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Ballet Nacional de Cuba - Alicia Alonso interview

Posted February 23, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
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BY OCTAVIO ROCA | Miami Herald

‘‘I don’t think it is worth commenting on them,’’ says Alicia Alonso about the five young dancers who bailed out of her Ballet Nacional de Cuba tour last fall and defected to the United States.

Then she proceeds to comment anyway on the actions of Cervilio Amador and Gema Díaz, of Adiarys Almeida, Violeta Serrat and Luis Valdes, the latest protagonists of a Cuban ballet diaspora that has been going on for nearly half a century, including 20 in 2003.

‘‘Of course it affects us,’’ says Alonso, founder and head of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. “Not as a company, because we have 110 beautiful dancers, and we have more coming up each year through our school. But as human beings, I wish they had waited to develop a little more, to be better formed. Those young people who left may not believe this, but I worry about them.’’

A series of phone conversations with Alonso and her husband, Pedro Simon, finds the pair in a reflective mood following a critically successful, though politically controversial tour. Simon is disarmingly candid about the defections.

‘‘When a dancer leaves our company, the artistic effect is probably the same as when a dancer leaves any company,’’ says Simon, who reveals that the New York City Ballet is making overtures to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s young Joel Carreño. “Those are artistic realities. But we have special political and social realities here, and that means that there are social and political repercussions when dancers leave.’‘

Still, Alonso is not fazed. She maintains that ‘‘this is what we always have wanted to do: To share our art, to share our Cuban ballet.’’ She has been sharing her art for decades.

She is unique in the world of culture: one of the greatest of all time and a political figure who polarizes argument in every corner of the Cuban diaspora. Castro kept his part of the Faustian pact with Alonso: Under his auspices, Alonso created one of the finest ballet companies anywhere, in a tiny island nation.

How will history judge this formidable woman?

Alonso’s proudest achievement is ‘‘dedicating myself completely to dance,’’ and she sees her Giselle, a role Alonso virtually owned, as ‘‘not a personal success, but rather a triumph for Latin American culture.’’ She has a point: The Paris Opera, Vienna State Opera, Teatro Colon, all have turned to Cuba for the last word in staging Giselle. That a French masterpiece based on a German poem, once best known through Russian interpretations, would be defined by a Cuban ballerina is one of history’s surprises. There are details in Miami City Ballet’s current production of Giselle that bear the stamp of this Havana native.

Alicia Alonso was a key player in what would become the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, starred in Broadway musicals with Ethel Merman, learned Les Sylphides from Mikhail Fokine himself and was the inspiration for masterpieces by George Balanchine and Antony Tudor.

She has been virtually blind throughout most of her career. ‘‘I used to love painting, you know,’’ she says wistfully. ‘‘I did a few cositas (little things) that were not bad, a few watercolors. I can’t do that anymore.’’ But blindness, revolutions or even the passage of time cannot contain this woman. At 84, she remains an indomitable giant.

She is feisty, especially so when busting the myth that the success of Cuban ballet was the result of the Soviet Union’s influence. Thanks to Alonso, in fact, ballet may well have been the one aspect of Cuban life not influenced by the Soviets.

‘‘The Cuban style comes from deep within the Cuban spirit, from our joys and from our sadness,’’ Alonso says. “Some people are turned inward. The Cubans are always out, sensual. The Cuban ballet style comes from me, from my way of projecting my whole being.

‘‘What looks natural on the Soviets,’’ she says, ‘‘would have looked mimetic, like a mannerism on us. We had a hard time explaining that to our Soviet friends.’’ Alonso refused Russian ballet teachers ‘‘except for character dances: They do czardas, mazurkas very well.’’ She also discouraged her own dancers from taking advantage of Soviet scholarships.

‘‘When Lázaro Carreño did go study in Moscow,’’ Simon recalls, “we had to spend months after he returned just getting him to dance like a Cuban again. It was a constant fight with Alicia.’‘

Other fights we may never know about. And there is only so much that an artist working inside Cuba today can or cannot discuss. But the proof of Alonso’s success and that of her school is on stage whenever her Cuban dancers dance.

Her support of the Castro regime lends it cultural cachet. This, in turn, marks her among Cuban exiles as someone whose role is to prop up the regime. But, how political is she?

Ex-husband Fernando Alonso, perhaps unkindly, once said: ‘‘Alicia has only an eighth-grade education—she is not a sophisticated political thinker.’’ More recently he has worried publicly about ‘‘our best dancers leaving, and Alicia not seeing what is going on.’’ Yet it is worth noting that he is no longer running the company he cofounded with the woman who divorced him. And that Alicia Alonso’s shrewd co-production ventures with European theaters such as Venice’s La Fenice and Bologna’s Teatro Communale have given the Cuban ballet access to economic resources otherwise nonexistent in Cuba since the fall of the Soviets.

She may be running her company the only way she knows how, making sure it lives. Thanks to her, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba will be there after Castro, much as the Bolshoi and the Kirov have maintained their place in Russian culture after 1989.

Antony Tudor, a dance genius who knew Alonso well, said after her 1976 return to the United States that “they bring her out and ask her all these questions about politics, and she plays along. But she only knows dance. She is only, completely, a dancer.’‘

‘‘Art has no homeland, but I do,’’ Alonso says. “I am Cuban. And I am a dancer. For a Cuban, dancing is the most natural thing in the world.’‘

It is easy to judge kindly and even with gratitude the profoundly instinctive wisdom of this blind seer, this modern-day Tiresias. It is also easy to be moved by the success of her most famous creation. Dancing through the darkness, making every gesture matter and keeping hope alive through the cruelest ordeals: Those are the themes of Giselle. It is ‘‘the most natural thing in the world’’ for the Cuban people to love this ballet, for Cuban dancers to mean every step they take. Alicia Alonso taught them that.

Member Comments

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On August 15, 2004, chany catala wrote:

a great interview, please let me know any news
of Alicia Alonso

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On November 30, 2004, carlos gutierrez wrote:

escibo el comentario en espannol porque es mi idioma y me es mas facil expresarme, ademas trabaje en la compannia de ballet de alicia alonso en los annos 19901995 y desearia tenenr noticias de los exitos del ballet, su amigo carlos

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On November 30, 2004, carlos gutierrez wrote:

escibo el comentario en espannol porque es mi idioma y me es mas facil expresarme, ademas trabaje en la compannia de ballet de alicia alonso en los annos 19901995 y desearia tenenr noticias de los exitos del ballet, su amigo carlos

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On November 30, 2004, carlos gutierrez wrote:

escibo el comentario en espannol porque es mi idioma y me es mas facil expresarme, ademas trabaje en la compannia de ballet de alicia alonso en los annos 19901995 y desearia tenenr noticias de los exitos del ballet, su amigo carlos

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On December 01, 2004, chany catala wrote:

will be interested in future articles concerning Alicia Alonso and the National Ballet of Cuba, thank you