At least that’s what I thought until I saw Jose Manuel Carreno.
Last Thursday Carreno danced for the last time, and the performance was in ‘Swan Lake’ at the Lincoln Center, home of American Ballet Theater and perhaps the epicenter of great dance in America. Carreno, I didn’t know until then, is, to some aficionados, something like Nureyev once was. Which means he’s fantastic. He is Cuban, 42, and after announcing his retirement a while back, last week was to be his final public performance. A friend of mine is Cuban, and he likes the ballet, so he said we must go see Carreno’s big farewell. Two other friends who came along warned us that at a farewell like this the applause could go on for a full hour at the end. “So get ready.”
The applause didn’t go on for an hour, but it went on for a long time. Flowers were thrown at him, Carreno’s friends and family and about sixty people came onstage to kiss and hug him and say goodbye. He made about ten curtain calls. People shouted, ‘More! More!” I thought it was a pretty darn nice farewell for someone who works in a profession I guess lots of us think is dying. But there, at the Lincoln Center, seats were sold out months in advance, the massive theater was packed to the gills, and the audience couldn’t get enough.
I always thought I could do or do without ballet. I was on the fence, probably on the other side of the fence, the wrong side. And then … ‘Swan Lake.’ It wasn’t Carreno who took my breath away, it was the ballerinas. Julie Kent and Gillian Murphy, two names that probably mean zero to you, played the main roles, the white and black swans. When they danced, I suddenly felt like I was taken to another place. I know nothing about ballet, and I have no basis to judge them. But their movements seemed effortless – even though you could see they were the hardest thing in the world to do – and as they waved their arms above their heads in slow control and stretched out on their toes and glided across the stage, they looked like, well, swans. It made you want to cry.
Which made me realize, there is ballet and there is ballet. This was ballet, and I’m hooked.