Alonso, Alicia (1921—)

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Alonso, Alicia (1921—)

Cuban ballet dancer and ballet troupe director of international reputation, who danced despite visual impairment. Born Alicia Martinez in Havana, Cuba, on December 21, 1921; daughter of Antonio Martinez and Ernestina (Hoyo) Martinez; studied ballet with Alexandra Fedorova, Leon Fokine, Anatole Vilzak, and Vera Volkova; married Fernando Alonso, in 1937; children: Laura Alonso (a ballerina).

Alicia Alonso was born in Havana, Cuba, on December 21, 1921, the daughter of Antonio Martinez and Ernestina Hoyo Martinez . Her father was an army officer, and Alicia grew up in comfortable circumstances in a fashionable section of the Cuban capital. Her love of dance revealed itself when she was still a very small child. Alicia's mother kept her occupied for long periods of time by simply putting the little girl in a room with a phonograph, some records, and a scarf. As Alicia recalled years later, "That would keep me quiet for a few hours, doing what I imagined was dancing." At the age of nine, she began taking ballet lessons, and a year later she gave her first public performance dancing a waltz in an abridged version of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty.

Alicia made excellent progress the next few years, but her future became an open question when a fellow student, Fernando Alonso, fell in love with her and she became pregnant. Though she was only 16, Alicia married Fernando in February 1937. Soon after, the couple moved to New York City to continue their dancing careers in one of the great centers of ballet and modern dance. The Alonsos lived with relatives in Spanish Harlem, attempting to raise their newborn daughter Laura and find success in a city that could be cold and indifferent. Fernando joined the newly organized Mordkin Ballet Company, while Alicia continued her training at the School of American Ballet. She studied privately as well with Alexandra Fedorova , Leon Fokine, and Anatole Vilzak. Alicia also went to London to study for a period with Vera Volkova . Ironically, it was not in ballet but in musical comedy that Alonso made her American professional debut. She appeared in the chorus line of two musicals. One of these, Great Lady (1938), ran for only 20 performances despite a score by Frederick Loewe, while the other, Stars in Your Eyes (1939), was somewhat more successful, perhaps because it boasted the talents of Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante and was choreographed by George Balanchine.

Grimly determined to be a great success, Alicia sent her little daughter back to Cuba to be raised by her family. Meanwhile, she and her husband hardened their bodies, improved their techniques, and looked for the big break. Her regimen was grueling. According to Agnes de Mille , few dancers would put themselves through such sacrifice and unrelenting pain. In 1941, Alicia was chosen by the newly formed Ballet Theater as a dancer in its corps de ballet. At 11 o'clock every morning, she did 90 minutes of demanding work in the company class. Then she would take a second class at another school for another two hours. Every night, just before her performance, Fernando coached her lengthy warm-up. Wet with perspiration, she went to her dressing room, dried off, got into her costume, and went on stage to give a brilliant performance. Concerned about Alicia's health, her

friend de Mille voiced concern about the toll exacted by such a harsh regimen ("Alicia, you will be exhausted"). Alicia responded in her Spanish accent, "Ahnes, I must do this … or I won't get strong. I must get strong."

In time, the constant exercise significantly changed Alonso's body, so she was capable of carrying out the immense physical demands ballet makes on those who practice the art. Her feet, which had been described by some observers as "more like spoons," changed; dance critics described them as strong as steel, yet "soft and caressing." Rave reviews from critics clearly indicated she was on the threshold of becoming a great star when disaster struck. In March 1941, she was diagnosed with a detached retina. After an operation, she was ordered to lie in bed absolutely motionless for three months while her eyes healed. With her eyes bandaged, and her body lying quite still, her feet moved under the covers throughout her convalescence as she did battements tendus, pointing and stretching her toes without moving her body. One of her fellow ballet dancers cautioned her not to move, but she responded, "I have to keep my feet alive."

After three months, the bandages were removed. Soon it was clear the operation had been only a partial success. A second operation also failed, and Alicia would always lack peripheral vision. A third operation, which took place in Havana, proved a brutal test; her physician told her that she would have to lie completely still for one year with her eyes in bandages. For 12 months, she could not move her head one-sixth of an inch, neither laugh nor cry, chew her food hard, or play with her daughter. Every day, Fernando sat with her, teaching her the great roles of classic ballet with her fingers. She would later recall that it was torture for her to "lie still, feeling my body gain weight and become flabby. I saw all the steps I had done and how often I had done them wrong. I danced in my mind. Blinded, motionless, lying flat on my back, I taught myself to dance Giselle." After a year in bed, Alicia was finally allowed to get up but was not yet permitted to dance. She took walks with her dog, and, against doctor's orders, visited the ballet studio two blocks down the street where she began daily practice to regain her technique.

When a hurricane bore down on Cuba while Alonso was still recovering her dancing skills, she went outside to help her dog, who had just given birth to puppies. Fierce winds shattered the glass door on the porch, showering her head and face with glass splinters. Fernando found her there screaming. Miraculously, her eyes were unhurt, and she escaped with only cuts and bruises. After the hurricane, her doctor allowed her to dance again, reasoning that if she could survive a shattered glass door, a resumption of dancing would probably do no harm.

An impatient Alonso returned to New York, her head still bandaged from the broken glass. With dramatic suddenness, she was asked to take the place of an indisposed Alicia Markova in Giselle. Her brilliant performance was praised to the skies, and a new ballet star was born. The next five years were extremely busy ones for Alonso and her husband, and in 1946 she was promoted to principal dancer of Ballet Theater. Besides dancing the title role in Giselle, which she alternated with Alicia Markova, many new roles came her way during these years, including that of the Accused in Fall River Legend, Agnes de Mille's dramatic ballet based on the Lizzie Borden case.

In 1948, Alonso returned to Havana in order to found her own company, the Ballet Alicia Alonso. Composed largely of Ballet Theater personnel temporarily out of work because of reorganization in New York, the new company was headed by Fernando Alonso as general director and his brother Alberto, a choreographer, as artistic director. Following a brief debut in Havana, the company undertook a successful South American tour. Using the money she had earned in recent years, Alonso kept her new ensemble alive, working all the while to improve its artistic standards by bringing some of the world's best ballet teachers to Cuba to train her young dancers. As usual, her life was a hectic one of commuting between Havana and New York. Her eyesight remained a serious problem, but she rarely, if ever, complained, dancing superbly even though objects on stage did not present themselves as they would to a person enjoying healthy sight. With partial sight in one eye but no peripheral vision, she had to learn how to move independently on an open stage. Her solution was to arrange for two very strong spotlights in different colors that were focused on the front of the stage a safe distance from the edge. Since she could sense these, she knew that if she stepped in their glow, she was in great danger of plunging into the orchestra pit. A wire was also stretched at waist height across the footlights as a further precaution. Usually she danced within the cage of her dance partner's arms or was led, so the audience did not notice. An extraordinary artist, Alicia Alonso entered the annals of dance history in the late 1940s, a woman nearly sightless yet one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.

In 1950, Alonso opened her own dance school in Havana, the Alicia Alonso Academy of Ballet, thanks to a modest subsidy from the Ministry of Education and donations from a number of wealthy patrons. Unfortunately, by the mid-1950s, Alonso's dance company was in serious trouble as much for political as for artistic reasons. The Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, was supported by most members of the island's financial oligarchy, American business interests, and the Mafia, but the majority of Cubans opposed his regime. He retaliated with bloody repression. Deciding that all artists and intellectuals had left-wing sympathies, Batista slashed the budget of Alonso's ballet troupe as well as that of her dance academy. To keep the company alive, the dancers worked in nightclubs and were exhausted the next day when they arrived for ballet practice.

When Alonso began to verbally flay Batista and his dictatorship in the best circles, the regime decided to deal with this potentially embarrassing artist in time-honored fashion, namely by bribery. Alonso was offered a monthly "subsidy" of $500 for the rest of her life, "in exchange for … keep[ing] my mouth shut." Outraged by such a crude effort to silence her, Alonso disbanded both her dance company and ballet school in 1956.

For the next three years, Alonso danced with the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the successor to the fabled Diaghilev company of a generation earlier. During these years, she became the first dancer from the West ever invited to dance in the Soviet Union. A ten-week tour of the USSR in the winter of 1957 gave her the opportunity to dance Giselle in Moscow, Leningrad, and other Soviet cities, to perform several pieces that were broadcast on Moscow television, and to star in the Leningrad Opera Ballet's three-act Path of Thunder, a strong artistic denunciation of the injustices of South Africa's system of apartheid. When she returned to the United States, she received the prestigious Dance Magazine Award in 1958.

In 1959, Alonso's world changed forever. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro's revolutionary movement overthrew the Batista dictatorship. Although she was a superstar in New York with a bright future, Alonso felt increasingly isolated and "very lonely" in a gilded cage of fame. She returned to Cuba, and, in March 1959, she received $200,000 from the revolutionary government to form a new ballet company and reopen her dance school. In 1960, her Ballet Nacional de Cuba became an official entity with a guarantee of annual financial support. Encouraged both financially and emotionally by the new popular regime, Alonso began to recruit and train a corps of highly motivated, superbly trained dancers. Within a few years, Alicia Alonso's company began taking top honors in numerous international dance competitions.

Alonso was a dedicated supporter of the new Cuban government, who believed fervently that she and her dancers were "very much part of the Cuban revolution." Devoted to the notion "ballet for everyone, with all the trimmings," Alonso saw that her task was to bring the beauty and exhilaration of dance to the vast number of workers and farmers in Cuba who had never been exposed to such an artistic experience. Indeed, for countless Cubans in fishing villages, factories, schools, parks and youth camps, Alicia Alonso's Ballet Nacional de Cuba was their first exposure to the art of the dance. A true believer in the revolution, she and her troupe actively participated in the harvest, bringing in the crops in the broiling sun. Alonso wore a huge Vietnamese hat that was as much a bold political statement as a practical piece of agricultural garb in the 1960s.

American hostility to the Castro regime guaranteed Alicia Alonso's virtual disappearance from cultural consciousness in the United States, where the remarkable achievements of her dance troupe were also unknown. She and her ensemble appeared in Western and Eastern Europe from 1960 to 1990. Occasionally, she performed in Canada (1967 and 1971), and American critics like Clive Barnes concluded that she remained a great dancer in whom "the elegant line of the truly classical ballerina was never missing." The end of the Vietnam War and the Nixon era made it somewhat easier for her to visit the United States, and her performances in 1975 and 1976 received highly positive reviews including one by Frances Herridge of the New York Post who noted that she triumphed in Carmen: "At fifty-four she creates more sexual promise than ballerinas half her age." By the time this review was written, Alonso was a grandmother with several grandchildren and her daughter Laura had been dancing as a soloist with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba for several years. The state-subsidized Cuban film industry did document Alonso's entire repertory on film, but otherwise her remarkable achievements were lost on the United States. Apparently ageless, Alonso continued to appear on stage as a solo dancer into her 70s. Her near-blindness remained a basic fact of her personal as well as artistic life, even though a 1972 operation had briefly provided hope for a genuine restoration of her eyesight.

A May 1995 performance in San Francisco offered a bittersweet commentary on the times and opportunities wasted for Alicia Alonso. She and her company, many of them also aging, performed In the Middle of the Sunset, which many felt was an allegory about the vanished hopes of the Cuban revolution and perhaps even of the Ballet Nacional as well. At this point, the 73-year-old Alicia Alonso's "virtual blindness [was] uneasily apparent." Nonetheless, an extraordinary artist, Alonso triumphed "as a theatrical presence through sheer nerve and determination, showing that she can still do a pirouette … and that her personality can still be magnetic."


"Alonso, Alicia," in Current Biography 1977. NY: H.W. Wilson, pp. 17–20.

Barnes, Clive. "Alicia Alonso," in The New York Times Biographical Service. June 1976, p. 798.

De Mille, Agnes. "Cuba's National Treasure: ¡Viva Alicia!," in Dance Magazine. Vol. 64, no. 8. August 1990, pp. 32–43.

——. Portrait Gallery. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Ehrmann, Hans. "Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Teatro Municipal, Santiago, Chile, June 15–18, 1991," in Dance Magazine. Vol. 65, no. 11. November 1991, pp. 88 and 90.

Gámez, Tana de. Alicia Alonso at Home and Abroad. With an Appreciation of the Artist by Arnold L. Haskell. NY: Citadel Press, 1971.

Kisselgoff, Anna. "San Francisco Festival Presents a Legend," in The New York Times. May 15, 1995, p. B3.

Kumin, Laura. "Alonso Surfaces in Madrid," in Dance Magazine. Vol. 66, no. 10. October 1992, pp. 22–23.

Terry, Walter. Star Performance: The Story of the World's Great Ballerinas. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Alonso, Alicia (1921—)

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