have to invest your attention in these two characters and the choir around them. And then in the second act the journey carries on and the choir represents that wave that takes the female character away and he remains alone on the stage.”

Although the themes of On Before are evident, the abstraction of the narrative was something that was important for Acosta in the creation of the show. “This is the kind of narrative that I like so much because it could mean something different to me than what it could mean to you. So the audience receives it in a way that could be different with them and it forces them to make something out of it,” says Acosta. “For me, it’s a way of thinking about my mother by keeping her presence close to me but also sharing her and her essence with the audience as well. My mother played a very important role in cultivating the artist that I am—on stage, I’m just the tip of the iceberg but in fact it’s the teamwork of my parents that played a pivotal role in the work itself.”

That’s how Acosta finds himself at the end of On Before, alone on stage, but surrounded in life by love of his family and friends, both from this realm and the next.