Overcoming near blindness and numerous other obstacles that would have crippled lesser people, Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso (born 1921) became one of the greatest ballerinas and has starred in the most famous ballets all over the world. In 1948 she founded and directed the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company, which eventually became the Cuban National Ballet, after she returned to Cuba in 1959 after the triumph of the revolution and she was asked by Fidel Castro to launch a national ballet school.
Watch this BBC Witness documentary from 2015 in which Alicia Alonso is interviewed and talks about the development of the national school and ballet company in Cuba. 4 minutes with subtitles.
More about Alicia
Alicia Alonso, née Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez y del Hoyo, (born December 21, 1921, Havana, Cuba), Cuban ballerina highly regarded for her convincing portrayals of leading roles in the great works of classical and Romantic ballet. She was best known for her lively, precise Giselle and for her sensual, tragic Carmen.
She studied ballet in Havana, where she met fellow dancer Fernando Alonso. Soon after he moved to New York City in 1937, she joined him, and the couple subsequently married; they divorced in the mid-1970s. At age 17 she enrolled in the School of American Ballet, though she took a brief break to have a baby in 1938. That year she made her stage debut in the musical comedy Great Lady, and in 1939 she joined George Balanchine’s Ballet Caravan.
In 1940 she moved to the newly formed Ballet Theatre (later American Ballet Theatre), but after one year she was forced to leave because of eye problems—a difficulty that persisted throughout her life and eventually left her nearly blind. Alonso returned to Ballet Theatre in 1943 and danced the lead in Giselle, remaining with the company for five years. She then began to tour as a guest dancer, often with partner Igor Youskevitch. In 1948 she co-founded (with her husband and his brother, Alberto) the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company in Cuba, through which she became known for her artistry as a choreographer, which ranged from variations on classic works such as Swan Lake to the comic ballet A Voyage to the Moon.
Over the next 14 years Alonso danced with many companies, including the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1955 to 1959. Her own company was renamed Ballet de Cuba in 1955, but it closed the following year because of financial difficulties. In 1957 she became the first Western dancer invited to perform in the Soviet Union. After Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, Alonso returned home and formed a new ballet company, Ballet Nacional de Cuba (National Ballet of Cuba). In addition to serving as its director, she continued to dance, though tensions between Cuba and the United States prevented her from performing in the US for a number of years. In 1995 Alonso gave her last public performance. UNESCO awarded her the Pablo Picasso Medal, its award for notable contributions to arts or culture, in 1999.
Today Alonso still plays a role in the National Ballet of Cuba, despite her loss of sight.
“You’re doing something that has to be eternal, eternal, and reach the entire world,” she tells her young dancers. “You have it in your hands, your bodies, your faces. And you have the happiness to do it,” she says, adding: “How I envy you!”
Alonso, who turned down myriad offers to leave Cuba throughout her career, has created a unique school of ballet on the island, instantly recognizable with its blend of classical style and Latin sensuality.
At nearly 100 years old, she is a legend.
The Grand Theatre of Havana was recently renovated and renamed after her.
In 2017 UNESCO made her World Ambassador for Dance.
In 2018 she visited the US with the Cuban National Ballet.