Alicia Alonso: forever prima | Backstory

How did Havana come to be one of the world’s leading centres of classical ballet? Nazma Muller tells the story of prima donna assoluta Alicia Alonso, and her influence on generations of Cuban dancers

  • Young dancers of the Ballet Nacional. Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Cuba’s Ballet Nacional performing in 1974. Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Alicia Alonso and Reyes Fernández in Giselle, 1960. History and Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Beneath the chandeliers of Havana’s Gran Teatro Nacional, the packed rows buzzed with anticipation. Then a murmuring spread through the crowd, and suddenly everyone was on their feet applauding, as the grand dame of Cuban ballet was led to her seat. The standing ovation for Cuba’s first prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Alonso, was a spontaneous outpouring of respect for the woman who, along with her husband and brother-in-law, created the world-acclaimed Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

It may seem strange that this salsa-loving people embraced ballet — Cuba is the first and only Caribbean country to produce a world-class company. Like so much that is Cuban, the Ballet Nacional is the result of grit, innovation, and passion. The love affair between Alicia and Fernando Alonso gave birth to a style of ballet that mesmerised the world.

As iconic as Fidel Castro himself, Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez y del Hoyo, born on 21 December, 1921, is loved and respected by the Cuban people for her contribution to the arts. As a child, she studied flamenco in Spain, then ballet in Havana, where she met her future husband, a fellow ballet student. As a teenager, she was so dedicated to her craft, Fernando recalled, that she would answer the door in pointe shoes.

When Fernando moved to New York City in 1937, Alicia, sixteen years old, managed to join him, and the two subsequently married. A year later, she enrolled at the School of American Ballet, taking a break to give birth to their daughter Laura the following year. In 1938, she made her US debut in the musical comedy Great Lady, and in 1939 she joined George Balanchine’s Ballet Caravan.

In 1940, Alonso moved to the newly formed Ballet Theatre (later the American Ballet Theatre), but after just one year she suffered what might have been a death blow to her career, when her right retina detached during a performance. After three separate surgeries she spent two years recovering, confined to her bed for long periods. Fernando helped his wife to “learn” new roles by demonstrating her steps with her fingers.

Alonso returned to New York and the Ballet Theatre in 1943. Unexpectedly, and almost immediately, she was asked to replace the company’s injured prima ballerina and dance the lead in Giselle — one of the most challenging roles in the classical repertoire. Despite her severe vision problems, requiring the use of extra-bright lights to guide her during performances, Alonso stunned the critics with her spellbinding portrayal. A legendary career was now under way.

Giselle remained one of Alsonso’s signature roles, alongside other classics like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Promoted to principal dancer of the Ballet Theatre, she remained with the company for five years before starting to tour as a guest dancer with partner Igor Youskevitch. Over the next fourteen years, her performances took her around the world, dancing at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Kirov in Leningrad — the first Western dancer to perform in the Soviet Union — as well as the Paris Opera, with an annual guest role with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1955 to 1959. Her own company, co-founded in Havana with Fernando and his brother Alberto in 1948, was renamed Ballet de Cuba in 1955, but closed the following year because of financial difficulties.

Then came 1959, the Cuban Revolution, and the rise to power of Fidel Castro. A supporter of the revolution, Alonso was given a grant of US$200,000 by Castro to found a new dance school, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, where her husband joined her in training a new generation of talent.

Fernando was an innovative teacher. Combining his understanding of physics, kinesiology, and anatomy with traditional ballet training, he was instrumental in developing the Cuban style of ballet, which couples classical rigour with the physicality of Latin dance. His experience of coaching Alicia through her near-blindness also influenced his method, which included a balance exercise where dancers had to shut their eyes.

He had studied techniques from France, Italy, Denmark, Russia, and Britain, which he used to develop his own methodology. The resulting Cuban technique has its origins in the Russian Vaganova method, which emphasises the entire body. The torso is the foundation of all movement, so the dancer is trained to have a strong and well-aligned torso. Movements are achieved through control of the core, so actions are very clean and precise. What distinguishes the Cuban method from the others is its romantic feel. It also combines high Russian extensions and jumps with intricate Italian footwork, French arm artistry, and British attention to detail, adding expressiveness and drama to classical ballet movements. The Cuban method revolutionised ballet, you might say, with its superb technique and impeccable footwork.

As a symbol of Cuban artistic achievement, the Ballet Nacional was allowed to tour the world, performing its renditions of classics like Les Sylphides, Coppélia, and, of course, its signature work, Giselle. The US barred the company from performing during the Cold War, prompting the dance critic for the New York Times, Clive Barnes — who saw the Cubans perform in Canada in 1971 — to write, “We may be so struck by the way they dance Swan Lake that as a nation we may spontaneously demand Fidel Castro as president.”

Alongside her role as teacher and mentor, Alonso continued to dance, into her eighth decade. In 1995, at the age of seventy-two, she gave her last performance. Four years later, UNESCO awarded her the Pablo Picasso Medal for notable contributions to arts or culture. The Ballet Nacional itself received the Grand Prix at the Paris International Festival of Dance in 1970.

Cuban government funding for the Ballet Nacional continues to this day. The directors scour the island for gifted students, searching Cuba’s fourteen provinces for children with aptitude for the art: musicality, good body proportions, and the ability to follow simple steps. The training is intense, with students required to dance from 7 am to 1.30 pm, their studies covering character dances, folklore, African dances, historical dances, salon dances — even a bit of piano, French, and music sight-reading. And Alicia Alonso herself — now ninety-seven — remains at the helm.

During the eight years of their training, Ballet Nacional students receive financial support from the government. If they become one of the forty professionals the school turns out annually, they earn a salary on par with that of doctors and skilled workers. Boys are encouraged to audition as much as girls — and, despite Cuban machismo, many have become professional dancers, encouraged by the rewards of being part of the Ballet Nacional.

Case en pointe is Carlos Acosta, perhaps the most famous ballet dancer today. Born in Havana, he trained at the Ballet Nacional before joining Britain’s Royal Ballet in 1998, and has achieved a stellar international career, while also founding the dance company Acosta Danza in Cuba.

In July 2018, in celebration of its seventieth anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba was declared part of the cultural heritage of Cuba. The declaration was signed by Minister of Culture Abel Prieto. The document recognises the Ballet Nacional as “the ultimate expression of the Cuban school of ballet, which has achieved its own physiognomy where the tradition of theatrical dance merges with the essential features of the national culture.”

If you need further evidence of Cuba’s central role in contemporary ballet, consider the biennial International Ballet Festival of Havana, founded in 1960 and now named in honour of Alicia Alonso. Leading companies, dancers, and choreographers from around the world have taken the stage at the Gran Teatro, with performances including 198 world premieres to date. It’s an extraordinary example of ballet’s essential combination of tradition and innovation — and its presiding presence is still the prima ballerina assoluta herself.