After 16 years as a highflier at New York's famed American Ballet Theatre, José Manuel Carreño has landed a new role: trying to get the struggling Ballet San Jose back on its feet.
A hotshot performer in the dance world, the Cuban-born Carreño is taking on his first stint as the leader of a major company. Charismatic and hardworking, he would seem to be a natural for the job, but he's also facing the harsh reality that the South Bay's biggest resident dance company has long struggled with its finances.
On the eve of its 2014 program -- the first under his stewardship -- the cash-strapped troupe had to tighten its belt in the wake of sagging ticket sales and donations. That means there will be no live orchestra for its "Neoclassical to Now" program, which runs Friday through Sunday at San Jose's Center for the Performing Arts. Still, Carreño is not one to be fazed by obstacles.
"Right now, it is hard but we are surviving. My job is to raise enough money to make us healthy," said the 45-year-old, who took the helm last fall. "It will not be easy. But that has never stopped me before. I think it is doable."
Certainly some big names in the dance world think he's more than up to the challenge.
"He's a great catch for them," said ballet icon Mikhail Baryshnikov. "He's a beautifully trained dancer with a keen intelligence. He will attract the best because his reputation is impeccable. Everyone admires his dedication and his talent. He's also a nice guy."
Carreño, whose love of ballet began as a boy in Havana, is not one to shy away from a hurdle. For his swan song at American Ballet Theatre, he chose to dance the Prince in "Swan Lake," a role known for its epic leaps, the kind of jumps most older dancers avoid.
"I am always drawn to a challenge," he said with a smile, "and I believe there is great potential here."
His first order of business is to raise the profile of the 28-year-old company, whose cofounding artistic director, Dennis Nahat, was abruptly ousted by BSJ's board of directors in 2012. Carreño's contacts in the ballet world will surely help. From his time at ABT and London's Royal Ballet to his appearance on "Dancing with the Stars," Carreño has known the taste of fame. In his native Cuba, he is part of a family ballet dynasty.
Carreño got to know BSJ when he starred in "Don Quixote" last year. He was impressed by how many of the young dancers were eager to make their bones. Most of the troupe's 36 dancers are between the ages of 19 and 39.
"The most important thing is the desire to learn," he said, while watching a rehearsal for Balanchine's "Serenade." "Ninety-eight percent of the dancers here are hungry. They've got the drive to learn, and that's what matters."
That passion for nurturing the next generation of ballet dancers may be the key to his success.
"Jose is an excellent teacher and coach," said Raymond Rodriguez, BSJ associate artistic director. "He is a generous, warm and approachable leader."
As a flock of ballerinas in flowing pink tutus knot their limbs during a twisted bit of Balanchine choreography, Carreño looks gleeful. The dancers run through the steps again and again until they seem to float in midair as they twirl.
"This is the part I love the most," said Carreño. "I love rehearsal. You can see them struggle, then they find their momentum and everything flows."
Indeed, dance is the art of making the arduous look effortless, which also describes the task facing Carreño.
The ballet, which formed a partnership with ABT in 2012, has suffered financial setbacks in recent months. The holiday cash cow, "The Nutcracker," missed its ticket goal by an estimated $75,000. There has also been a pullback in the level of support from John Fry, historically the company's biggest angel. In response to the red ink, ballet officials trimmed $125,000 from the budget, by cutting back on live music and scrubbing some matinees.
"If you survive a crisis like this, you learn and come back stronger," said Carreño. "I believe that Ballet San Jose has the will and desire to get through this financial challenge."
Executive Director Stephanie Ziesel believes Carreño's ability to balance the big picture with the gritty details will buoy the ballet. Certainly he's no diva. He often brings his dog Rey to the studio with him and he makes a point of chatting with the school's students on the stairwell.
"Even when we are discussing difficult, practical, operational issues," said Ziesel, "José has a purposeful, positive energy that ... reminds us why we're all here and driving so hard toward sustainability and success."
So far this season, ticket sales are on track. A recent fundraising gala netted $66,000 in donations. The budget stands at $5.4 million, down from a high of $8 million in 2009-2010. The bottom line right now is filling the coffers. That's why Carreño spends a great deal of his time pressing the flesh in the Valley, trying to attract new donors.
"This is one of the richest places in the world," he said, "I am confident we can find supporters."
His fans have no doubts that Carreño can help the ballet rebound going forward.
"Carreño has what it takes," said Baryshnikov. "It will take time but he can do what is necessary to get the company back on its legs."
BALLET SAN JOSE
Presents "Neoclassical to Now," featuring works by George Balanchine, Jorma Elo and Ohad Naharin.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd.
Tickets: $30-$105, Subscriptions range $81-$267, 408-288-2800. www.BalletSJ.org