Jose Manuel Carreño was born in Cuba, where he received his training at the Provincial School of Ballet and the National Ballet School. Having come from a family of ballet dancers, he won the Gold Medal at the New York International Ballet Competition in 1987, and the Grand Prix at the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1990. After four years with the Cuban National Ballet, Carreño joined the English National Ballet in 1990, The Royal Ballet as a Principal Dancer in 1993, American Ballet Theatre as a Principal Dancer in June 1995. He retired from ABT in July 2011. Toba Singer had a chance to interview him backstage following his February 17 guest performance in the role of Basilio in Ballet San Jose’s Don Quixote.
TS – What is the nature of the arrangement that San Jose Ballet has with ABT that has brought you here to Silicon Valley?
JMC – Ballet San José now has a limited share in productions with ABT, not the ballets themselves, necessarily, but costumes and the ABT school curriculum that was codified and put into place last year. This is fantastic for BSJ, a very positive and convenient arrangement that was mostly achieved through connections that Stephanie Ziesel [BSJ Executive Director] has with the ABT board, and her effort to turn them to the advantage of BSJ.
Can you speak about your training in Cuba, and what about it has proven most helpful in your career?
I trained for eight years at the National School of the Arts and during my early years, before I qualified for the upper school, I was taught by Rosa Elena Alvarez, and then, at the end of my training, during my graduating year, Loipa Araújo was my teacher, my coach and everything to me. The lessons I learned from those two remain with me always.
Did your uncle, Lázaro Carreño, play a role in your formation?
My uncle coached me for Jackson and some other competitions, and I certainly got a lot from him, but mainly Loipa was the one who polished me. We were very lucky at the National School of the Arts because we had classes in classical ballet repertoire, contemporary repertoire, French, piano lessons, acting, even Spanish lessons, and that was helpful for everything. I was just in Cuba recently dancing Flamenco with Ballet Español de Cuba. We went from Santiago in Oriente to Havana.
What did your training not anticipate that you had to learn as a professional dancer?
Coming from Cuba, with the Cuban school you end up with a very strong foundation because you train so much in technique and partnering. These are two things that were very strong from the Cuban school, but on top of that, there was a lot of attention paid to the theatrical elements, and so what I learned there prepared me well for Cuba’s own company, where I danced for four years, then English National Ballet, then the Royal Ballet, ABT, where I spent 16 years, and now Ballet San José! [laughter]
But when I went to England, the first two years were agony because I didn’t know the language. Everything was new to me during those five years in London, but learning the new repertoire and working with Ivan Nagy and then after I joined the Royal, working with Anthony Dowell, but the sacrifices I made led to being able to move on. On the one hand it was difficult, but on the other, I was working a lot. ABT became my main company; it is where I spent most of my career, and I’m very grateful. I think the repertoire is amazing, and one can accomplish so many things when you can keep doing classical, and then add to that Robbins, Kylian, and Duato. What more can an artist ask for?
Will you be involved in the project to rehabilitate Cubanacán [the arts center redesigned and built after the revolution from a pre-revolutionary country club and golf course] that Carlos Acosta has spoken about? What are the issues in dispute?
I will support Carlos in the project to recover and polish that little jewel that we have in Cuba. If there’s any possibility of doing that, it will be a wonderful thing. There have to be discussions with the original architects, and if it can be rescued from obscurity, it will be amazing. It should have been done a long time ago. Carlos has worked on a budget, and engaged a London architect. It has to be done. It’s such a vital part of our history; it’s where everything began.
When you look at the Cuban company today, how do you imagine its future?
I think we have to work on finding a way to reunite the many amazing dancers in Cuba with those abroad. Hopefully we’ll be united there in Cuba again, and continue to have an amazing company.
When you retired, what did you hope to be doing?
People have gotten the wrong idea that I’ve retired from ballet. I’ve retired from ABT, but I intend to be around as a freelance dancer, and over the past two or three years I have been guesting with whomever invites me, especially those who had invited me before where my schedule prevented me from accepting their invitations. Doing Dancing with the Stars was an exciting and different experience as a new step in my career. I had been invited, but always refused because didn’t want to get away from classical training, afraid that I would lose my conditioning, and so now I am thinking about doing Broadway shows. I am currently on an audition tour to bring students to a summer intensive in Sarasota, Florida.