Alicia Alonso

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Alicia Alonso
Alicia Alonso 1955.jpg
Born Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez del Hoyo
21 December 1921 (1921-12-21) (age 92)
Havana, Cuba
Nationality Cuban
Known for Ballet
Notable work(s) Giselle, Carmen

Alicia Alonso (born Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad Martínez Hoya; 21 December 1921) is a Cuban prima ballerina assoluta and choreographer. Her company became the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1955.[1] She is most famous for her portrayals of Giselle and the ballet version of Carmen.[2] From the age of nineteen, Alonso was afflicted with an eye defect and was partially blind. Her partners always had to be in the exact place she expected them to be, and she used lights in different parts of the stage to guide them.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Alonso was born in Havana, one of two daughters of an army officer and his wife. The family was financially comfortable and lived in a fashionable section of the then-vibrant capital. Alonso revealed at a very early age an affinity for music and dance - her mother could occupy her happily for long periods with just a phonograph, a scarf, and some records. She started dancing at the age of seven and at the age of eight, she studied ballet at Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical in Havana with Sophie Fedorova. A year later she performed publicly for the first time in Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. She originally danced in Cuba under the name of Alicia Martínez.

Rapid progress in her lessons came to an abrupt halt in 1937, when the 16-year-old fell in love with a fellow ballet student, Fernando Alonso, whom she married. After her marriage, she changed her surname to Alonso. The new couple moved to New York City, hoping to begin their professional careers. There they found a home with relatives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Riverside Drive. Alonso gave birth to a daughter, Laura, but managed to continue her training at the School of American Ballet and took private classes. She arranged to travel to London to study with Vera Volkova. Meanwhile, her husband had joined the new Mordkin Ballet Company in New York.[citation needed]

Vision problems[edit]

After seeing the doctor for worsening vision problems, Alonso was diagnosed in 1941 with a detached retina. She had surgery to correct the problem and was ordered to lie in bed motionless for three months to allow her eyes to heal.[3] Unable to comply completely, Alonso practiced with her feet alone, pointing and stretching to, as she put it, "keep my feet alive." When the bandages came off, Alonso was dismayed to find that the operation had not been completely successful. The doctors performed a second surgery, but its failure caused them to conclude that the dancer would never have peripheral vision. Finally, she consented to a third procedure in Havana, but this time was ordered to lay completely motionless in bed for an entire year. She was not permitted to play with Laura, chew food too hard, laugh or cry, or move her head. Her husband sat with her every day, using their fingers to teach her the great dancing roles of classical ballet.[3] From Women in World History, Alonso later recalled of that period, "I danced in my mind. Blinded, motionless, flat on my back, I taught myself to dance Giselle."[citation needed]

Finally, she was allowed to leave her bed, although dancing was still out of the question. Instead, she walked with her dogs and, against doctor's orders, went to the ballet studio down the street every day to begin practicing again. Then, just as her hope was returning, Alonso was injured when a hurricane shattered a door in her home, spraying glass splinters onto her head and face. Amazingly, her eyes were not injured. When her doctor saw this, he cleared Alonso to begin dancing, figuring that if she could survive an explosion of glass, dancing would do no harm.

Back to work[edit]

Nearly mad with impatience and still partially blind, Alonso traveled back to New York in 1943 to begin rebuilding her skills. However, before she had barely settled, out of the blue she was asked to dance Giselle to replace the Ballet Theatre's injured prima ballerina. Alonso accepted and gave such a performance that the critics immediately declared her a star. She was promoted to principal dancer of the company in 1946 and danced the role of Giselle until 1948, also performing in Swan Lake, Antony Tudor's Undertow (1943), Balanchine's Theme and Variations (1947), and in such world premieres as deMille's dramatic ballet Fall River Legend (1948), in which she starred as the Accused. By this time in her career, she had developed a reputation as an intensely dramatic dancer, as well as an ultra-pure technician and a supremely skilled interpreter of classical and romantic repertories.

Alonso's longtime dance partnership with the Ballet Theatre's Igor Youskevitch has been compared to that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Youskevitch and her other partners quickly became expert at helping Alonso conceal her handicap. To compensate for only partial sight in one eye and no peripheral vision, the ballerina trained her partners to be exactly where she needed them without exception. She also had the set designers install strong spotlights in different colors to serve as guides for her movements. Alonso knew, for instance, that if she stepped into the glow of the spotlights near the front of the stage, she was getting too close to the orchestra pit. There was also a thin wire stretched across the edge of the stage at waist height as another marker for her, but in general she danced within the encircling arms of her partners and was led by them from point to point. Audiences were reportedly never the wiser as they watched the prima ballerina.[citation needed]

A new endeavor in Havana[edit]

Alonso's desire to develop ballet in Cuba led her to return to Havana in 1948 to found her own company, the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company, which she maintained with little financial support, this company eventually became Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Fernando was general director of the company, which was at that time composed mainly of Ballet Theater dancers temporarily out of work due to a reorganization in the New York company. Fernando's brother Alberto, a choreographer, served as artistic director for the company.[citation needed]

The company debuted briefly in the capital and then departed for a tour of South America. The performances were a hit with audiences everywhere, but Alonso found herself funding the company with her savings to keep it going despite donations from wealthy families and a modest subsidy from the Cuban Ministry of Education. Meanwhile, she commuted between Havana and New York to recruit the world's best teachers to train her new students. She remained a sought-after prima ballerina during this hectic time, dancing twice in Russia in 1952 and then producing and starring in Giselle for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1953.[citation needed]

From 1955-59, Alonso danced annually with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as guest star. She was the first dancer of the Western Hemisphere to perform in the Soviet Union, and the first American representative to dance with the Bolshoi and Kirov Theaters of Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) respectively in 1957 and 1958. During the decades to follow Alicia Alonso had cross-world tours through West and East European countries, Asia, North and South America, and she danced as guest star with the Opera de Paris, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Bolshoi and with other companies.[4] She staged versions of Giselle, Pas de Quatre, and Sleeping Beauty for the Paris Opera. She staged Giselle at the Vienna State Opera and the San Carlo Theater of Naples, Italy, as well as La Fille Mal Gardée at the Prague State Opera, and Sleeping Beauty at La Scala, Milan, Italy.[citation needed]

Political change in Cuba[edit]

Alonso worked with the Ballet Russe until 1959, during which time she performed in a 10-week tour of the Soviet Union, dancing in Giselle, the Leningrad Opera Ballet's Path of Thunder, and other pieces. Her performances earned her the coveted Dance Magazine Award in 1958.[citation needed]

Return to Cuba[edit]

Cuba in the 1950s was the center of modern Latin American entertainment and art. When Fidel Castro took power from the Batista government on 1 January 1959, Castro vowed to increase funding to the nation's languishing cultural programs. Encouraged by this sudden change and eager to see her homeland from which she was never exiled and to which she had always been permitted to return, Alonso returned to Cuba and in March 1959 received $200,000 in funding to form a new dance school, to be called the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, along with a guarantee of annual financial support.[citation needed]

Alonso has since described receiving a message from Castro in 1958 sent from the Sierra Maestra inviting her to head the company upon the triumph of the July 26 Movement.[5] Alonso officially founded the school in 1960, and within several years her dancers were winning international dance competitions.

Disappearance from American artistic scene[edit]

Due to Alonso's affiliation with the new regime in Havana, U.S. audiences largely turned their backs on the prima ballerina. In addition, as with the Russian ballet companies, exposure to western audiences would promote defectors who would cause huge embarrassment to the Soviet Union, so the Cuban government from the 1960s through the 1980s did not allow Cubans to performm in the U.S. and monitored anyone with contacts outside Cuba via phone cables and letters. Alonso's company, however, continued to build its powers and achievements in both Eastern and Western Europe. In 1967 and 1971 she performed in Canada, where reviewers noted that Alonso was still the greatest ballerina of her time. When the Vietnam War ended and Richard Nixon left the presidency, Fidel Castro permitted Alonso to perform again in the United States in 1975 and 1976. An American reviewer said of the dancer, then 54 years old and a grandmother, "she creates more sexual promise than ballerinas half her age."[citation needed]

Ended days of dancing and beyond Alonso's career[edit]

Alonso danced solos in Europe and elsewhere well into her 70s. She continued to serve as the director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba until the early 21st-century. Numerous books have been written on the ballerina, including Alicia Alonso: At Home and Abroad (1970), Alicia Alonso: The Story of a Ballerina (1979), Alicia Alonso: A Passionate Life of Dance (1984) and Alicia Alonso: First Lady of the Ballet (1993). During a November 2003 on-stage interview prior to a Cuban National Ballet performance in San Diego, California, she exclaimed, "I'm so happy to be here. And I'm happy whenever I'm on the stage. The stage is where a dancer should be, even if it's only to walk or sit. I am at home on the stage."[citation needed]

As director and leading dancer of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, she has taught many now notable dancers in Cuba and beyond. Some former students are now dancing at the American Ballet Theatre, the Boston Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Washington Ballet, the Cincinnati Ballet and the Royal Ballet, among others. In June 2002 she was designated UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for her outstanding contribution to the development, preservation and popularisation of classical dance and for her devotion to the art-form.

Awards (selected)[edit]

  • Dance Magazine Annual Award, 1934
  • Dance Magazine Annual Award, 1958
  • Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris, 1966
  • Anna Pavlova Award of the University of Dance, Paris, 1966
  • Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris together with her company, 1970
  • Order of Work of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 1974
  • Gold Medal of the Gran Teatro by Premio Gran Teatro de La Habana in 1985
  • National Prize for Dance from the Ministry of Culture of Cuba, 1998
  • Gold medal from the Circulo de Bellas Artes of Madrid, 1998
  • UNESCO Pablo Picasso Medal for her extraordinary contribution to dance, 1999
  • Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris, 1999
  • Premio Benois de la Danza, 2000

Recognitions (selected)[edit]

  • Honorary doctorate in art from the University of Havana, 1973
  • Received an international homage in Paris, organized by UNESCO, 1980
  • Council of State of the Republic of Cuba gave her the Order Felix Varela, 1981
  • Honorary doctorate in dancing art from the Superior Institute of Arts of Cuba, 1987
  • Received the Commendation of Isabel Catholic Order, given by the King of Spain Juan Carlos I, 1993
  • Public recognition was given in her honor at the Scientific, Artistic, and Literary Ateneo of Madrid for her valuable artistic and cultural creations, 1996
  • The Ballet Nacional de Cuba honored Alicia Alonso on the 50th anniversary of Theme & Variations, a ballet created by George Balanchine for her and Igor Youskevitch, 1997
  • Honorary degree from the Universidad Politecnica of Valencia, 1998
  • Art & Letters Order, Commander Degree, from the Ministry of Culture and Communication of France, 1998
  • Prix Benois de la Danse for lifetime achievement, 2000
  • Order of José Marti by the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba, 2000
  • Received the highest official awards from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Panama: the Order Aguila Azteca, the Order Duarte, Sanchez, and Mella, and the Order Vasco Nunez de Balboa, respectively
  • Named National Hero of Labor in Cuba
  • Holds membership in the Advisory Council to the Ministry of Culture in the National Committee of Writers and Artists Union of Cuba
  • Holds membership in the Collaborating Council of the Governing Boards of the Federation of Cuban Women
  • Honorary Citizen of Mérida (México)and Messenger of Peace, 2011

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Mary Clarke and David Vaughan (eds) 1977. The encyclopedia of dance & ballet. Pitmans, London. p16
  2. ^ Alicia Alonso (Cuban dancer), Britannica Online Encyclopedia Archived 21 December 2010 at WebCite
  3. ^ a b Slotnik, Daniel (2 August 2013). "Fernando Alonso, a Founder of Cuban Ballet, Dies at 98". New York Times (New York, NY, USA). Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  4. ^ [1] Archived March 17, 2005 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "The reality behind the revolutionCuba's communist rebirth gave Tomas Gutiérrez Alea the freedom to make the films he wanted - then he started to show the cracks in Castro's dream." by Alice O'Keeffe, The Guardian, 26 June 2008; accessed 5 May 2014.

Sources[edit]

  • Magazine Cuba in the Ballet. Founded in 1970; ISSN 0864-1307.
  • Cuba Magazine in the Ballet; ISSN 0864-1307. Cultural Publication specialized in the world of the Cuban ballet, includes critical, chronicle, and comments..., as well as a news section.
  • National Ballet of Cuba: half a century of glory. Book that collects the fifty years of the company. Written by Miguel Cabrera (Punta Bava, Havana, 1941), Historian of the BNC, summarizes the most outstanding aspects in five decades where generations of dancers, choreographers and specialized personnel have given the best. The book provides good information of the NBC, including tours, ballets throughout its history. Published by Ediciones Cuba in the Ballet.
  • University for All (Tabloid). History and Appreciation of the Ballet. Cultural publication with texts that support the telelectures delivered by specialists of the National Ballet of Cuba and other guest personalities.
  • DIALOGUES WITH THE DANCE by Alicia Alonso; the fourth edition of this title, in which the reader will be able to find memories of the initial moments of her career, brief impressions on some works of her repertoire, testimonies about famous personalities she worked with, as well as points of view sometimes referred to polemic questions concerning the dancer's profession and the art of the dance in general. Política Publisher.

External links[edit]