Jewel in the crown … Ballet Nacional’s Giselle
If Fidel Castro is the lifelong patriarch of the Cuban nation, Alicia Alonso is the lifelong matriarch of its national ballet. Like Cuba itself, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which Alonso founded and still rules, is utterly distinctive: it fields world-class dancers while remaining culturally isolated from the wider ballet world.
Alonso built and continues to preside over the Cuban National Ballet, even as she approaches 90; her story is the company’s story.
Born Alicia Martínez in Havana, 1920, Alonso studied ballet in Cuba and eloped to New York with fellow student Fernando Alonso, aged just 15. After dancing on Broadway, she joined Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre), becoming an outstanding dancer and performing with them intermittently until 1960. Her heart, though, belonged to Cuba. In 1948, determined to establish classical ballet in her home country, she founded the Ballet Alicia Alonso in Havana, together with her husband and his brother Alberto. At first, most of the dancers were American, but after 1950, when a school had been set up, Cubans began increasingly to swell its ranks. In 1955, it was renamed Ballet de Cuba.
But dissent was in the air. Protesting not only against funding cuts but against the corruption of Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, Alonso closed both company and school in 1956, and left to perform in Europe, Russia and America. The Cuban revolution of 1959, which Alonso supported, allowed her to return. Castro, now in power, gave Alonso a substantial state subsidy as part of a wide-ranging cultural programme, and the company embarked on its current incarnation as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Still dancing … Alonso, 58, and Jorge Esquivel in Giselle in 1978
Thanks to Castro’s programme, which gave free tuition to talented students, ballet was able to flourish in Cuba, and the Ballet Nacional quickly attained world-class stature, with a core repertory of 19th-century classics, supplemented by a few international and home-grown pieces, often on Cuban themes. Its most successful production is Giselle, and for many years Alonso – who continued to perform until her 70s – became almost synonymous with its title role.
The future, however, is uncertain. Castro, Alonso’s long-time ally, conceded the presidency to his younger brother Raúl in 2008. And while Alonso herself remains the company figurehead – her headscarf and lipstick are almost as iconic as Castro’s cigar – she has made no plans for succession. “I am going to live to 200,” she said in 2005. “Maybe, I live longer.”
Watching Ballet Nacional de Cuba
There are two sides to the Ballet Nacional: the dances and the dancers. In Cuba, where ballet is a respected, decently paid profession, many talented dancers end up in the Ballet Nacional. There they combine a Russian-style classical training with Latin flair, and are in demand the world over. For every top-ranking dancer who leaves for foreign companies – Carlos Acosta, for example – there are several more who remain in Cuba. The men are especially well-known for their effortless bravura, but there are some knockout ballerinas, too. Watch out for Viengsay Valdés, who can spend vast amounts of time casually striking phenomenal balances on pointe.
The dances themselves are a different matter: years of cultural isolation have lent the repertory an old-fashioned feel. On the plus side, the core 19th-century classics are hardly museum pieces: they may be presented against rather dilapidated sets, but they are performed with plenty of vitality. The downside is that there’s little new or modern choreography worth speaking of.
Dancing queen … Ballet mistress Loipa Araújo performing in Coppelia
Loipa Araújo, a former ballerina with the company, is the main ballet mistress, and tipped by some as the natural successor to Alonso. Previous star dancers have included Jorge Esquivel and Josefina Mendez. Current dancers include Valdés, Anette Delgado and Joel Carreño.
Top international dancers who began at the Ballet Nacional include Acosta (Royal Ballet), José Manuel Carreño (American Ballet Theatre), Lorena Feijoo (San Francisco Ballet) and Yat-Sen Chang (English National Ballet).
Alonso suffered from detached retinas and was partially blind throughout her long performing career, relying on spotlights and partners to guide her around the stage – which fellow dancers sometimes found nerve-racking. But that was nothing compared to a moment in 1950 when Alonso accompanied American Ballet Theatre to Berlin. The pilot had invited dancers to visit the cockpit, when at one point, ballerina Nora Kaye started screaming. “Do you know who’s flying this plane?” she yelled at the others, “Alicia Alonso! Do something about it!”
Top pointes … Viengsay Valdés in Don Quixote
In their own words
“I may die blind, but I will die dancing.” – Alonso, quoted by Judith Mackrell in the Guardian, 2005
“I’ll still be running this company in 100 years’ time.” – Alonso, 89, talking to Judith Mackrell in the Guardian, 2010
“I think Fidel and Alicia understood each other from the start.” – Araújo, company ballet mistress, talking to Michael Voss in BBC News, 2008
In other words
“The Alonsos forged the Cuban style out of old Russian and western techniques, grafted on to an extrovert national temperament and culture, blending Africa with Spain. There is Cuban joie de vivre and sensuality, but equally musicality and academic precision.” – Nadine Meisner in the Independent, 2003
“The Alonso stagings of the 19th-century classics occasionally have an old-fashioned look, which is not necessarily a flaw.” – Anna Kisselgoff in the New York Times, 2003
“Cuba has consistently produced wonderful classical dancers … Cuban men, in particular, bring a joyful flair to ballet that is comparable with the Brazilian genius for football.” – Luke Jennings in the Observer, 2006
If someone criticises Alonso’s directorship, try answering: “History will absolve her.” It’s a reference to a famous Castro quote, in which he justified his actions as being for the greater good.
“I thought they were going to do Cuban motion?”
You’re thinking of ballroom, not ballet. Do not look for this kind of thing from Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Pas de deux … Alonso and Azari Plisetsky in Swan Lake, 1968
Quite a few national ballet companies were founded by indomitable women, including the Royal Ballet (Ninette de Valois), National Ballet of Canada (Celia Franca), Australian Ballet (Peggy van Praagh) and Dutch National Ballet (Sonia Gaskell).
Now watch this
Alonso and Azari Plisetsky in Swan Lake, 1968
Alonso, 58, as Giselle, with Jorge Esquivel in 1978
Delgado and Joel Carreño, Diana and Acteon pas de deux
Valdés and Rómel Frometo in Don Quixote, Paris, 2007
Where to see them next
See the Ballet Nacional de Cuba website (in Spanish) for performance dates.