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More than marking time

In her 80s, Cuba's premier ballet figure isn't ready to stop. She has dancers to inspire.

December 26, 2007|Anne-Marie Garcia | Associated Press

HAVANA — With failing eyesight that has plagued her most of her life, octogenarian ballet star and choreographer Alicia Alonso depends on her hearing to conduct daily rehearsals with her dance company, imagining the dancers in her mind as she instructs them.

She stands, as she does every morning, with eyes closed, marking time with her head, as she leads a rehearsal at the National Ballet of Cuba.

Dancer Claudia Sanchez approaches the prima ballerina assoluta to ask about the position of her head and arms. "Remain strong like that, so that the arms don't go back," Alonso says, demonstrating the correct stance.

The students show no pity for the dancer, only admiration -- even awe. "She is impressive," says the 19-year-old Sanchez. "When I see her, I feel nervous."

It's been six decades since Alonso formed the internationally acclaimed National Ballet of Cuba, creating a company that fused Russian and Western technique with the dance legend's own classical stylings. Now she remains grateful for a life that produced exquisite interpretations of Giselle and Carmen, and one of the most brilliant performances of "Swan Lake," performed with partner Igor Youskevitch when both danced with American Ballet Theatre.

She was at the time partly blind, guided on stage by her partner's placement and the lights.

"Life is not unjust with anyone," she says in an interview with the Associated Press. "One is unjust with life because it always . . . demands you to do what you really can do."

Alonso, clothed in a black skirt and jacket, with a tan scarf draped over her shoulders and another wrapped around her head, had her lipstick retouched and the string of pearls around her neck arranged before beginning the interview. "Am I all right?" she asked her husband, Pedro Mendez.

Born in Havana on Dec. 21, 1920, as Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez Hoya, she would love to live many more years.

"I think that science has advanced so much we do not have to put a limit at 200 years. Let's see what science comes up with," she says. "Are you tired of living? I'm not."

Alonso was about 9 when she began studying ballet at Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical in Havana. One of her first performances was in Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty." She married another ballet student, Fernando Alonso, when she was 15 and they moved to New York, where she danced with Ballet Caravan, now the New York City Ballet. In 1940, she joined the Ballet Theatre of New York, which became American Ballet Theatre.

The road to becoming prima ballerina assoluta opened wider in 1943, when she went on for Alicia Markova, one of the 20th century's greatest dancers, in a production of "Giselle" directed by Anton Dolin at the New York's Metropolitan Opera House.

Alonso had just returned to ballet after a two-year absence during which she underwent three operations.

"While I was ill, I continued dancing in my head," says Alonso, who did not provide details about her eye ailment.

When Dolin asked his dancers who wanted to replace Markova, Alonso was the only one to step up. The role brought her fame as a dancer willing to break with convention.

"Then, they thought a Caribbean native could only do the rumba," Alonso says. "I broke with that to become the first ballerina of classical ballet in Cuba."

Alonso worked with great choreographers such as Michel Fokine and Anthony Tudor, and danced with the Russian icon Rudolf Nureyev, among others. She later choreographed some of her own works.

Although she had offers from the United States and elsewhere, she eventually returned home to Cuba, where there was no professional ballet company.

"I realized one day that I had to stay here," Alonso recalls. She and Fernando Alonso opened a ballet company in 1948, along with the Cuban School of Ballet. She kept her last name after their divorce.

Money problems forced the ballet company to close in 1956 during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. But shortly after the Cuban Revolution, Alonso got a visit from Fidel Castro, a man she described as "a great personality." With Castro's support, the company was reopened and Cuban ballet was reborn. It continues to receive support from the communist government.

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