Jose Manuel Carreo

The Cuban dancer bids ABT farewell.

Photograph: Rosalie O'Connor

The Cuban dancer Jose Manuel Carreo, a principal with American Ballet Theatre since 1995, possesses the ability to smolder: He knows, in other words, how to make a ballerina feel like a woman. It's only apt that for his farewell performance on Thursday 30, Carreo, as Prince Siegfried, will have two swans to sweep off their wings in Swan Lake—Julie Kent (white) and Gillian Murphy (black). Long admired for his nobility and elegance, he has always had something else up his sleeve, as Alicia Alonso, the director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, pointed out in an interview last spring. "Once I told him, 'Carreo, when a step doesn't come out, just look at the audience and smile. You will win the audience.' Not everybody has a nice smile. You can feel it, but not give it." And Carreo, certainly, knows how to give it.

Why are you leaving ABT now?
It's the right time for me. It's my 25th anniversary as a professional dancer. I've been here for 16 years. I feel like it's a good number. I'm going to keep dancing for a few years as a freelancer. I want to try other things; right now, I'm like an open book. It would be interesting also to do a Broadway show. A movie.

Have you turned down Broadway opportunities during your career?
I had an offer, but I decided not to do it. They usually ask you to [commit] for six months to a year and that's a long time to get off the classical training, which I think is the most difficult. And that's the reason I never decided to do it. But now, yes. [Laughs]

Didn't I hear your name in connection with Twyla Tharp's Come Fly Away?
Yeah. I actually had the idea of doing something in the future, but it didn't work out. I talked to her thinking, Well, I'm going to be free after July, but...

Because the show closed in New York, there was no job?
[He nods.] She also asked me before to do Movin' Out, and I couldn't. I didn't want to leave classical ballet for Broadway and then return. It's really hard.

And the training necessary to maintain classical technique is more intense than just taking a ballet class everyday?
Broadway is different. It's a different way to dance, way to move—it's a totally different thing than classical. You don't have to do fifth position.

Not enough people do fifth position anyway.
[Laughs] I always think that the classical stuff, what we do here, is the most difficult thing. That's why we have to train every day.

Coming from such a hard-core classical background, what was it like to work with someone like Twyla Tharp?
Twyla has an amazing vision. When she sees talent, she knows how to explore that. If she sees someone who jumps or turns really well, she knows how to focus on that and play with a dancer. You can see—she did it in the beginning with Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov]. Whatever he did in collaboration with Twyla, it was basically his quality. So she's really good at picking out dancers and working with them, and it's interesting to work with her. She also works a lot with you in not doing the same thing all the time—working on different kinds of rhythm, timing, attack. I always had great experiences with her.

I think a problem with dancers is that they're born at the wrong time. Have you had many opportunities to work with choreographers on that level?
One of the most amazing opportunities for me was being here at ABT and being able to work a couple of times with Jir Kylin. He is definitely one of my favorites. And I always look back and say that people like Fernando [Bujones], Misha, Nureyev—that era, for me, was like a golden era. They had the opportunity to dance with such amazing choreographers. Balanchine was alive, Robbins was alive. And right now, I'm happy and I'm lucky. I will say that I'm in a company where I am able to do all those things, like Balanchine and Robbins, who is another favorite. But I never had the opportunity to meet them. I never met Robbins. But I love his choreography, and I think he was a genius.

What is it about his work that you're so attracted to?
It's not about technique, it's about how you move. After many years, that's the most important thing for me: How you move onstage. That's the key of everything, and I love Robbins for that. I have done Other Dances and Fancy Free, and I have seen so many times West Side Story. This is something I would love to do. Dance is about movement. Some people don't think that way, and they think that dance is about double tour, fifth, but that's not all: It's how you move on the stage. You use technique to do the choreography, but how you move onstage is—it's hard to teach. When something becomes natural, it's so easy and so enjoyable, and that's the key of everything I found after so many years.

How do you make something natural when the choreography isn't?
I think that's why we have preference. Everybody likes different things and different choreographers. For me, with choreographers like Robbins or Kylin everything goes. I feel like everything is organic. Somehow they find the music goes with the movement and it flows. When I do [Natalia] Makarova's Bayadre—it's classical, but nothing is forced. I have done a lot of guesting doing old Nureyev choreographies and I think it's really, really difficult. [Winces] I have to say that those are the most difficult choreographies I have done: His Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Don Q, Swan Lake....

Can we go back in time a little bit? What were you like as a boy?
Well, I grew up in Cuba and I remember doing a lot of sports—boxing on the street or playing baseball. When I came to this country and realized how well sport people are doing here, I always say, "Shit—why didn't I keep playing baseball?" [Laughs] But I don't regret anything. I always loved dancing and I still do—I see a lot of people even a lot younger than me who are like, "I cannot do it anymore," but so far, [Kisses his knuckles and knocks on wood] I have to say that I haven't had that feeling.

Did you feel any pressure to leave ABT?
No. I see that a lot of people are sad—some of the boys—but I'm happy with it. I think I'm going to definitely miss the theater—the Metropolitan Opera House is one of my favorite theaters in the world. But I feel good with myself, and I'm glad that I'm retiring now. I'm still in shape, and I want people to remember me this way. So I think it's a good thing. In a way I'm really lucky of the career I had and I'm also lucky that physically [Kisses knuckles and knocks on wood again] I feel healthy to be able to do this long career.

It's got to be because of the Cuban training, right?
I think so, yes. I only had one surgery. It was a bone spur in 1993. It was a long time ago. Definitely it's the training; I think it's coming with Alicia. And the main thing is to keep in shape: doing class, doing this training that we need to do classical roles. I always remember Alicia in Cuba. Sometimes you'd feel sick and she used to say, "You go and do your class, sweat and then you will feel better." [Laughs] It sounds a little bit over [the top] or a little bit sick, but sometimes it works. Sometimes you sweat and feel better after.

She told you that reaching the top wouldn't be the difficult part for you, but staying there would be. What did she mean?
I got that from her and the influence of my uncles saying that the most difficult part is how you can keep that level, and it's true. It's demanding. Once you get up there everybody wants to see the best of the best. And to keep all the shows at that level is the hardest thing. But in a way it's a challenge for yourself. I think if you don't think that way then one day you dance good and the other is shitty—I've seen day is a good show and the next day it's like nothing. But I think if you have this way of thinking that everything has to be good or better then you can keep your standard.

Did you have moments when you thought about stopping? You can't feel good all the time.
Everything depends on the choreography. Sometimes you dance things that you don't really like; or you agree to do something and you think you may like it, but then it ends up.... But that's mainly in the beginning of your career. When you're in your 20s, you should do everything, or at least try to do everything. Now I feel like I want to do what it pleases me to do. I don't want to do anything I don't like to. One of the things I always hated was sitting in the house and seeing people suffering onstage. That's not enjoyable. It's really delightful when you sit there and see people, whatever they do, with joy. You think, Wow, he's having fun. But when people are struggling... Sometimes I see a lot of the boys complaining and I say to them, "Isn't this what you love to do? Dancing? Go to the stage and enjoy what you're doing. Otherwise it doesn't make any sense. You're really going to struggle in your life." In every interview I say, "If you're going to decide to do this career, make sure you love it. It's a lot of sacrifice."

What have you sacrificed?
You have to sacrifice time, spending time with your family.

Don't you have daughters?
Yeah. My youngest daughter is 13 and she has an amazing body. She's like this [Holds up a pinky], very nice feet—but she never wanted to dance, and I didn't push her to because if you don't like it, then later on you're going to pay for it. You're going to struggle. So this is a choice you have to make, and you can see the people who love it.

Do you see a disconnect between a generation of dancers and the way they work? Or even between Americans and Cubans?
Definitely times have changed, and even if you have more technology now—I see, for the new generation, that there is a lack of information about the past. Even in your own field. They don't know so many things. They don't. The new generation, they have no idea who is maybe Maya Plisetskaya or Alicia Alonso. Or Carla Fracci. Or Fernando Bujones, Vladimir Vasiliev. They probably say, "Who are they?" That's a pity. It's like if you're an expert in computers, and you don't know what is Microsoft. You don't know about the program you're using, and it's the same thing in dancing. Sometimes I feel like the main thing is doing steps. But the background is important. What is dancing? I think it helps. It helps to research a little bit about the history of ballet or to read about it, and I think there is a lack of information. The information is there. I find that in a lot of young dancers.

You first went to the English National Ballet. How did you get permission to leave Cuba?
I think I was one of the pioneers—in 1990, they started to open it up. If you had a contract, you could go, and I had that opportunity. I spent almost five years in England.

You were at the English National Ballet for three years, and then joined the Royal Ballet. How did you like England?
You know, when I was little I dreamed of two places, and one was London. I watched a lot of videos. I remember being in the school, and whatever video of dancing that could possibly exist, I was searching for—everything from ABT or from the Royal Ballet—Anthony Dowell. Peter Schaufuss. I knew all of this so well and I thought, Oh my God, I would love to be dancing in England. And with ABT. It actually happened. I had the opportunity to do a few competitions and one door was opening up after another. So I danced in London and off I went. I spent two seasons at the Royal, and I have to say, I don't think it was the best time for me.

How so?
It was really hard in the beginning to move to a new country. I didn't speak the language at all. I learned French in school, so I went to London with zero [English]. Just yes and no. It was amazing. I got on a flight from Havana to London, and London to Manchester, and my first performance was in honor of Lady Diana. I spent one day saying, "Nice to meet you." "It's nice to meet you." [Cracks up] I was learning so many new things. It was depressing and exciting. The weather was killing me. It was the opposite of Cuba: raining, cloudy, foggy.

How did you learn English?
On the street. I always thought I should go to school, but I was traveling all the time. If you want to eat, you have to speak. [Laughs]

Do you have your eye on directing a company like the Cuban Ballet? That would meaning moving there, though.
Yeah. I am very much a New Yorker now. I spend most of my time here, and I definitely want a base in New York. I'm already teaching and coaching. Sometimes I teach company class, and I've also been teaching boys' classes at the School of American Ballet. I like it.

You're from a family of dancers and teachers. It's in your blood.
Yes, it is. And those kids need help.

What do you mean?
They know how to do things. When I go to Cuba, it's the same. I have Cuban training, but I think I have been in so many good companies that I have learned. I have learned a lot. They learn the step. Everybody knows how to do double tour from fifth to fifth. But there are a lot of things they don't think about. They need to learn how to move, basically.

What coaching are you doing? Is it unofficial or are you working with dancers here?
Not yet. Sometimes I do coaching, but just as a private thing. Officially, I've been teaching the company, SAB—I'm teaching a week in July, it's a summer course at Peridance. Also I'm putting on my first summer program, Carreo Dance Festival in Sarasota. I chose this place—well, one of the main reasons is that I have the opportunity to use the theater, the opera house for three weeks, which would be impossible to do here. There's only one show at the end, but during this three weeks, we are going to use two studios plus the stage. And that's the main plus for all those kids. We're going to use the stage for classes, for pas de deux, for rehearsing variations. For the last show, I'll involve the kids and professional dancers that I'm going to bring. I'm also asking the professionals to come a week before. I'm trying to involve them rehearsing with the kids. I think it's going to be a unique experience.

Did you want to dance with both Julie Kent and Gillian Murphy for your farewell in Swan Lake?
I did. I wanted to do it with two partners, and two American dancers. My plan from the beginning was to do it with Don Q or Giselle, but I couldn't because there is a tour after and they have to send the sets—that's why we did those ballets in the beginning of the season. But that was my main plan. It wasn't good timing. I grew up with classical full-lengths. For me to do a ballet by Twyla would be more difficult than to do a Swan Lake or a Giselle. It's a ballet I know very well. I think it's going to be fun. Susan Jaffe is doing the queen. We danced together a lot for many years.

Did you see Black Swan?
Uh-oh. Yes, I did. [Laughs]

What did you think?
I think I liked Natalie's acting. I don't think I liked the concept of the ballet—of the anorexic world. I was sitting in the chair thinking, Shit. If I were a normal person, I would never have my daughter study ballet. The other good thing is that it's Hollywood, so everyone around the world knows something about Swan Lake and classical dance. You know what is funny? A month and a half ago, I did a show in L.A.—Dancing with the Stars. I was at a mall with Melanie [Hamrick, an ABT dancer], my girlfriend. And the seller was really enthusiastic and said, "What do you guys do?" We said that we were classical dancers. That confused him. His face was lost. And somehow it came into my mind to say, "I do Black Swan." He said, "Wow! This is so cool, man!" [Laughs] It is scary. I'm getting chills.

How do you deal with Cubans who live here who think that you should break all ties with Cuba?
I usually hate to talk about political things. That's one of my main problems when I go to Miami. I don't pay attention. I don't really care. I always say, "I'm an artist and I want to dance all over the world." For me, it's not different to dance here or to dance in Cuba or to dance in Japan. This is what I'd love to do; this is my joy, and I enjoy dancing everywhere. Sometimes there are stages that you feel more comfortable on, but I do it. I don't know: I never had a problem, myself.

What do you mean?
I never had to make the decision of defecting and I don't think I will ever do it. I know that I was lucky that in my time things started to change so I never felt that way. I got out without any problem. It was an official thing to do. People think that I have a special status or something. So many things have changed in Cuba. Maybe 40 years ago it was different, but since 1990 if you have a talent and the possibility and if you get a contract to dance with another company, you can go. For me, many people who defect are people who don't have that possibility. They don't get the permission or they're not, I would say, most of them, really good. And I know a lot of dancers who defected and they're not dancing. They're doing something else but they're not dancing.

In terms of Swan Lake, do you have a preference of dancing with the Black or White Swan?
Everybody always feels a lot of excitement during the Black Swan pas de deux, but the White Swan is more difficult. It has to be so smooth—you don't show the effort. It's what ballet is supposed to be.

How does it feel to be on a refrigerator magnet?
[Laughs] I've got to get one of those.

Jose Manuel Carreo performs Swan Lake Thu 30.

See more in Dance