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Joaquin De Luz, City Ballet’s Bravura Sparkler, Says Goodbye

Joaquin De Luz has always stood apart at New York City Ballet. He has many of the attributes people associate with the company’s dancers: speed, musicality, crispness of execution. But his demeanor and style have a particular accent that hints at his Spanish origin and training. It’s recognizable in the carriage of his upper body — a set of the shoulders and openness of the chest that says, “Here I am!” His dancing has “chispa” (spark), a mix of attack, extroversion and bravura.

On Sunday, after a farewell performance that will include one of the most challenging roles in the repertory, the male lead in George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” he’ll flash his bright smile for the last time from the stage of the David H. Koch Theater. Mr. De Luz, 42, seemed unfazed as he contemplated his future after 15 years with the company: “I’m a very optimistic, almost Quixote-esque person,” he said recently before running to a rehearsal of “La Sylphide.”

Unlike most of the dancers in the company, Mr. De Luz is not a product of the company-affiliated School of American Ballet, nor did he receive training specifically tailored to the ballets of Balanchine, the company’s lodestar. Mr. De Luz grew up in San Fernando de Henares, just outside Madrid, and trained with Víctor Ullate, a former dancer with Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century. His class contained a handful of dancers who would become Spain’s most recognized ballet stars, among them Tamara Rojo, Ángel Corella and Lucía Lacarra.

In addition to ballet, they studied flamenco and escuela bolera, Spanish dance styles with a strong rhythmic base and a proud, lively way of using the upper body. “Those classes give you a sense of rhythm and drama,” Mr. De Luz said, “and because of that I always try to infuse the steps with that temperament and musicality.”

His Spanish influences go beyond his training. His grandfather was an amateur bullfighter, and the local toreadors used to come by the house to get ready for corridas. When he was 8, he attended bullfighting school for a year. He never faced off with a bull, he said, “but you do spend a lot of time on the farm and learn about the animals and the art of it.” There are moments in some of his performances in which a bullfighter’s raffishness shines through.

After finishing his ballet training, Mr. De Luz joined Mr. Ullate’s company, but he found he couldn’t resist the urge to test himself in America, the adopted country of his childhood idol, Mikhail Baryshnikov. At 20, Mr. De Luz took his first-place winnings from the Rudolf Nureyev International Ballet Competition, and set off.

After a year at Pennsylvania Ballet, he came to New York, landing first at American Ballet Theater. It was 1997, and he found himself surrounded by a contingent of brilliant Spanish and Latin American male dancers: Mr. Corella, José Manuel Carreño from Cuba, Julio Bocca from Argentina. “They took me under their wing completely,” Mr. De Luz said.

But the presence of these stars also meant that he had to compete for roles, particularly given the traditional tendency to assign the princely parts to taller men. (Mr. De Luz is 5-foot-6.) “Had I stayed, maybe I could have stuck it out like Herman did,” he says referring to Herman Cornejo, another shorter dancer who faced the same limitations early in his career at Ballet Theater. Instead, in 2003, he decided to make another move, this time across the plaza at Lincoln Center to City Ballet.

Because of his strong technique and bright stage presence, he was quickly cast in a wide swath of repertory: Franz in “Coppélia,” Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and lead parts in ballets by Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins — his boss until early this year, and with whom he has had a close relationship.

Megan Fairchild, his most frequent partner, said that Mr. Martins considered her and Mr. De Luz the company’s classical standard. “We did all the really technical ballets,” said Ms. Fairchild, adding: “He’s the perfect size for me” — she’s 5-foot-3.5 — “so I know how long his arms are and just where I need to be.”

If he has one regret, Mr. De Luz said, it’s that he was never given the chance to perform one of Balanchine’s spare, modernist “black-and-white” works like “Agon” and “The Four Temperaments.” In a way, even at City Ballet, he couldn’t avoid being typecast.

For the most part, though, he is retiring without tears, and at just the right time, before the inevitable challenges of age begin to weigh him down. He decided to leave in December, before Peter Martins retired, under a cloud. The company has yet to choose a successor. “It makes me sad, of course,” Mr. De Luz said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen, and it would have been a little strange to begin working under a new director. But it doesn’t take away from my amazing years here.”

His dancing in recent seasons has become, if possible, even more buoyant. And in the last year he has had the opportunity to work with the former City Ballet star Edward Villella and Mr. Baryshnikov on roles created for them by Balanchine and Robbins. “It was so special to have Eddie there coaching ‘Rubies,’” he said, referring to a Balanchine work he has performed countless times. “My perception, maybe because of my background in flamenco, was really down, and he made it all jazzy and a little lighter.”

He feels lucky, he says, to still be dancing, after a major injury a decade ago that several surgeons told him would be the end of his career. A vertebra shifted and damaged a nerve, and he lost feeling and control in his right leg. Instead of surgery, he opted for intensive physical therapy, including harrowing sessions with a therapist who adjusted his spine through his abdomen.

The focus on healing led to an interest in fitness for dancers. He got his physical training certification and has worked with several of his colleagues, and helped to develop a new strength and conditioning program for City Ballet.

It is with these new skills in hand that he takes his leave. He has projects lined up, including a new setting of Jerome Robbins’s experimental ballet “Watermill” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in late October. After that, he’ll perform at the International Havana Ballet Festival and has gigs in South Africa and Spain. He’ll also be teaching at the Jacqueline Onassis School and ABT’s Studio Company. He’ll have more time to devote to tennis, which he called an obsession.

A return to Spain is not out of the question. “It’s a possibility,” he pondered. “I feel like I’m an American, but I feel more Spanish. My blood is there.”


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