Carlos Acosta has said he was on a “path of delinquency” in Cuba before he became a professional dancer.
The former Royal Ballet star, who will take over as artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in January 2020, added that ballet saved him from a very different path.
He told the Press Association: “It’s very hard to say, to imagine a world without dancing.
“I was on a path of delinquency, I didn’t have a lot of role models in the barrio (neighbourhood), so I didn’t have many answers and my family were not artistic, art-orientated.
“I barely had exposure to a path that I could get out of that environment and become something else. It’s almost certain I was going to become a delinquent or something bad would eventually happen.”
He added: “Because your environment shapes who you are, because you are ten, nine, you don’t know anything about the world but perhaps you see a king (a Cuban gangster) who has got gold chains and you think ‘that’s cool and that’s the way’, that becomes your path.
“I was growing up in a neighbourhood where there were not a lot of art people, who used to read, there were gangs of people who would go from barrio to barrio looking for problems.
“I have seen people getting into trouble and people getting knifed, things like that, that is what I grew up seeing, that is why you have to be tough in that environment.
“I remember a period where there were a lot of shortages in Cuba and my dad gave me shoes and clothing, and I remember seeing our neighbours wearing them because they stole them from us.
“These are people living next door to us, so that is asking for trouble.”
The story of his life is told in the new film Yuli, based on his memoir No Way Home, in which Acosta plays himself.
The movie was Acosta’s first experience with acting from a screenplay and he said: “I was a bit nervous about it because I thought that I was going to spoil my own history, my story, by acting myself.
“But I understood what they wanted to do was not follow any convention in terms of telling a biopic, so they wanted to do something very original and like a work of art.
“I have a little experience with acting but there are so many ways to act, so many ways to tell a story.
“I had to deliver lines, I had to stick to the screenplay so that was making me nervous.
“In dancing we use the movement, we train to master movement, and tell a story with movement, but this is a different way, a completely different ballgame.”
Acosta, 45, said he found watching the film “very emotional”, particularly the depictions of his family.
“When we went to Cannes (film festival) I was crying from the beginning to the end, it was very overwhelming.
“Because remembering my parents, they already passed away and my sister who also died, it was very hard.
“My dad was the star of my life, basically, the one I owe almost everything, whatever happens to me at this point, ballet and the career that I ended up having.
“But I am at peace thinking that he leads my glory, which is his glory as well.”
Yuli is released on April 12 and there will be a screening at the Royal Opera House on April 3 with a Q&A with Acosta and filmmakers, live streamed to cinemas nationwide (tickets available at acostafilm.com).