BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
It's one of the enduring holiday rituals. Superstar dancers perform the principal roles in performances of The Nutcracker with student ballet companies.
"I've done so many Nutcrackers. This is always one of the busiest times of the year for me," says Jose Manuel Carreno, who is performing as the Cavalier with Next Generation Ballet this weekend at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
Carreno, 43, has been a leading international dancer since 1990, when he left his native Cuba to join the English National Ballet. Beginning in 1995, he was a principal with American Ballet Theatre until he retired from the company in June.
"He has consistently thrilled ABT audiences with his stellar technique, unforced masculinity, extraordinary partnering skills and meticulous melding of athleticism and artistry," Dance magazine said in a tribute.
Though he has retired from the New York-based company, Carreno is dancing as much as ever. "I've been doing a lot of galas around the world," he says. "I was just in Japan, and I'm going to China in January for another gala."
With Next Generation Ballet, Carreno will perform the grand pas de deux of The Nutcracker with another guest artist, Katia Carranza, a principal with Miami City Ballet as well as Ballet de Monterrey (where her husband, Luis Serrano, is artistic director) in her native Mexico.
"I've guested with Monterrey a couple of times, and I know Katia from there," says Carreno, adding that the choreography they'll use for their performance will likely be the classic version by Marius Petipa.
Carreno got his start with the National Ballet of Cuba, which has groomed many dancers who have gone on to major careers around the world. "I think the ballet company is the most important cultural institution in Cuba," Carreno says. "Everybody knows ballet. It's very accessible to the audience. They only pay 10 or 20 Cuban pesos, a dollar or two dollars, to see a performance."
Unlike dancers in the United States, who grow up doing The Nutcracker, Carreno didn't perform in Tchaikovsky's holiday classic until leaving the island.
"They don't have The Nutcracker in Cuba," he says. "I've only been doing it since I went to London, then in America."
Carreno, who lives in New York, left Cuba with government approval and returns to dance there. "I always try to go when they have the International Ballet Festival every two years in Havana," he says. "I dance with a contemporary dance company and a flamenco dance company in Havana."
He thinks that the National Ballet of Cuba, still directed by legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso, now over 90 years old, will survive, but he worries about how shabby its home, the Grand Theatre of Havana, has become. "This is something that bothers me," Carreno says. "One of my main concerns since I have been living for so many years away from Cuba is that they don't pay for maintenance, and the theater is not kept up. They have to renovate everything."
In April, he is leading a weeklong cultural, art and dance tour to Cuba in connection with the Carreno Dance Festival, which holds a summer intensive for preprofessional dancers from 12 to 22 years old in Sarasota. He'll be performing with some of his students from last summer's session in this weekend's Nutcracker.
"I love to feel the excitement of the kids," he says. "It's just a thrill to do this with them."
John Fleming can be reached at fleming@ tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.