Shining Star: Jose Manuel Carreño Retires From American Ballet Theatre
By Valerie Gladstone
A profile of Jose Manuel Carreño, who gave his farewell performance in Swan Lake, dancing opposite Julie Kent as Odette and Gillian Murphy as Odile, at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 30.
When Jose Manuel Carreño leaps onto the stage, eyes flashing, arms spread like wings, audiences know that they are in for a dazzling performance by one of ballet’s greatest stars. Whether dancing Don Quixote, Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Apollo, or Fancy Free, he conveys the many dimensions of his roles, drawing gasps for his technical prowess, smiles for his humor and sighs for his expressiveness.
“Jose helped to create a new era of important male dancers at ABT,” says his frequent partner Julie Kent. “He brought something unique and beautiful to our company—irresistible Cuban charisma, sophisticated technique and extraordinary partnering. I feel very fortunate to have danced so much of my career with him and will miss his presence at ABT deeply.”
“I’ve loved my years here,” he says during a recent conversation at the company’s headquarters on lower Broadway. “This is home. I’ve been able to perform in all the greatest ballets, from classical to contemporary. My greatest moments have been at the Met, that huge stage, those wonderful acoustics, and almost 4000 people in the audience— there’s nothing like it.”
For ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie, having Carreño in the company has been pure pleasure. “Jose can do anything in dance,” he says, “but perhaps what’s most appealing about him is that he is very human. He loves to have fun. That joy infuses everything he does—teaching as well as dancing, and it’s contagious.” Eager to talk about his plans for the future, Carreño pulls up a chair in a quiet office and drops his backpack, the sound of a rehearsal in the background. He has a big project coming up, a three-week summer intensive course for advanced students, called The Carreno Dance Festival, which begins in Sarasota, Florida, in August. “I love to teach and coach,” he says. “I’ve done so much as a dancer and I have a lot of things I would like to pass on.”
Ballet director and choreographer Robert de Warren, president of the Sarasota International Dance Festival, knew of Carreño’s great qualities as a teacher and coach and invited him to create the festival. “Jose has very clear ideas about men’s technique,” he says. “It’s something that can only he can demonstrate. If he can help other dancers understand what goes into his artistry, some very fine performers will come out of the festival.”
Carreño already had a rich history in dance before he joined ABT. Born into a dancing family in Cuba, it was only natural for him to follow in his uncles’ footsteps and attend the Provincial School of Ballet and the National Ballet School and finally become a member of the National Ballet of Cuba. “I used to watch ABT in videos,” he says. “I’ll never forget seeing Baryshnikov. All I wanted was to follow him into the company.” In the film “Born to be Wild,” Alicia Alonso, director of the National Ballet of Cuba, recalled him as a boy. “I remember him lying on the floor, watching class, his eyes fascinated,” she said. “He’d put his little hands under his chin and study everything. I think he was a dancer before he was born. He was a winner, I knew.”
The English National Ballet discovered him after he earned top prizes in major, international ballet competitions, and invited him to become a member in 1990. He soon had lead roles in Giselle and Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet then snatched him away for two years. But, in the end, England was not for him. Between the change from the robust and expressive Russian-Cuban style, in which he’d grown up, to the more sedate English style and the gray climate, he realized ABT would be a better fit.
ABT would be a better fit. “New York might not have Caribbean temperatures,” he explains, “but it has sun. Cubans don’t do well without the sun.”
But Carreño wouldn’t have missed the chance to dance with different companies and work with a variety of dancers and choreographers. He says how much he learned from Alonso, McKenzie and Natalia Makarova, as well as Anthony Dowell at the Royal Ballet in London. And he loved the experience a few years ago of performing with former ABT dancer Julio Bocca in a stadium in Buenos Aires, filled with 200,000 people. He learns too through by going out to the theater in New York, mentioning as favorites the Broadway shows Chicago, Cats, Movin’ Out, and The Lion King. Looking ahead, he says, “I certainly wouldn’t turn down an offer to do a good show—or films.”
Just as he placed great demands on himself in his career, Carreño plans to institute a tough regimen on his students this summer, including teaching them ballet’s history. “You have to know about the great dancers of the past,” he says, “and what made them great. It adds to your appreciation of the art form you have chosen. It is also respectful of your field. Ballet requires so much focus. If you don’t totally dedicate yourself to it, you won’t go far. There’s a lot of sacrifice. But I never had any doubts. Nothing makes me happier than to dance.”
That doesn’t mean that he isn’t looking forward to a little more free time. For years, he and Joaquin De Luz of New York City Ballet have tried to fit in more tennis into their schedules, keeping rackets in the trunks of their cars, just in case some time opened up. And music is what he lives for. “It’s my therapy,” he says. “The first thing I do every morning is turn on my iPod. I don’t care if it’s Mozart or salsa.” Speaking of salsa, leaving the Met stage will also allow him more freedom to do his other favorite dance in clubs around the city. “I’ll miss it here,” he says, “but I also have a lot to look forward to.”
Valerie Gladstone is artistic director of the new series Dance Under the Influence at the Museum of Arts and Design.
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