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Revolutionary Moves

Change is in the air in Castro's Cuba. Can legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso keep her Havana-based National Ballet vital in these volatile political and economic times?

January 11, 1998|Jordan Levin | Jordan Levin is a Miami-based dance writer

Not surprisingly, the determination that enabled her to overcome a seemingly insurmountable disability also earned her the nicknameBlack Cobra, according to choreographer Agnes de Mille. Donald Saddler, a fellow dancer at ABT who became a Broadway choreographer, says Alonso "attacked everything with passion and fire. She had that dedication that goes beyond words."

He remembers one day in class when Antony Tudor, famous for reducing dancers to emotional shards, had Alonso in his sights. "She put her hands on her hips, and she said, 'Mr. Tudor, you can't ever make me cry,' " Saddler says. "He never picked on her again."

Alonso returned to Cuba as a performer as early as the '40s, and with Fernando founded the National Ballet in 1948 (it celebrates its 50th anniversary in October). At first, it was made up mostly of visiting American dancers and was supported by Alonso's earnings as a guest at ABT and other companies. But after Castro took over in 1959, the company became a state institution.

"Fidel, our president, was very conscious about culture," she says. His picture, with her and her dancers by his side, and a portrait of Che Guevara adorn the walls of her outer office. "So I sent a budget for a school and a company to the government, to Fidel, and he accepted it, and that's it. We have a theater, we have a school, and everything is subsidized."

Students selected for the Alicia Alonso National Ballet School study for free. "We audition every year all over the island," Alonso says proudly. "We are always searching for talent. That's why we have developed so fast."

In the early years, Alonso took her company on truck tours all over Cuba.

"We've been working 50 years to educate our people in ballet," she says. "Now from one end of the island to the other they know about ballet. This is also because I myself have danced in every corner of the island."

In the mid-'70s, Alicia and Fernando were divorced (he started another company in Camaguey), and she married Pedro Simon, a dance writer and editor. By then, the National Ballet was well-established as one of Cuba's proudest cultural achievements, and it regularly toured Europe and the Eastern bloc with Alonso alone at its head.

In fact, Alonso became virtually synonymous with the company she founded. She danced full-length classical parts into her 70s, even her daughter and her grandson have danced in the company. She still performs in a limited fashion; at the ABT gala in May, she did an excerpt, sitting and gesturing, from "Le Spectre de la Rose." Casting and repertory decisions remain in her hands at the National Ballet, and she even conducts some rehearsals, albeit with an assistant.

Asked which she considers her greatest achievement, her career or her company, Alonso answers without hesitation.

"They are a perfect balance," she says. "In the first part, I develop as an artist, getting strong inside as a person, develop my knowledge. Then when I got a name, I could share all that I knew and develop the company like a frame for all my work and all my art. This is the second part of a life. Otherwise, it's terrible. It is like a writer who has many ideas--but never writes!"

She claps her hands in emphasis and asks, "Do you see what I mean?"

At the moment, the former convent looks a bit more like a school for young women than a major professional company. The next generation at the National Ballet is also the current generation--most of the principal ballerinas, dancers like Hormigon, Valdes and and another Cinderella coming to Costa Mesa, Lorna Feijoo--are barely into their 20's. Some of the men are so young they still have adolescent acne; practicing a scene from "Don Quixote," four of them hide snickers and roll their eyes at their martinet of a rehearsal mistress, like boys laughing behind the teacher's back.

The girls seem mostly reserved and demure, hesitant about saying anything strongly.

"Well, it's a big responsibility," ventures Valdes, talking about her imminent debut as Giselle, Alonso's most famous role. "It is a challenge, because it's something the greatest ballerinas have done."

This is something Valdes knows only secondhand, because, she says, her huge dark eyes unblinking, she has never seen another ballet company dance, except on videotape. Neither has Anissa Curbelo, also 21. They talk about the prospect of performing in the United States almost diffidently.

"Well, yes, I'd love it. Every dancer wants to dance in New York," says Curbelo.

They don't seem to be the kind of girls who would follow a boyfriend to Florida at the age of 15 or log mental practice hours from a hospital bed. But then, they have little opportunity to show what they are made of. The National Ballet was built around Alonso and a highly stratified casting system with her at the top. Now that she is no longer performing, there is something of a hole at the company's center.

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