Jose Manuel Carreno.
"Jose, that beautiful, romantic, glorious man," raves legendary dancer and teacher Jacques d'Amboise, while describing him in the PBS documentary Born to Be Wild.
In the film, Carreno dances many of his signature roles, including Don Quixote (photo right), and Agrippina Vaganova's Diana and Acteon pas de deux. Bounding onto the stage as Acteon, he slows to perform a series of pirouettes, only to follow them with aerial barrel turns that provoke audience cheers. After such a display of classical eloquence, it is amusing to see him later on a crowded dance floor in Havana, wearing T-shirt and slacks, rolling his hips and snapping his fingers to the salsa.
"I'll dance anywhere," he says. "I can't live without it."
Carreno first grabbed the dance world's attention when he won the Grand Prix with Laura Alonso as his coach at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1990. Since then, be has more than confirmed the promise of his early years, winning high praise from critics everywhere. Still, he seems somewhat surprised to have reached such heights and to have achieved his dream of dancing with American Ballet Theatre. "It is the only place I ever wanted to be," he says.
"I cannot even tell you what I love most about dancing," Carreno says, "because it is what I am I can't separate myself from it, just as I can't separate myself from music. The first thing in the morning, I turn on the radio for music, and if it's salsa, I start dancing."
RECENTLY RETURNED from a guest appearance with Vienna State Opera Ballet, Carreno talks about his international career. Besides his intense schedule with ABT, this principal makes several guest performances a year, at companies as diverse as La Scala, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Ballet Nacionale de Cuba, and the Mexican National Ballet.
"I don't find it difficult," he says, "and it allows me to travel, something I love."
ABT brought Carreno into its company at a time when great male dancers were in ascendance there, and he carved a niche of his own. "He's a wonderful cross between a cat-like animal and a prince," says Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre. "He came to us with that superb Cuban training that's based on the Russian style. Alicia Alonso, the artistic director of the Ballet Nacionale de Cuba, knows how to create artists. He's a bravura dancer in very unexpected ways. He doesn't hit you over the head with his technique but with elegant self-assurance. Women love to work with him."
Indeed. Susan Jaffe, who was his partner from his very first ABT performances until her retirement in 2002, says she gets a lump in her throat now whenever she sees him dance. "Jose made me feel safe," she says. "I knew when I was with him I could express anything I wanted and he would make me look beautiful. He is so Cuban, such a guy, and creates such electricity onstage. You see his beautiful heart in his dancing."
As a child growing up in Cuba, people quickly noticed Carreno's talent. Two of his uncles, Alvaro and Lazaro Carreno, were principal dancers with the Ballet Nacionale de Cuba, and regularly took him to the studios. (Today both his cousin Alihaydee and brother Yoel are principals with the Cuban company.)
"I remember him lying on the floor, watching class, his eyes fascinated," Alonso says in Born to Be Wild. "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."
Carreno gained his technique in Cuba through classes with alumni of the Ballet Russe and Kirov Ballet. He danced with the Ballet Nacionale de Cuba for four years before winning the prize at Jackson. Afterward, he says, "everything started cooking." But not everything was easy. While the prize won him a place with English National Ballet in 1990, he was not completely at ease with the style there.
"The English way," he says, "is not how I grew up."
London often seemed an impossibly long way from Havana and the more robust and expressive Russian-Cuban style. He was also separated from his wife, Lourdes Novoa, who was still a principal with the Ballet Nationale de Cuba. Joining the more prestigious Royal Ballet in 1993 did not change his life very much, though he added The Sleeping Beauty, The Dream, and Don Quixote to his repertoire.
Carreno's true breakthrough came when he joined ABT. With Jaffe as a partner, he says he once again felt that he could express himself completely on stage. "I have the broadest repertoire to dance here," he says. "All the classics and then so much contemporary work. It allows me to use myself completely. As a dancer, you don't have forever, so you want to use yourself as fully as possible."
He also has settled down in New Jersey with Novoa, and their daughters, Carmen, now 16, and Alessandra, now 6. "I love having a home here in the U.S.," he says. "As a dancer you can get so obsessed. Having a family takes my mind off dance." Still, he says, he finds that it's challenging to keep a balance in his life. "Dancing takes so much time," he says. "You are really a slave to it. What's toughest about being where I am today in my career is maintaining my place. I remember Alicia telling me that it wouldn't be the climb to the top that would be so difficult, but staying there."
Valerie Gladstone writes for The New York Times, Elle and other publications.