During American Ballet Theater's recent opening night gala performance of Don Quixote, Jose Manuel Carreno, in the lead role of Basilio, celebrated his 10th year as one of ABT's premiere virtuosos. It's no coincidence the company put Carreno in the leadoff spot in its 2005 season home opener at The Met. As it turns out, this "Derek Jeter" of the ballet world has been thrilling balletomanes and curious onlookers since he was 10 years old.
Carreno was born into what he calls a "dance dynasty" in Havana, Cuba. His uncles, Lazaro and Alvero, are alums and his younger brother Youl is currently a dancer in the National Ballet of Cuba. At eight months old, Carreno was regularly toted along to classes and rehearsals by his formidable uncles. Eventually he began formal training at the Provincial School of Ballet and upon graduation from high school in '86, he joined the National Ballet of Cuba under the direction of the legendary Alicia Alonso.
While at the Cuban Ballet he met and began his life-long dance with performance partner, Lourdes Novoa. They married in 1993 and today live the New York area with their daughters, Carmen and Alessandrea. In 1990, without so much as speaking a word of English, Carreno was invited to join the English National Ballet, where he not only learned the Queen's English but performed for members of the Royal family, including the late Princess Diana at Buckingham Place. The next step up was joining the Royal Ballet as a principal dancer in '93. In June of '95 Carreno crossed the pond and made his debut with ABT. He dazzled audiences with a broad range of roles: the lead in Apollo, Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake and the title role (which, incidentally, he created) in Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison.
Carreno's indefatigable work ethic, warmth and openness -- which are as infectious as a Cuban Mambo -- serve as the foundation for his performances. "He's extremely well schooled in partnering and has a keen sense of where the ballerina should be," says one of Carreno's former dance partners, Susan Jaffe, "He's a Latin man who celebrates women and enjoyed giving me the lead."
PAPERMAG caught up with this international ballet superstar outside the Metropolitan Opera House a couple nights after the opening night of ABT's new season:
PAPERMAG: How does it feel to celebrate your tenth year with ABT?
JOSE CARRENO: It feels great! It's my dream come true. It's like playing for the Yankees.
PM: You've worked with many world-class choreographers -- any favorites?
JC: Jiri Kilian from Amsterdam is creating really great contemporary pieces that we'll perform during our Fall season at City Center. This season, at the Met, we're featuring the classics.
PM: Do people recognize you in public?
JC: A lot of people do recognize me here, but in Japan we're like rock stars. The ballet fans there are really supportive and when you finish a performance there's anywhere from 50 to 100 fans waiting at the stage door for photos and autographs.
PM: Some of the ABT costumes are nearly 40 years old. Do you get a special feeling when you perform in one worn by, say, Nureyev or Baryshnikov?
JC: Yes. I grew up watching those guys, they were my idols, so wearing a costume worn by Baryshnikov, which I have done, is thrilling and an honor.
PM: Why does Cuba continually turn out the world's most hotly sought-after dancers?
JC: Cuba has a strong ballet tradition. It receives a lot of support from the government and [it helps that ballet is] accessible to many people.
PM: Are there any special performances we should be sure not to miss from you during the Met run?
JC: I'll be performing Swan Lake and Gisele, two of my favorites. They're both beautiful, full-length ballets. Swan Lake is July 1st and Gisele is July 16th. Another one of my favorites, Le Corsaire, is June 23rd and 24th.
American Ballet Theater's Spring season runs through July 16th at the Metropolitan Opera House. Call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.abt.org for showtimes and ticket information.