Now almost 90 and mostly blind, Alicia fondly recalls how prior to 1959, via a doctor friend, she sent a message to Fidel Castro and the revolutionary guerrilla army in the mountains, appealing for support for ballet. Very soon after the triumph of the revolution and the celebrations in Havana, she received a knock at the door. It was Fidel, who asked her what she needed to make a good ballet. She told him they needed to create a very good big ballet school and financial support to maintain a ballet company. The National Ballet of Cuba and National Ballet School were created, headed by Alonso, that same year as part of the revolutionary strategy of culture and arts education accessible for all.
Alonso was born in Havana in 1920 in a wealthy family and around age 10 she went to her first ballet class in Havana. The teacher was very strict but Alonso recalls "I immediately told my mother this is what I like most in my life – I will be a ballet dancer".
She started her training in Cuba but continued her ballet studies in the US, performing professionally from 1938. At age 20 she suffered detached retinas and spent a year unable to dance, but she memorised the ballet Giselle. Despite no peripheral vision she pursued her passion to become one of the most important figures in ballet in the world. Her 1958 performance of Giselle in the US became the international benchmark for dancers performing that role and still is.
While in great demand in the US, in 1948 Alonso left the US for Havana with her husband Alberto Alonso to try to develop Cuban ballet. They invited Cuban and other dancers they wanted to work with, to join the new Alicia Alonso ballet company which together with their school, created a couple of years later, were completely funded by Alicia's performances in the US for many years, hence the plea for help to Fidel.
Today the National Ballet School has 20 rehearsal rooms and is still funded by the government, providing free ballet education to those selected from across the country on the basis of talent alone. The reason Cuba produces so many great dancers, including Carlos Acosta, is down to this – she proudly says "We don't miss one".
The theatre where the Ballet Nacional is based, is state funded and the dancers are paid state salaries. The company is thus able to focus on what they do best – producing great ballets.
In addition, ballet is shown on TV every week and theatre tickets are affordable, making the art not only accessible but popular throughout Cuban society. Such a ballet-literate general public, unthinkable in the UK, now demands excellence. Luckily so does the company's director and chief choreographer.
Alonso says dancers should feel like they are dancing the role for the first time however many times they perform it, as she did, that they must give something of themselves every time, in order to communicate with the audience, and they must capture the audience as soon as they enter on stage. However, she is remarkably unromantic about how to achieve that magical aim: "I am a very hard worker, you have to think all the time about what you need to do, ballet is very hard, but it is a pleasure for me, to dance and make a ballet is life for me".
Celebrated Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier wrote"The spirit of dance is essential to the human condition" and for Alicia dance is "the expression of life, of everything that is alive."Alonso's particular style is the basis of the Cuban School of Ballet: the romantic style – which features great technique but with the dramatic illusion of dancers flying or floating. Like Alonso's personal style, the dancers have strong legs and feet. The steps move in time to the rhythm of the music, the movements of arms and head follow the melody. It is important the story is told very clearly with the dancers expressing their character clearly through their movement.
Having learnt from and worked with so many of the greatest ballet choreographers the world has produced, she explains her process of choreography. "I have all these choreographies in my head – when I listen to music or hear a story I see the choreography for a whole dance in my head. I work with a group of dancers who write it all down and film me explaining it, showing the movement across the stage, the details of the body movements, and the rhythm. So I have it all worked out before we start rehearsals. "
Clearly a revolutionary as well as visionary, Alonso enthuses "and the revolution taught everyone to read and write" "and dance?" asked Rodriguez. With a smile Alonso quickly replied: "To tell you the truth we always danced!"
Report by Trish Meehan for CubaSi
Listen to the recording of Alicia Alonso in conversation with psychoanalyst Luis Rodriguez de la Serra recorded in April 2010 at www.connectingconversations.org