Alicia Alonso was born on December 21, 1920 in Havana, Cuba, one of two daughters of an army officer and his wife. They lived in a fashionable section of the then energetic capital. At about eight, Alicia began her study of ballet at the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical with Sophie Fedorova.
In 1937 at the age of just sixteen, she fell in love with a fellow ballet student, Fernando Alonso, whom she married.
The couple decided to move to New York City to begin their professional careers and lived with relatives near Riverside Drive. Alonso soon gave birth to her daughter, Laura, but continued her training at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet while taking private classes from Michel Fokine, Alexandra Fedorova, Enrico Zanfretta and Anatole Vilzak. Her husband had joined the Mordkin Ballet Company in New York.
In 1941 Alonso was diagnosed with a detached retina and thus, began the problems with her vision which were to worsen throughout her life. In this first period, she was to lie motionless in bed for three months. She was to say of this time, ‘I danced in my mind. Blinded, motionless, flat on my back, I taught myself to dance Giselle’.
Very impatient and still partially blind, Alonso travelled back to New York in 1943 to begin trying to get back into condition. She was barely settled when she was asked to dance Giselle to replace the Ballet Theatre’s injured prima ballerina. She was promoted to principal dancer of the company in 1946 and danced the role of Giselle until 1948. She also performed in Swan Lake, Anthony Tudor’s ‘Undertow’ (1943), Balanchine’s ‘Theme and Variations’ (1947) and deMille’s ‘Fall River Legend’ (1948).
When I first saw Alonso dance in the middle 1950’s in the Ballets Russes, I was mesmerised by her commanding presence on stage and by her strength. She was partnered at that time by Igor Youskevitch. There was no awareness of visual impairment as she stunningly performed her 32 fouettes in the Black Swan pas de deux. ‘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.’
In this next film with Youskevitch, if you look very closely, you can see how she is being guided:
Alonso returned to Cuba in 1948 to founder own ballet company ,Alicia Alonso Ballet Company, which she did with little financial support. This company was to become the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Her husband was the general director and out-of work dancers came from the reorganisation of the Ballet Theater in New York. 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 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 St. Petersburg respectively in 1957 and 1958. During the decades to follow Alicia Alonso had cross-world tours: 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 Gardee at the Prague State Opera and Sleeping Beauty at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.’ [wikiped.]
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 KirovTheaters of Moscow andLeningrad (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 Gardee at the Prague State Opera, and Sleeping Beauty at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
Each of the famous ballerinas in Pas de Quatre has a little solo. They appear in order of performance: Nora Kay, Melissa Hayden, Mia Slavenska and Alicia Alonso.
Her eyesight never improved only worsened. Alonso has described receiving a message from Fidel Castro sent from his hiding place in 1958 inviting her to head a ballet company upon the triumph of the ‘July 26 Movement’. This ‘Movement’ began as anti-dictatorship against a corrupt Batista regime. As we know, like so many revolutions, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 did not end that way. Alonso returned to Cuba in March 1959 with funding of $200,000 to found a national school which became the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Because of her passionate affiliation with the new communist regime, American audiences turned their backs on her. From 1960-1980 the Cuban government monitored any Cuban with outside contacts. Meanwhile her company continued to build its achievements. In 1967 and 1971 she was allowed to perform in Canada. When the Vietnam War ended and President Nixon left the White House, Castro permitted her to perform again in the United States in 1975 and 1976. By then she was a fifty-four year old grandmother. She performed into her seventies, although her increasing blindness was apparent.
Alicia Alonso continues to be an inspiration to new generations of Cuban dancers. She has built an institution for young talent on the back of national struggle, austerity and physical disability. She managed to be ‘a thing of beauty’ when she performed.