A Promising New Partnership: José Manuel Carreño Takes the Lead at Ballet San Jose

By Claudia Bauer

January 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Ballet partnerships are the stuff of legend: Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryishnikov and Natalia Makarova, José Manuel Carreño and Susan Jaffe…and Julie Kent…and Gillian Murphy. Carreño, one of the world’s most celebrated danseurs nobles for more than twenty years, now has a new partner: Ballet San Jose (BSJ), which he is squiring into a revitalized era as its artistic director.

Born in Havana and trained under the guidance of Alicia Alonso at Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Carreño burst onto the American scene in 1987, when he won the gold medal at the New York International Ballet Competition. After three years with the English National Ballet in London, he moved across town to join the Royal Ballet as a principal, and began collecting the classical canon’s premier roles, starting with Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty and Basilio in Don Quixote, which would become a signature.

Jose Manuel Carreño demonstrating in ballet class.
Ballet San Jose Artistic Director José Manuel Carreño
Photo by Alejandro Gomez

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) snapped him up in 1995, and with his charisma, athleticism and chivalrous partnering, he became a marquee name and an audience magnet. His rep expanded to Solor in La Bayadère, Albrecht in Giselle, the Diana and Acteon pas de deux, and roles in the then-nascent arena of contemporary dance—Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort, Twyla Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue, Stanton Welch’s Clear. The shorter list is what he didn’t dance. Carreño retired from ABT in 2011, and when the curtain fell on his final performance, as Siegfried in Swan Lake (partnering Kent as Odette and Murphy as Odile), the New York Times reported that audience members “screamed, threw flowers… and sobbed.”

Warm, soft-spoken and unassuming, Carreño, now 45, is as charismatic as ever. But he steps into his role at Ballet San Jose somewhat less sure-footedly than is his wont: his management experience is limited to running the Carreño Dance Festival, an annual summer intensive held in Sarasota, Florida, so he is learning everything—from running meetings to navigating union legalities—on the job.

When we spoke, in November 2013, he was also days away from hosting the company’s first event under his leadership: a star-studded fund-raising gala with performances by San Francisco Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova and Taras Domitro; New York City Ballet’s Joaquin De Luz and Megan Fairchild; ABT’s Kent and Murphy as well as Misty Copeland and Marcelo Gomes; and Boston Ballet’s Lorna Feijoo and Nelson Madrigal…and that’s a partial roster. The tension showed on his usually relaxed face. “When I was dancing, I was thinking about just myself,” he said. “Now I am thinking about so many people—dancers, musicians, staff, production—and I have to be on top of that.”

Attended by donors, socialites and balletomanes alike, and well received by the press, the gala was by any measure a success. Nevertheless, it was only the first step toward Carreño’s ultimate goal, which could only be described as Herculean: reviving Ballet San Jose from a near-flatline state and elevating it to regional significance, national recognition and international presence.

Dennis Nahat founded the company as Cleveland San Jose Ballet, a dual-residency endeavor shared by the two cities (it formally became Ballet San Jose in 2006). The company thrived under Nahat’s direction, dancing both classical and contemporary work, including about 80 pieces choreographed by Nahat. But the dot-com bust hit the company hard, and its budget shriveled while internal tensions escalated. In 2003 then board chairman John Fry, founder of Fry’s Electronics, began providing life support with cash infusions (estimates of his total contributions range from $14 million to $20 million), while behind the scenes the conflict came to a head. Nahat was forced out in January 2011, and Fry departed the board at about the same time. Sharing the interim directorship, principal ballet master Raymond Rodriguez and artistic advisor Wes Chapman steered the company through the rocky waters of 2011 and 2012, and refreshed the rep with Bay Area premieres like Jorma Elo’s Glow-Stop, Jessica Lang’s Splendid Isolation III and Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto. A strategic relationship with ABT, which continues today, granted BSJ access to ABT’s rep, costumes and guidance; the BSJ School also adopted the ABT Curriculum.

Chapman and Rodriguez continued the BSJ’s tradition of presenting full-length classics, and it was their 2012 production of Don Quixote that brought Carreño to their attention. Hired to perform Basilio in place of an injured dancer, Carreño had such rapport with the dancers and staff that executive director Stephanie Ziesel and Rodriguez, now the company’s associate artistic director, approached him about becoming artistic director. Carreño often says that he likes a challenge, and that sense of adventure will serve him well: he likens his first months on the job to learning to drive in a car that’s already moving. At full speed. “My whole life, my whole career, has been defined by one word: discipline. I need it now even more than ever,” he said.

What Carreño lacks in traditional qualifications, he makes up for in intangibles that no experience can hone and no MBA can confer: a headline-grabbing name, a sterling reputation as a teacher and a performer, and seemingly universal good will. In one masterstroke, Ballet San Jose got an artistic director, coast-to-coast press and enviable connections. The mere announcement of Carreño’s appointment was like a shot of adrenaline: high-profile Silicon Valley names joined the board, donations skyrocketed and suddenly everyone wanted to know whether BSJ would deliver on its promising new start. And for all the pressures attendant on raised expectations and closer scrutiny, the company now has a realistic hope of achieving on a high level.

Carreño has danced on the world’s biggest stages, and he wants his company to do the same. “I had an amazing experience as a dancer,” he recalled. “It was an evolution. I was learning—I was busy, I was being challenged. That is what I want them to experience; the idea of, ‘My god, this is so good.’ Being in love with what you are doing.” He takes the careers of his thirty-six young dancers very seriously, and sees their success as intertwined with his own. “Let us just be together; let us drive this company up there.”

Ballet San Jose dancers taking class.
Members of Ballet San Jose
Photo by Alejandro Gomez

His initial influence on the roster includes promoting Ommi (Nutnaree) Pipit-Suksun from soloist to principal; promoting Damir Emric from corps to soloist, and boosting the corps with Grace-Anne Powers of La La La Human Steps, former ABT Studio Company dancer Alison Stroming and Cuban-trained men Ihosvany Rodriguez and Walter Garcia. (One dancer from last year was not renewed, and eight elected not to return.) “It is a very young company, and I feel everybody has the drive of learning, that hunger,” he said. Carreño puts a premium on that passion for growth, and he will reward it by working as hard, or harder, than any of the dancers to help them succeed.

“All this rep that I am bringing this year is so different. I think that is going to be amazing for them. What can be better for a dancer than to have that experiment, trying different things?” he mused. Following hallowed ballet tradition, he is bringing in three world-class coaches to hone their technique and performance quality: his personal coach, Loipa Araújo of the English National Ballet; former Balanchine dancer Willie Berman; and former Bolshoi dancer Azari Plisetsky, the brother of prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya.

Carreño’s three-year contract (generously underwritten by trustees Steve Luczo, CEO of Seagate Technologies, and his wife, Agatha—further evidence of the company’s reversal of fortune) officially started in September 2013, but as of June he was working his Rolodex to whip up the 2014 rep. His coup includes seven company premieres, with works and choreographers that are new to BSJ: Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, Dwight Rhoden’s Evermore, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. The season also reflects a new Latin emphasis in works by the late Venezuelan Vicente Nebrada and Argentinean Jorge Amarante, plus tango-inspired pieces like Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera. Carreño has no choreographic ambitions, so he will commission new works as soon as time and budget allow.

His vision also extends to touring. “You can be really amazing, but if you want to be known, you have to travel,” he insisted. Without signed contracts, he was not able to divulge any details, but the International Ballet Festival of Havana is on his wish list, as are trips to Southern California and the East Coast. (Personally, he divides his residency between San Jose; New York, where his fiancée, ABT corps dancer Melanie Hamrick, lives; and summers in Sarasota with his festival.)

Only time will tell how far Carreño and Ballet San Jose will go together. All the pieces are in place, including the moral support of ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie and San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson, both guests of honor at November’s gala. When asked if the Bay Area has room for two high-profile ballet companies, Carreño replied, “For me, it is not either San Francisco or San Jose, it should be San Francisco and San Jose. It is amazing for the whole community.” As always, the soul of chivalry.

See Ballet San Jose this season:
PROGRAM 1: Neoclassical to Now
Fri-Sun, Feb 14–16: Serenade (George Balanchine, 1949), Glow-Stop (Jorma Elo, 2006), Minus 16 (Ohad Naharin, 1999)

PROGRAM 2: Popular Music, Transcendent Dancing
Fri-Sun, Mar 21–23: Nuestros Valses (Vicente Nebrada, 1976), Grapa Tango (Jorge Amarante, 2007), Infinity (Igal Perry, 2013), Evermore (Dwight Rhoden, 2013), Piazzolla Caldera (Paul Taylor, 1997)

PROGRAM 3: Masterworks of Movement and Theatre
Fri-Sun, May 9–11: Carmen (Roland Petit, 1949), In the Upper Room (Twyla Tharp, 1986)

This article appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of In Dance.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and DanceTabs.com.