Robert de Warren isn’t good at laying low.
The retired 77-year-old and former artistic director of the Sarasota Ballet is on the cusp of making headlines again.
Dressed in a pair of pressed pants, a pin-striped shirt and a polka-dot tie, de Warren has just returned from a meeting with the president of a local bank, an encounter that he says evoked a nervous energy he’s not felt in a long time.
“I’m actually extremely timid,” he says. “It’s taken me years to break out of my shell. It wasn’t until I was 40 or 50 that I felt I could speak from a place where I wasn’t intimidated.”
Those who read de Warren’s memoir, “Destiny’s Waltz,” which was published earlier this year, already know this about the former ballet director.
For a fearless leader, he’s endearingly bashful.
If you were to pop into the home of any other Bird Key retiree on a Tuesday morning, the vibe might be different. The TV might be on. The conversation might turn to grandchildren.
But in the de Warren abode, things are different. The TV is off and the conversation, as always, turns to dancing.
In less than five days, José Manuel Carreño, principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, will be in town to publicly announce a project he and de Warren have chewed on for years — The Carreño Dance Festival, a residency program and two-day dance event modeled after The Perlman Music Program.
“It’s a very exciting time,” de Warren says, settling into a chair in his sun-drenched living room. “I’ve really wanted to be active again, and José and I have been trying to arrange something for quite some time.”
He pours two dainty cups of coffee and offers up a small plate of lemon pastries, which he happily reveals are from Sam’s Club.
“They’re delicious,” he says of the treats. “And to think, if I had purchased them from a boutique bakery, they would have been twice the price.”
Those who know de Warren know this isn’t a false display of modesty. An even-tempered man with a gracious disposition, de Warren is as proud of his career accomplishments as he is of his treatment of people.
“I think when you’re sincere and dedicated, the ‘me, me, me’ sounds out of place,” de Warren says. “It’s very interesting though. I had to read a lot of psychology to learn how to understand people. As a dancer, you’re a puppet. You’re always told what to do, how to stand, how to behave. It’s difficult sometimes to think for yourself.”
This might explain why de Warren isn’t worried about rocking the boat now that his three-year, non-compete contract with the Ballet has expired.
“Sarasota Ballet is my baby,” he says. “I would never do anything to prejudice it.”
He views The Carreño Dance Festival as an opportunity to bring more dance exposure to Sarasota in the off-season. It will be open to dancers from all around the world.
Under Carreño and de Warren’s leadership, the festival will take place Dec. 21 and Dec. 22 at the Sarasota Opera House — after Sarasota Ballet wraps its last performance of de Warren’s “The Nutcracker.”
The 42-year-old Carreño will serve as the festival’s artistic director, and de Warren will serve as its president and CEO.
A month-long series of intensive summer workshops will follow in August under the helm of Columbus City Ballet School master teacher Shir Lee Wu, who will serve as the intensive summer program’s director.
The workshops and performances will encompass all varieties of dance. A fan of FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” de Warren says he doesn’t want the program to be pigeonholed as a traditional ballet program.
Sarasota arts organizations have been humming all year about festivals. Between the Ringling International Arts Festival and the push for a five-day arts celebration funded by Sarasota County tourism tax dollars, de Warren couldn’t think of a better time to launch his collaboration with Carreño.
“The time was ripe,” he says. “If I didn’t take this chance with José now, it might not happen again.”
Carreño and de Warren have been friends for more than 15 years.
During de Warren’s final and 13th year with Sarasota Ballet, Carreño performed three times as a guest artist.
“He’s very accessible and humble,” de Warren says of Carreño. “It will be incredible to see him working in the studio with dancers.”
De Warren hopes the program will evolve into a kind of institute for pre-professional ballet directors, similar to the one he helped develop 20 years ago at La Scala Ballet, in Milan.
“There’s nothing out there to help form artistic directors,” he says. “We need to be helped, too.”
He glances out a window at the tropical flowers blooming in his backyard. Without even realizing he’s about to wax metaphorical, de Warren, a hobby gardener, points out the small avocado tree he planted beside his purple Mexican anemones.
“It’s doing quite well,” de Warren says. “In perhaps five or 10 years I’ll be picking big green avocados.”
Who is José Manuel Carreño?
The Cuban-born Jose Manuel Carreño, 42, is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), in New York City. Carreño, regarded as a heartthrob in the New York City ballet world, was a principal dancer at the English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet before joining ABT in 1995.