Alicia Alonso: Dancer, Choreographer, Ballet Director, Dance Instructor Biography
Cuba is known for Castro, Cuban cigars, and communism. But thanks to the tenacity and talent of Alicia Alonso, it is also a world-renowned center for ballet. When Alonso was born in the early 1920s there was no ballet school or professional company in Cuba. Instead she traveled to New York City, Russia, Spain, and Monte Carlo to dance, eventually becoming arguably the most popular and admired ballerina in the 20th Century. Despite a lifelong struggle with failing vision and the political machinations that have defined post-revolutionary Cuba, Alonso returned to her beloved land and founded the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and created the island's first dance school. She has been lauded as a hero by her countrymen and as a visionary by dance aficionados worldwide. At the age of eight, when she took her first dance lesson, she recalled to www.spain-alive.com, "I knew that I was going to love it more than anything in my life." That love has propelled her through six decades of dance.
Born Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez Hoya on December 21, 1921 (though some sources say it was 1917), Alonso was the youngest of four children. Her father, Antonio Martinez, was an officer in the Cuban army and her mother, Ernestina Hoya, was a homemaker. This was pre-revolutionary Cuba and the family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in a moneyed section of Havana. Alonso began dancing at a very young age. "When I was little, I'd move around whenever I heard music, maybe like Isa-dora Duncan, because I didn't know what dancing was. I dreamed of having long hair, so I'd dance around with towels on my head, pretending it was my hair streaming out behind me," she told www.culturekiosque.com. Her first dance training occurred during her father's year-long military assignment in Spain. Her Spanish grandfather suggested she learn the local dance, so Alonso studied flamenco and even learned to play the casta-nets. At eight years old, she returned with her family to Cuba and took her first ballet lesson at the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical school in Havana. At ten she made her first stage appearance in a production of Sleeping Beauty dancing as Alicia Martinez.
At fifteen Alonso married fellow dancer Fernando Alonso and adopted the stage name of Alicia Alonso. In 1937 the young couple moved to New York City to continue their dance training. Alonso danced at the School of American Ballet with some of the best private teachers of classical ballet in the world. She recalled in an interview with www.culturekiosque.com, "I was like a sponge, so eager to learn from all of them." However, her first professional performance was not as a ballerina but as a chorus girl in musicals including Great Lady in 1938 and Stars in Your Eyes the following year. In 1939 her ballet training bore success when she was made a soloist with the American Ballet Caravan, later to become the New York City Ballet. Then in 1941 she joined the Ballet Theater (later the American Ballet Theater) as a ballerina. There she was tapped for high profile solos and it seemed her career was on the verge of flourishing.
Late in 1941 Alonso began to have troubles with her vision. She was diagnosed with detached retinas in both eyes and became temporarily blind. Three surgeries to restore her vision left her confined to bed for nearly a year unable to even to turn her head, much less practice her art. Doctors told her that her dance career was over. However, as she lay prostrate, heavy bandages around her eyes, she continued to practice in her head, going over and over the movements of great ballets such as Giselle. By the time her eyes had healed, she knew Giselle by heart. With her love of dance still burning, she transferred that knowledge to her body. She later explained the connection between brain and body to Chicago's Art Beat, " … this is a career where you must exercise everyday, almost to the extreme. You cannot stop working, not only your body, but your brain." Her body quickly caught up and Alonso soon returned to New York City to rejoin the Ballet Theater.
In 1943 Alonso received the break of her career when she was appointed to dance the lead role in Giselle. An article on the website for Radio Progreso describes how this came about: "The company's first ballerina, Alicia Markova, who would dance the title role, was suddenly taken ill. The theater is sold out and a full house is expected. The impresario does not want to close the show and asks all the dancers, one by one, who wants to substitute Markova. All refuse. There's only one week for opening night and practically no time to learn the part. It's Alonso's turn to answer. She had dreamed of that moment, of the opportunity to perform Giselle. She agrees and learns the part in seven days, rehearsing by day and performing other ballets every evening. Her feet are bleeding, but a week after she makes her debut as Giselle." Her performance was widely acclaimed. The New York Times hailed it as "one of the most distinguished performances of the season." Throughout her illustrious career she would dance and produce Giselle hundreds of times, becoming nearly synonymous with the role. She would perform the role for three more years with the Ballet Theater before being appointed to the position of principal dancer.
Having always harbored a deep love for and commitment to her homeland, Alonso decided in 1948 to return to Cuba and there founded the Ballet Alicia Alonso with her husband as general director. As there were few decent ballet schools in Cuba, the ranks of her company were filled by non-Cubans. To remedy this she opened the Alicia Alonso Academy of Ballet in Havana and began to train legions of dancers. However, in 1956 the political situation in Cuba was becoming increasingly unstable and the government pulled funding from her school and company. Alonso closed shop and moved to Monte Carlo as a guest artist with the Ballet Russe.
In 1957, in an unprecedented nod to her international fame as a renowned dancer, Alonso received an invitation to perform in the Soviet Union. The cold war was in full swing and no Western dancer had before been asked to cross over the Iron Curtain. Alonso performed in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev, dancing with both the famed Bolshoi and Kirov ballets. In 1958 Alonso was awarded the prestigious annual award from Dance magazine. It was just one of many major awards her dancing would garner. Over the next decade, Alonso performed as a guest artist with companies throughout the world and danced under the top choreographers of the era including George Balanchine and Anges de Mille. Balanchine created Theme and Variations, a ballet just for Alonso and her then partner, the great dancer Igor Youskevitch. Alonso and Youskevitch were widely considered the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of ballet. Alonso also mounted her own productions during this time, including her famed rendition of Giselle for the Paris Opera. Her amazing performances are even more incredible when viewed in light of her faltering eyesight. Despite the success of her earlier operations, her vision continued to deteriorate. She was determined to keep her handicap from the audience not wanting it to color their perception of her work. "The difficulty was in dancing with partners, knowing where to find them without my eyes on the stage. They sometimes used special lighting effects to guide me. But the biggest difficulty was always coming off the stage, trying to find the wings and the curtain drops," Alonso recalled to www.spainalive.com.
After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the ascension of Fidel Castro to power, Alonso chose once again to return to her dear Cuba and reopen her ballet company and school. With political and financial support from Castro's government, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba was borne. In addition, Alonso put considerable energy in the creation of a national ballet school and training program. Under the communist regime no child was to be denied access to education. Following the Russian style, Alonso and her corps of teachers would travel throughout Cuba to find talented youth and then fund and manage their training. "I go all over the island, to every one of the tiny mountain villages to find children who want to dance. We play music and then choose those who have the best physique and bone structure," she told www.culturekiosque.com.
A network of regional dance schools eventually emerged and with it a corps of talented dancers. Manuel Legris, principal dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, was quoted on www.culturekiosque.com as saying, "The Cuban school is exceptional. I meet Cuban dancers all the time … and they all have this astonishing technique allied artistry and style." Dancers from Alonso's school have also made an indelible mark on international dance competitions. Varna, the most prestigious ballet competition in the world has awarded medals to more Cuban dancers than any other nationality in its thirty year history. The style that Alonso's protégés embrace was borne out of Alonso's commitment to both technique and artistry. "Technique has progressed so much today, there's a temptation to dance everything the same unless the dancer understands and masters the meaning of style," Alonso told www.culturekiosque.com. "Dancers must transmit an emotion, or the classics will just become meaningless. In the Ballet of Cuba, we are trying to produce artists who respect the purity of the original work rather than just brilliant technicians."
Despite her international fame, Alonso and her dance company found themselves barred from performing in the United States for nearly two decades. Despite having once been the principal ballerina of the American Ballet Theater, Alonso's alignment with Castro prevented her from even being allowed on U.S. soil. Finally, in 1971 the company was invited to embark upon a North American tour. Though she was in her fifties and nearly blind, her performances garnered accolades. "In some respects the physical command is not so certain as it was years ago, but [Alonso] is now a far better dancer than she was" wrote a reviewer from the New York Times. "The nuances and grace notes that distinguish great classic dancing from the superbly accomplished are now very evident, and her musical phrasing is as individual as ever."
In 1972 Alonso underwent another operation on her sight allowing her to continue performing. She danced throughout the 1970s and 1980s as a guest performer with the most prestigious ballet companies in the world and also with her Ballet Nacional de Cuba. During this time she also divorced Alonso and married Pedro Simon, a writer and lawyer. By the 1990s, Alonso, nearing seventy years of age, was still performing as the principal dancer of the Havana-based ballet, despite the fact that her vision was once again deteriorating. In January of 1990, as part of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the American Ballet Theater, Alonso danced part of Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House. She was the only founding member still dancing and her performance drew a rousing ovation. Though her age was obviously taking a toll on her performance, a reviewer in the New Leader noted that her technique "gave the ballet a glow that was missing from every performance by ABT's young beauties in their spanking new Swan Lake last spring."
A few years later while on tour with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba she decided to finally hang up her ballet slippers and retired from dancing. "I found myself on a tour in Italy with my own creation Farfalia which means butterfly. I began to think how short the lives of butterflies really are. I was dancing the role of the butterfly then and when I finished my season in Italy I knew that that was it," she told www.spainalive.com. "I didn't programme myself to dance anymore. My decision had come to me as softly as that." Though she left performing, she did not leave center stage and continued to choreograph for the company even as her eyesight finally left her. She explained to the Seattle Times how she accomplished this. "I put it in my mind. I listen to the music, then I explain it to my wonderful maitres des ballets (ballet masters)."
In 1998 Alonso received Cuba's highest civil decoration, the title of "Heroine of Labour of the Republic of Cuba." It was a great honor for a woman who had remained committed to her country through adversity even as artists of all ranks were fleeing. Then in 2002 she was named honorary Ambassador on the occasion of her 70th anniversary of dancing. She deferred this honor to her country saying, "this magical island, despite its small size has made and continues to make great history as an example of culture, valor, and heroism." On the international front, ballets around the world continue to be inspired by her work. In 2001 the Ballet Nacional de Cuba launched a production entitled La Magia de Alonso which toured extensively to rave reviews. In one of her oft-repeated sentiments, Alonso told Art Beat, "Dance to me is life itself." It is a life she has lived long and well, leaving a legacy not only for the Cuban dancers that will dance in her footsteps, but for millions of fans worldwide. She summed up her career best to www.spainalive.com. "I have lived well. I have achieved a lot. I am aware that I have made history. I planted a seed which grew into a tree and the fruits have been exported all over the world."
New Leader, March 5, 1990.
New York Times, November 3, 1943; June 21, 1971.
Saturday Review, January 6, 1979.
Seattle Times, February 18, 1999.
World Press Review, April, 1982.
Art Beat, www.networkchicago.com/artbeat/alonso.htm
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