Alicia Alonso Martínez (born Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez Hoya on December 21, 1920) is the Cuban Prima Ballerina Assoluta and choreographer. Her company became the Ballet de Cuba in 1955. She is most famous for her portrayals of Giselle and the ballet version of Carmen. Since she was nineteen, Alicia 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 her.
Alonso was born in Havana, Cuba. She was the 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 indicated at a very early age, produced 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. Alonso danced in Cuba under the name of Alicia Martínez.
The dancers rapid progress in her lessons came to an abrupt halt in 1937, when the 15-year-old fell in love with a fellow ballet student, Fernando Alonso, whom she married. After her marriage, she changed her last name 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 soon gave birth to a daughter, Laura, but managed to continue her training at the School of American Ballet and took private classes with Michel Fokine, Alexandra Fedorova, Enrico Zanfretta and Anatole Vilzak. She then arranged a travel to London to study with the renowned Vera Volkova. Meanwhile, her husband had joined the new Mordkin Ballet Company in New York.
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 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 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
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.
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.
Between 1955 and 1959, Alicia danced every year 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. She has staged her versions of Giselle, Pas de Quatre, and The Sleeping Beauty for the Paris Opera. She also staged Giselle at the Vienna State Opera and the San Carlo Theater of Naples, Italy; La Fille Mal Gardée at the Prague State Opera, and Sleeping Beauty at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
Political change in Cuba
By the mid-1950s, the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company was in dire straits financially and politically. A dictator, Fulgencio Batista, had taken control and was determined to squash 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 Russe 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.
Return to Cuba
When Fidel Castro took power from the Batista dictatorship 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 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. 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. 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. Critics point out her indifference to the Castro regime's brutality and the hypocrisy of a "culture-friendly" regime that banned even the unauthorized loaning of books from one citizen to another.
Disappearance from American artistic scene
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 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." 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.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba performing in the Great Theater of Havana Ended days of dancing and beyond Alonso's careerAlonso 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.
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."
As director and leading dancer of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Alicia Alonso has been an inspiration and guide to the new generations of Cuban dancers. With her own consummate style, she has left her mark on the international world of dance. Some of her former and more famous 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. She has created her own works including La Tinaja, Ensayos Sinfonicos, and Lidia. She appeared in a feature-length documentary made in Cuba about her and her work Alicia (1977). She has served on juries at international dance competitions in Bulgaria, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and the United States.
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, through which she has promoted the ideals of UNESCO and the fellowship of the world's peoples and cultures.
She continues to direct her Ballet Nacional de Cuba, even though she is in her nineties and almost blind.
the Dance Magazine Annual Award, 1934
the Dance Magazine Annual Award, 1958
the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris, 1966
Anna Pavlova Award of the University of Dance, Paris, 1966
the 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
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