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Remembering Alicia Alonso, Cuba's Prima Ballerina Assoluta

Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Photo by Sedge Leblang, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At 8, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle at with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.


In this black and white photo, a dark haired ballerina in a peasant costume clutches her heart onstage.

Alonso as Giselle in 1977

Photo by Beverley Gallegos, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez y del Hoyo was born in Havana on December 21, 1920, her family dating back to 16th-century Spanish Florida conquistadors. Her father, Antonio Martínez de Arredondo, was a veterinarian who disapproved of ballet. Alternatively, her mother, Ernestina del Hoyo y Lugo, encouraged her.

Alonso's first ballet teacher was Nikolai Yavorsky, a Russian stranded in Havana after a French pickup company's tour. Her future mother-in-law, Laura Rayneri, had hired him to give debutantes classes at Havana's Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical. An elite school, Pro-Arte still suffered Depression-era scarcities, including pointe shoes, but a Society member vacationing in Italy happened upon a pair at the time Alonso was a student. Like Cinderella, hers were the only feet that fit them. (Had they not, there might not have been ballet in Cuba today!)

As a teenager Alonso fell in love with Rayneri's son Fernando Alonso, a dance student and political rebel. The two strolled Havana's boulevards, discussing ballet company and school prospects for Cuba, and hoping for an end to the island's brutal dictatorships. To cast a wider net, they decided to leave for New York. Fernando left first; still in Havana, Alicia married him by proxy, with his father standing in as bridegroom. Shortly thereafter she journeyed to New York by boat. There, under the Works Progress Administration, Alicia paid 25 cents per class to study with Enrico Zanfretta, and she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. While in New York, at 17, Alicia gave birth to daughter Laura, whose upbringing was eventually entrusted to her grandparents.

I this black and white photo, a ballerina in a white tutu takes a bow on a crowded stage.

Alicia Alonso takes a curtain call after a performance of Coppelia, 1957.

Photo by Loran F. Smith, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

Shortly after Laura's birth, Alonso made her professional debut as a chorus girl in the Broadway shows Great Lady (1938) and Stars in Your Eyes (1939). Soon afterwards she joined George Balanchine's American Ballet Caravan as a soloist. Then, in 1940, she and Fernando joined Ballet Theatre, later renamed American Ballet Theatre.

That same year, at 19, Alonso found herself bumping into things. She started losing vision in one eye, and a succession of surgeries for detached retinas followed. She was forced to return to Cuba to rest, lie immobilized between surgeries, and not dance for one year. During this period, with Fernando's help, she memorized her roles, marked them using her fingers, with her eyes bandaged or closed. Her eye surgeon predicted that she would end up blind if she continued dancing. She did continue—and his predictions came true—but not until after Alonso established herself as a dance artist who was, in the words of Agnes de Mille, as "valiant as she was virtuosic."

Alonso returned to New York and to Ballet Theatre in 1943, the same year she would make her Giselle debut. Her limpid technique, versatility and natural gift for theatricality placed her at the top of the company's roster. George Balanchine created his Theme and Variations on her and her frequent partner Igor Youskevitch; among other works were Agnes de Mille's Fall River Legend and Antony Tudor's Undertow. When fiscal difficulties forced a 1948 company closure, Alicia and Fernando returned to Cuba to start a company and school.

A ballet teacher demonstrates to students in a studio. She wears a head scarf, black leotard, tights and skirt.

Alicia Alonso teaching in Mexico City, 1991

Photo by Alida Kent, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

To inaugurate Ballet Alicia Alonso in 1948, the couple leaned on Pro-Arte Musical for costumes and sets, Alonso's guest appearance fees and on Cuba's Education Ministry to fund South America tours. They established a school two years later. Ballet Alicia Alonso attracted a following in the countryside, where peasants who had never seen a movie saw company flatbed truck performances. A representative of the increasingly discredited Fulgencio Batista dictatorship tried to muscle the Alonsos into joining its cultural council, dangling the promise of full funding. He threatened them with losing everything if they declined, but Alonso rejected what she called Batista's "blackmail offer."

The company did lose everything, but gained the revolution's respect. For the next several years, Alonso continued to dance with Ballet Theatre and Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, and she was the first Western dancer invited to dance in the then Soviet Union. Days after Fidel Castro's revolution took power in 1958, while Alicia was on tour with Ballet Russes, Castro paid Fernando a personal visit. After several hours of discussing politics Castro asked, "How much do you need to start again?" Fernando named a figure he thought impossible, "100,000 pesos." Castro said, "We'll double it, but make it outstanding." Later, he added that the company's roster should be Pan-American.
An elderly woman wearing sunglasses and a black headscarf stands in a spotlight, taking a bow.

Alonso at the Kennedy Center during the Cuban National Ballet's 2018 U.S. tour

Photo by Teresa Wood, courtesy of The Kennedy Center

The company, now renamed the Cuban National Ballet, soon became the mothership of a flotilla of vessels: the National School of the Arts, Cubanacán, a school for working class and rural students; Pyschoballet, for disabled and blind children; a biennial international festival; a national lower school network; factory worker night classes; and contests to recruit to the National Ballet School. The school would become a training ground for scores of Cuban dancers and others from Spain and Latin America. Many would become international stars, including Carlos Acosta, José Manuel Carreño, Jorge Esquivel, Lorena Feijóo and Lorna Feijóo. Soviets sent teachers, including Azari Plisetsky, Maya Plisetskaya's brother, who was instrumental in creating classes that trained some of the finest male dancers in the world.

As the company's artistic director, Alonso continued to dance well into her 70s, even as she courted blindness. She became possessive about leading roles, insisting on dancing them herself. This grated on Fernando, and disagreements about casting decisions and other artistic considerations led to their 1974 divorce. (He died in 2013.) In 1975, Alonso married Dr. Pedro Simón, a dance critic, editor and philosophy professor who, as CNB co-executive director, became Alicia's "eyes."

A bakkerina in a tutu, an onlder woman in sunglasses and a dark dress, and a male dancer in white tights and a white tunic, take a bow onstage.

Alonso takes a bow at the Kennedy Center with members of the Cuban National Ballet. Ballerina Viengsay Valdés, to Alonso's left, will now lead the company as artistic director.

Photo by Teresa Wood, courtesy of The Kennedy Center

The U.S.-imposed trade embargo made company sacrifice and inventiveness necessary. Resulting over-reliance on Soviet aid cost heavily when the Soviet Union collapsed. During the following "Special Period," scarcities in basic goods meant enormous sacrifice for the company, and saw dancers leaving Cuba to work abroad. Nevertheless, the company endured, hosting its biennial international dance festival and touring to 65 countries during Alonso's tenure.

Alonso led the Cuban National Ballet for over seven decades. And her influence has been profound: all major U.S. companies have benefitted from adding Cuban-trained dancers to their rosters, as well as Cuban-trained teachers to their school faculties. And we have begun to see U.S. students attending summer intensives in Cuba and extending their training there year-round, including Catherine Conley, who danced with the Cuban National Ballet for two years before joining Milwaukee Ballet this season. On January 19, 2019, Cuban étoile Viengsay Valdés was named company sub-director, to become artistic director upon Alonso's death.

Besides Laura Alonso, and Simón, Alonso is survived by a grandson, Ivan Monreal Alonso, two great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.


Toba Singer is the author of Fernando Alonso: The Father of Cuban Ballet.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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