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Cuban Missile

NEW YORK -- Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre, likes to call his roster of principal dancers "an embarrassment of riches." With heady names like Corella and Malakhov, Kent and Ananiashvili sweetening the air at the...

NEW YORK -- Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre, likes to call his roster of principal dancers "an embarrassment of riches." With heady names like Corella and Malakhov, Kent and Ananiashvili sweetening the air at the Metropolitan Opera house, it would be difficult to challenge his claim. But this season McKenzie has cause to feel especially embarrassed, now that Carlos Acosta, one of the undisputed gods of the international ballet world, has touched down as a guest artist with the company.

"Good dancers love the company of good dancers," is McKenzie's tactful reply when asked how his men have responded to Acosta's arrival. "I've been trying for a number of years to involve Carlos, but this season was the right time because there's almost too much dancing for the men."

Acosta, who has made his home at England's Royal Ballet since 1998, expresses as much delight at this new appointment as his languorous manner will allow. "The people at ABT are very warm, and the city's fantastic," he says during a few free minutes between rehearsals, pitching up his feet to show off the dusty bottoms of a pair of black ballet slippers. "I want to go out and get around, but there's no time."

Apart from the occasional tennis game with ABT's Jose Manuel Carreno, Acosta has been busy preparing for a new production of Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Dream," as well as "Le Corsaire," "La Fille Mal Gardee" and "Sleeping Beauty," in which he'll pair up with retiring legend Susan Jaffe.

The story of Acosta's own ascent to legend status would itself make for riveting ballet: The 28-year-old dancer was born in Havana, in a poor household where, he explains, "there was never any classical music, and no artistic reference points." When Acosta was nine, his father sent him to ballet school in an effort to protect him from delinquency. "My future was very uncertain because I was hanging out with the wrong crowd," he says. "But my father did it against my will. I thought ballet was for girls. And of course I became the neighborhood clown."

Acosta's churlishness persisted through four years of parental berating and skipped classes. Then, at 13, he saw a performance by the Cuban National Ballet that changed his life. "I realized what it was all about at that level, how athletic it could be," he says. "Before, I didn't care. No one had ever asked me if I liked it."

Since then, Acosta's path has been direct: At 16, he won the distinguished Prix de Lausanne; by 18 he had earned a principal position at the English National Ballet, followed by a spot at the Houston Ballet in 1993. In his three-year tenure at the Royal Ballet, Acosta has shored up his reputation as one of the world's most virile and passionate dancers.

"For me it was important to be seen as someone capable of more than athleticism," he says. "Someone who could act, who could lead a ballet." Acosta's early work at ABT has won raves -- not the least of which have come from his partners.

"His presence is unbelievable when he goes onstage," says ABT's Paloma Herrera. "He has a very powerful personality, but at the same time his dancing is clean and pure, so there's a wonderful contrast. As as a ballerina, you feel very secure with him."

Says McKenzie: "It may be too early to tell what distinguishes him from the other men here, but he's got a wonderful blend of a real animal quality with fabulous classical training. He's got male charisma," he says, and pauses before adding, "not that the others don't."

Acosta, a prince among princes, is just as diplomatic. "I've come here to do my thing," he says, "not to compete with anybody.""