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Alicia Alonso Edit Profile

choreographer , Ballerina

Alicia Alonso is a Cuban prima ballerina assoluta and choreographer. Her company became the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1955. She is most famous for her portrayals of Giselle and the ballet version of Carmen.

Background

Alonso, Alicia was born on December 21, 1921 in Havana, Cuba. Daughter of Antonio Martinez-Arrenondo and Ernestina del Hoyo.

Education

When she was eight years old she traveled to Spain with her father. At the suggestion of her grandfather, she began to study Spanish dance, including the castanets. On returning to Cuba the following year she joined a private ballet school, the Escuela de Ballet de la Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical, and in her own words, "From the moment I put my hand on the barre, I was enthralled" (Boccadoro 1998). (The school now houses the company she founded, Ballet Nacional de Cuba.)

Career

Her professional dancing career began in 1938 on Broadway where she appeared in the musical comedies Great Lady and Stars in Your Eyes. In 1940 she became a member of the Ballet Theatre of New York, the precursor to the American Ballet Theatre. It was here that she began the most successful part of her career and was acclaimed by the critics for her work in the great masterpieces of classical and romantic ballet. She worked with some of the best choreographers of that era Bronislava Nijinska, Anthony Tudor, Jerome Robbins and danced lead roles in the world premieres of such seminal ballets as Undertow and created the ballerina role in George Balanchine's Themes and Variations.

Alonso also created roles for contemporary ballets, including that of accused murderer Lizzie Borden in Fall River Legend (1948), which was choreographed by American dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille. Although detached retinas in both eyes left her virtually blind in her early twenties, she retrained herself to dance without vision, relying on her partners or on strategically placed lights for guidance. From 1938 to 1948 Alonso was at the prime of her career as a dancer. She traveled the world as prima ballerina with the then-fledging American Ballet Theatre.

While all her performances were consistently and widely acclaimed, her interpre-tations of Giselle her most famous role and Carmen have been heralded as particularly noteworthy. It is said that Alonso's style of dancing was characterized by her ability to stay perfectly on pointe and balance until signaled out of pose by her partners.

Throughout her years dancing in the United States, she felt restless about the lack of a professional school of dance in Cuba. In a country that had no classical dance tradition, the Alonsos built a dance company in 1948 the Ballet Alicia Alonso. During layoff periods and vacation from the American Ballet Theatre, Alonso returned to Cuba to teach, choreograph, and dance with her new company. Her husband, as dancer and teacher, and her brother-in-law Alberto Alonso, ballet master and choreographer, were essential colleagues in this endeavor. The prestige of Alonso's name brought much support in the form of imported professional colleagues from the Ballet Theatre to help train new dancers and reinforced her ideal of the highest teaching standards. Knowing that a training regime is crucial to the development of a cadre of dancers, she established a ballet academy where Cuban boys and girls could be trained in classical dancing from an early age.

Alonso's career continued to prosper; she performed annually with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and became the first Western ballerina ever to be invited to dance in the Soviet Union. She achieved a milestone in 1957 and 1958 as the first dancer from the North American continent to perform as guest artist with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. During these years she shared her international activities with those of her own troupe in Cuba, which received little, if any, official support until 1959, when Fidel Castro offered her assistance and the company changed its name to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Since that time it has prospered, becoming one of the world's best-known and admired national ballet companies.

Starting in 1960, and with support from the Cuban government, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba toured Russia, the People's Republic of China, visited a number of cities in Westena Europe. The company's success went beyond performances to include numerous medals and awards at international ballet competitioias for its individual dancers. In terms of its repertory, the company included a creative works program where the great traditional ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake were augmented with new works that incorporated Latin American themes of the indigenous, African, and Hispanic heritages. Alonso herself had impressed audiences with her characteristically passionate and dazzling interpretations of classical ballet roles; in her role as general director, she sought out choreographers whose dances reflected their Latino and Caribbean roots. One of the better-known dances that has come out of the company is The River and the Forest, a rhythmic, almost vibratory dance that incorporates rituals to the Changó deity from tire Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.

Achievements

  • Nevertheless, Alonso is highly respected and recognized both inside and out-side Cuba. Throughout her lifetime she has received numerous honorary doctoral degrees and other awards worldwide. In 1998 she received the Gold Medal of the Circulo de Bellas Artes de Madrid (Fine Arts Circle of Madrid); France honored her with the Order of Arts and Letters in the Degree of Knight Commander; and the Council of State of Cuba honored her as the National Hero of Labor of the Republic of Cuba. Recognizing her extraordinary contribution to dance, she was awarded the Pablo Picasso Medal by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1999. Among the Cuban Revolution's most applauded cultural accomplishments has been Alonso's artistic vision and her creation of the world-acclaimed Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Her choreographic versions of the greatest classics are internationally celebrated and staged by important companies.

Works

  • Other Work

    • Choreographer Giselle, Swan Lake, Fille Mal Gardee, Sleeping Beauty, Grand Pas de Quatre, Copelia, Ensayo Sinfonico, Lydia, El Pillete, El Circo, Mision Korad, Genesis, Dido abandonada, Gottschalk Symphony.

Politics

Alonso's tenure with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which not too long ago celebrated its 50th anniversary, has not been without political controversy. Some of the best dancers in the company have defected or spent long periods of time performing out of the country. Her close relationship with Fidel Castro, whose picture adorns the walls of the company, has been a point of contention for some of the dancers who attribute the low morale within the company to what they perceive as the repressive and retaliatory measures that are used against those who do not follow the Communist Party's political line.

Personality

Physical Characteristics: After seeing the doctor for worsening vision problems, Alonso was diagnosed in 1941 with a detached retina. She had surgery to correct the problem. This surgery consisted of completely removing the eyeball, injecting it with an antibiotic and putting it back in She was ordered to lie motionless in bed for 3 months so her eyes could completely 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, she 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 lie 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. She 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.

Connections

Among her classmates was Fernando Alonso, whose mother was a major contributor and president of Pro-Arte. They fell in love, and Alonso (known then as Unga Martinez), followed Fernando to the United States where he was auditioning a feat remarkable for a sixteen-year-old at that time. While in the United States she became pregnant and married Fernando. They had a daughter and made New York their home. In New York Alonso continued to study and dance with such well-known teachers as Enrico Zanfreta and Alexandra Fedorova.

father:
Antonio Martinez-Arrenondo Ernestina

mother:
Ernestina

spouse:
Pedro Simon Alonso