After 22 years with the company, Boston Ballet principal guest artist Yury Yanowsky is retiring from dancing to focus on choreographing. And he’s going out in style: Yanowsky and his wife, Boston Ballet principal dancer Kathleen Breen Combes, are scheduled to dance the lead roles of Armand and Marguerite on opening night of Val Caniparoli’s “The Lady of the Camellias” on Feb. 26. They’re also scheduled for the closing performance, March 8, and that will be the farewell onstage appearance with the company for Yanowsky.
Ove those 22 years, Yanowsky, 42, has done it all in a company that does just about everything. He’s been a smoldering, magnetic lead in classical ballets: Siegfried in “Swan Lake,” Albrecht in “Giselle,” Basilio in “Don Quixote,” Franz in “Coppélia.” He’s been memorable in secondary roles: a disconcerting Hilarion in “Giselle,” an introspective Lensky in John Cranko’s “Onegin,” a dark, dangerous Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet.” He brought beefcake to Pinkerton in Stanton Welch’s “Madame Butterfly,” subversive caricature to Oberon in Bruce Wells’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and welcome ambivalence to the title role of Ben Stevenson’s badly received “Dracula.”
He’s danced with virtually every principal woman in the company; particularly memorable were his intimate, agonizing waltz with Larissa Ponomarenko in Kenneth MacMillan’s Chekhov-inspired “Winter Dreams” and his trancelike pas de deux with Breen Combes in George Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” Toward the end of his career he developed a gift for comedy, playing Carabosse in “The Sleeping Beauty” and one of the Stepsisters in Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella.”
Yanowsky’s background is hardly less remarkable. His parents, Anatol Yanowsky and Carmen Robles, danced with the Lyon Opera Ballet in France, and he was born in Lyon, but he lived there for only four years. “After Lyon,” he explained recently by phone, “we moved to Rome. My parents danced there, too. Then Madrid till I was 11, and then the Canary Islands” — where his parents still live, and where he and Breen Combes were married in 2010.
Growing up, he took dance classes, but he says he didn’t think of dance as a career until he was 14. He went to school in Cuba for two years; when he returned, he and his sister Zenaida decided to enter some ballet competitions. “We thought that would be good,” he explains, “because company directors are there.”
At the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland, he met Boston Ballet principal dancer Patrick Armand. “Right away,” Yanowsky recalls, “Patrick said, ‘You need to dye your shoes black,’ because part of the shoe was white, and he said they had to be black because that would give me a better line. Patrick also said, ‘You should come audition for Boston Ballet.’ ” Yanowsky did, joining the company in 1993. Zenaida, meanwhile, joined the Royal Ballet, where she still dances as a principal.
By the time current Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen arrived, in 2002, Yanowsky had been promoted to principal dancer. Nissinen describes him as “a very emotional, good-acting, strong male dancer. He was very vulnerable. One thing we ask the artists is to be so strong [that] they can be vulnerable. He definitely has that vulnerable side even though he’s strong as a bull.
“He’s a very strong partner. I also think he has a really unique sense of contemporary dance. And he has an incredible beautiful body, his proportions and his shape, it’s a body that all male dancers dream of. He has the flexibility and the strength. God was very generous the day he created Yury.”
Still, Yanowsky says, “I never thought about my career as being a star. It was more about what kind of repertory the company had to offer. The way we did things here was more interesting than going somewhere else.” That’s why, he says, he stayed with the company for 22 years. He even turned down, in 1999, an offer to dance with Darcey Bussell in MacMillan’s “Manon” at the Royal Ballet, because Boston Ballet was doing Roland Petit’s “Le jeune homme et la mort,” and he thought that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Yanowsky, who became principal guest artist for the 2014-2015 season, is now looking ahead to being a full-time choreographer. “I always choreographed,” he points out. “My parents would have parties in their house, and the director would come from the company in Lyon, and I would bring two lamps and say, ‘OK, I have my show prepared,’ and the director would say, ‘Wow.’ ”
Yanowsky has choreographed a number of pieces for Boston Ballet’s informal “Raw Dance” evenings. His “Li3” was performed in the company’s “Night of Stars” gala in 2010, his “The Eighth Layer” was part of the company’s “Next Generation” evening in 2012, and his “Niris” was presented at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre and in Barcelona in 2013. His work has also recently been seen as part of the Museum of Fine Arts’s “Conversation Pieces” program, featuring Boston Ballet II dancers. And Nissinen says the Ballet has commissioned a world premiere from him for the 2015-16 season.
Yanowsky “has a very personal point of view where he thinks how he wants to choreograph,” Nissinen observes. “And though you can see influences, he’s a very deep artist, and I think that’s why he’s chosen to explore choreographing as a career.”
Though March 8 will mark Yanowsky’s official retirement from the stage, he’s leaving the door open a crack. “I partnered with my sister,” he says, “and it’s funny because now that I’m retiring, and she’s thinking about it too, she said, ‘Oh we should do something together.’ It would be nice. We started together, we split, we had our own careers, so maybe we should finish it together.”