Overcoming near blindness and numerous other obstacles that would have crippled lesser people, Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso (born 1921) became one of the greatest ballerinas in history and has starred in the most famous ballets all over the world. She later founded and directed the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company, which eventually became the Cuban National Ballet.
Began Dancing as a Little Girl
Born Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad dei Cobre Martinez Hoya on December 21, 1921, in Havana, Cuba, Alonso was the daughter of an army officer and his wife. The family was financially comfortable and lived in a fashionable section of the then-vibrant capital. Alonso indicated 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. Alonso took her first ballet lessons at age nine at Havana's Escuela de Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical and a year later performed publicly for the first time in Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty.
The dancer's rapid progress in her lessons came to an abrupt halt in 1937, when the 16-year-old fell in love with and married a fellow ballet student, Fernando Alonso. The new couple moved to New York City, hoping to begin their professional careers there and found a home with relatives in the Spanish Harlem section of the city. Alonso soon gave birth to a daughter, Laura, but managed to continue her training at the School of American Ballet and take private classes with Leon Fokine, Alexandra Fedorova, Enrico Zanfretta, and Anatole Vilzak. She even arranged to travel to London to study for a time with the renowned Vera Volkova. Meanwhile, her husband had joined the new Mordkin Ballet Company in New York.
Made Professional Debut
Surprisingly, Alonso debuted not as a ballerina, but in the chorus line of the musical comedies Great Lady (1938), which only ran for 20 shows, and Stars in Your Eyes (1939), with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante and choreography by George Balanchine.
Perhaps discouraged by this less-than-auspicious beginning, Alonso sent Laura back to her family in Cuba, determined to remove all distractions from her training. She and Fernando embarked upon a stringent and unrelenting physical regime and vigilantly scoured all opportunities for their big break into the world of ballet. Dancer Agnes de Mille had become a friend of the couple at this point and later recalled wondering how the Alonsos could put themselves through such grueling pain and sacrifice. Meanwhile, the dancer joined the American Ballet Caravan as a soloist in 1939 and stayed with the company when it became the New York City Ballet in 1940. Occasionally, Alonso would return to Cuba to dance as prima ballerina with Havana's Teatro Pro-Arte. (Alonso did all this traveling prior to the chilling of relations between the United States and Cuba.) She created her own works for the company during this period, including La Tinaja (1943), Lidia, and Ensayos Sinfonicos.
In 1941, the new Ballet Theater chose Alonso as a dancer for its corps de ballet, a group of dancers who performed together in a company. As part of this job, she had to do 90 minutes of demanding exercises every morning in the company class, but Alonso chose to take a second class at another school later in the day as well. Each night before her performance, she would do an elaborate warm-up routine coached by Fernando, after which she would go to her dressing room, dry off, and get into her costume. Accounts from this period say that Alonso would go on to give brilliant performances, but de Mille eventually chastised her friend for continuing the harsh regimen. Alonso reportedly replied that she had to continue in order to "get strong." In fact, the intense work had changed the dancer's body so that her immense strength and capability were obvious. Critics began to take notice and wrote rave reviews of the ballerina they called a rising star.
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. 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, Alonso 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. 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."
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 at Last
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 Theater'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, Anthony Tudor's Undertow (1943), Balanchine's Theme and Variations(1947), and in such world premieres as de Mille'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 Theater'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.
A New Endeavor in Havana
In 1948, Alonso returned to Havana to found her own company, the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company. 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.
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 Opera in 1953.
Political Change in Cuba
By the mid-1950s, the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company was in dire straights financially and politically. A dictator, Fulgencio Batista, had taken control and was determined to quash the heavy opposition to his rule. Supported by the island's financial infrastructure, the Mafia, and American business interests, he mercilessly repressed anyone who stood in his path. Declaring that all artists and intellectuals were left-wing sympathizers, he drastically cut what little funding the government had given Alonso's ballet school and touring group. Forced to work in nightclubs to earn a living, the dancers often had no energy to perform for Alonso. As the dancer became increasingly vocal in her disdain for Batista, the regime offered her five hundred dollars a month in perpetuity to stop her criticism. Disgusted, she folded her school in 1956 and joined the Ballet Rousse de Monte Carlo with Yousevitch.
Alonso worked with the Ballet Rousse 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.
Castro Lured Her Back Home
When he took power from the Batista dictatorship on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro also vowed to increase funding to the nation's languishing cultural programs. Encouraged by this sudden change and eager to see her homeland again, 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. She officially founded the school in 1960, and within several years her dancers were winning international dance competitions.
Alonso felt strongly that she and her ballet school were "very much part of the Cuban revolution." She wanted her dancers to bring the beauty and excitement of ballet to the island nation's workers and farmers who had virtually no experience with artistic expression. She and her dancers even helped to bring in the crops from the fields, Alonso wearing a wide Vietnamese worker's hat as a political statement.
Disappeared from American Artistic
Because of her intense and passionate affiliation with the new communist government in Havana, American audiences turned their backs on the prima ballerina and she vanished from the country's cultural radar. However, her company continued to build its prowess 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, Alonso was permitted 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." The state-run Cuban film industry made a film containing all of Alonso's repertoire, but in American ballet circles she had been all but forgotten.
Ended Days of Dancing
Alonso danced solos in Europe and elsewhere well into her 70s, although her near blindness became increasingly apparent. In 1995, she and a number of other aging National Ballet members performed in San Francisco in a piece called In the Middle of the Sunset. Reviewers deemed the work an allegory about the crushed dreams of the Cuban revolution and lamented that so many of the superstar's productive years had been spent under the isolating umbrella of communism.
Alonso continued to serve as the director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in the early twenty-first 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."
Commire, Anne, ed., Women in World History, Yorkin Publications, 2001.
"Alicia Alonso," Andros on Ballet website,http://androsdance.tripod.com (December 10, 2003).
"Alicia Alonso," Ballerina Gallery website,http://www.ballerinagallery.com (December 10, 2003).
"Alicia Alonso: Biografia," Portalatino.com website,http://www.portalatino.com (December 10, 2003).
"Alicia Alonso, Director of the Cuban Ballet," Cuban Journeys website,http://www.cubanjourneys.com (December 10, 2003).
"Alicia Alonso, Prima Ballerina, Ballet Nacional de Cuba Interview," Ballet.co website,http://www.ballet.co.uk (December 10, 2003).