When American Ballet Theatre audiences embrace a dancer, they do it full tilt. And for 16 years, they've embraced Jose Manuel Carreno, a Cuban-born dynamo with a killer jump and even better pirouettes.
And so when Carreno retired on Thursday, dancing his final, perfectly controlled turns on the Metropolitan Opera House stage, the audience showered its love upon him with a quarter-hour's worth of curtain calls, calling him back repeatedly and pelting the stage with countless bouquets.
The part he danced — the tortured Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake" — is a classic, but not the one for which Carreno is best known. Indeed, many fans wished he could have gone out as Basilio in "Don Quixote," for it was in that high-spirited role that he charmed countless audiences over the years with his humor, showmanship and effortless Latin charm.
Still, "Swan Lake" isn't the worst way to leave, and Carreno made the most of it. Now in his early 40s, he may not get the full height he used to on his jumps, but his turns are still marvels of technique and control, especially the way he slows down as he ends them, balancing perfectly, with a slight smile as if to say, "Yes, I can still do this."
Carreno has also been a strong and consummate partner. When the gymnastlike Natalia Osipova made a running leap into his arms last year in "Don Quixote" — two such leaps, actually — she traveled with such velocity it was a wonder anyone could catch her and stay upright. But Carreno did, to everyone's relief.
And this year in the same ballet, he struck many with his onstage gallantry when he made a point of calling another ballerina, visiting Royal Ballet star Alina Cojocaru, out from the wings for extra bows after her solos.
Carreno trained at Cuba's famed National Ballet School, and gained early attention by winning the gold medal at the New York International Ballet Competition in 1987. Before joining ABT in 1995 he danced with the English National Ballet and then the Royal in London.
One of the highlights of his ABT career, he has said, came just last November, when he and other company dancers, including fellow Cuban Xiomara Reyes, performed at the International Ballet Festival of Havana.
On Thursday, perhaps unable to choose between his favorite ballerinas, Carreno picked two of them to share the role of Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake." Julie Kent was her typical ethereal, graceful self as Odette, and Gillian Murphy produced her usual technical fireworks as the evil black swan Odile, tossing off her fouettes and adding extra turns to delight the crowd.
Carreno also asked his friend and former ABT dancer Joaquin de Luz, now employed across the plaza at New York City Ballet, to dance the role of Siegfried's pal Benno, which de Luz did with charm and brio.
As the curtain went down, balletomanes crowded into the front rows of the audience, capturing video on their cell phones. They watched Carreno get down on one knee and acknowledge his fellow dancers.
Then his colleagues came out, one by one, to deposit flowers and hugs, and not just current partners: Past ABT greats such as Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca were there, too. Three strong men hoisted him in the air in a victory lift. At the end, Carreno came out in front of the curtain with his two daughters, arm in arm.
It was not his last time dancing with ABT — the company does a bit of touring this summer, and Carreno has said he'll make guest appearances in New York. But for many in the crowd, it was the end of an era.