Karel Cruz is retiring after 16 years with PNB, where he has been a principal dancer — the company’s highest rank — since 2009. He makes his final bows on the McCaw Hall stage on June 10.
Karel Cruz is a master of partnering. You might not think of this when you see him perform onstage with Pacific Northwest Ballet; with his soaring jumps, elegantly long limbs and quiet charisma, he seems born for the spotlight of solos. But watch him during a pas de deux — his focus is entirely on the ballerina, in supporting and turning her with meticulous care, letting her shine like a work of art displayed in the kind of frame that enhances but never distracts. He seems to meld with his partner, as if becoming her wings.
It’ll therefore be a sad day not just for PNB audiences, but for a series of ballerinas lucky enough to dance with him, when Cruz makes his final bows on the McCaw Hall stage on June 10, in a special Season Encore performance. At 39, he is retiring after 16 years with PNB; he’s been a principal dancer (the company’s highest rank) since 2009.
PNB artistic director Peter Boal, in a recent interview, spoke of Cruz’s effortlessness, elaborating on what makes a great partner in ballet. “I think it’s a gift on the physical side, to have the ability to hide all of the struggles and the wobbles, but I also think it’s something deeper. It comes from who you are as a person — an innate graciousness and chivalry.”
Boal noted that Cruz, despite having reached “kind of an old age for a male dancer,” didn’t necessarily need to make this season his last, but the two agreed that it was time. “He’s dancing beautifully, there really aren’t any weaknesses or wanings,” Boal said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not time to retire. It’s nice to retire when you’re at the peak of your powers. Karel’s had an amazing run.”
Seated next to his favorite partner, PNB principal Lindsi Dec (they’ve been married since 2009, and have a 2-year-old son), Cruz took a break from rehearsals last month to talk about his PNB career.
His road to Seattle was a winding one: A native of Cuba, he joined the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1996, but was fired after two years; at 6-foot-4, “they thought I was too tall for the corps.” His aunt, a ballet teacher, helped get him a job in Venezuela, but after several years and two companies, he thought it was time for something different. A student visa brought him to Philadelphia’s Rock School; while there, he auditioned for PNB and was hired.
The soft-spoken Cruz tells these stories matter-of-factly — “I understood that, when I first came, I had to wait for my position” — but Dec, smiling, fills in the details. “What he doesn’t really say is that he had a principal position in Venezuela, but came to a country where he didn’t know any English, an apartment with no lights, in the cold, having to try to assimilate and survive in that new environment without really knowing really anybody. Then going from principal status to a student, and then coming here and having to work his way up to principal. I find that so amazing, so inspiring. This is someone who’s worked so incredibly hard, his entire life.”
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New to PNB, Cruz’s height was no longer a liability; the company has long been known for long-limbed dancers, with many tall ballerinas eager for a proportionate partner. One of them was Dec, who came to PNB as an apprentice in 2001. The two began practicing together, just as friends, in the back of a studio, learning the “Don Quixote” principal roles together. “We were just trying to work on partnering, getting better,” said Dec. Somewhere along the way, they fell in love, and “Don Q” became a special ballet for them; they’ll perform the pas de deux at Season Encore, one last time.
Over the years, Cruz said he has had numerous favorite roles, but has especially enjoyed performing the classical partnerships of story ballets. A self-professed “big fan” of partnering, he loves to study the mechanics of it, watching videos of other dancers. His earlier training, he said, established his technique: “Back in Cuba at the school, partnering is very strict, especially with the male dancers. They will make sure the male dancers are always there for their partners, no matter what.”
Dec concurred. “I don’t know any female dancer who doesn’t love the opportunity to dance with him. Everyone says the same thing — you can just dance. You can be free,” she said. “You can enjoy every single moment — you know nothing is going to go wrong. He’s going to save you no matter what.” The key element, she said, is that “he respects every partner he’s with. He wants to make sure they look great.”
Cruz and Dec’s offstage partnership has produced not only their son, Koan, but a dancewear company called Solu (the name comes from their cats, Miso and Luna). As dancers who dress every day in an array of leotards, tights and warm-ups, they’d long thought about “what we wish we could have had in dancewear,” said Cruz. That dream, after years of planning, became a reality: Solu is now an official business, with a website and a small but vibrant line of leotards and warm-up clothing, all manufactured here in Washington state. It’s early days for the company, but Cruz and Dec are heartened by the number of PNB dancers who are wearing and enjoying their garments, and giving feedback.
After his retirement, Cruz plans to devote more time to developing Solu, as well as doing some teaching and coaching, and spending more time with Koan. He looks forward to being able to visit Cuba again soon, after a long absence. But for now, he’s enjoying his final weeks as a PNB dancer, and says he will “miss the whole thing.”
“I started dancing when I was 8 years old. That’s all I know,” he said. “I’m used to not only waking up in the morning and coming here, but taking care of my body, and the whole process, it’s a big discipline. When everything stops, it’s going to be different for sure.”
To his other “partner,” the PNB audience for whom he’s been a favorite for many years, Cruz gives thanks. “I want to say how grateful I am, and to thank every single member of the audience for the support,” he said. “I didn’t see that coming, it just all of a sudden just happened and I opened my eyes and the audience was there for me. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”
“Season Encore,” 6:30 p.m. June 10, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $40-$190, 206-441-2424, pnb.org. Karel Cruz will perform in excerpts from “Don Quixote” and “Diamonds”; the evening will include excerpts from “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” “West Side Story Suite” and other ballets.