“If a person keeps thinking, ‘How old am I going to be?’ and thinking about the age, that’s the worst thing you can do. You don’t have to think about how old you are. You have to think about how many things you want to do, and how to do it, and keep on doing it. Otherwise, you know what I think? I am going to live to be 200 years old. So, I hope all of you do have the same fortune. I would hate to be alone.”
Alicia Alonso, (Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez y del Hoyo) has been recognized as one of the greatest classical dancers worldwide. She died of natural causes at the age of 98-years-old on the 17th of October this year in Havana, Cuba, where she was born on 21st December 1920. She founded the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1959, and moreover she is known for her perfect performances of Giselle and Carmen. She was the daughter of Antonio Martínez and Ernestina Hoya. Her father was an officer in the army, meaning that Alicia came from a wealthy family.
She started studying dance at the age of nine at the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical in Havana, where as a teenager she appeared in the edited version of the Swan Lake, using the artists’ name of Alicia Martínez. At the age of only 16 years old she married Fernando Alonso, a ballet dancer, and together they travelled to New York searching for greater career opportunities. In that period, she also became mother to her daughter, Laura. Despite the pregnancy and birth, Alicia continued to practice and exercise at the School of American Ballet, so that in 1938 she was dancing on Broadway and by 1939 she was touring with George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan. In 1940 she joined the Ballet Theatre, nowadays known as American Ballet Theatre. During this period, she started developing a new dancing technique, showing strength and control in her moves mixed with fine emotional expressions, plus the particular ability to adapt herself and her presence on the stage according to the different choreographies. She danced with the Ballet Theatre until 1948, when she returned to Cuba to open the Ballet Alicia Alonso in 1950; due to lack of funding, the company was closed, and she started to dance with different companies internationally.
Her life changed in 1940, when at 19 years old she was diagnosed with an eye problem; a retinal detachment that did not allow her to fully see. She lost her peripheral vision, the doctors saying her sight would progressively deteriorate. She had three major operations, after which she should have spent recovering by not moving, not even dancing. However, Alicia demonstrated herself determined in achieving what she wanted, despite the obstacles. When she was not able to stand up during the recovery periods, she rehearsed in her mind every step of the dances, not allowing her mind and her body to forget; she kept practicing moving her fingers with teachers coming to sit next to her bed. Unfortunately, her sight didn’t restore with time, and it actually degenerated over time. Doctors said to her that she would never be able to dance again. Irregardless, Alicia didn’t lose her incredible spirit of determination and commitment to her dreams: she kept dancing, helped by the stage lights, the shadows and the instructions that her dancing partners were giving to her according to the stage space. She was able to dance even if mostly blinded, creating a deep connection with partners, always knowing when they were positioning themselves in the dancing stage.
Despite this big obstacle in her career, Alicia Alonso became one of the most famous etoiles, being the only first ballerina from the Western hemisphere invited to perform in the Soviet Union in 1957, during the years of the Cold War. She then returned to Cuba in 1959, when she founded the Ballet Nacional de Cuba after Castro’s Revolution. Her aim was to share the art of dance with all the population, bringing ballet to everyone, performing in factories, military centers and farms. With the help of state funding she was able to maintain the tickets for the exhibitions at a very low price, making ballet one of the main sources for Cuban’s entertainment. In order to reach the Cubans and create a connection within dance and society she established the National Ballet School in 1962 recruiting an exceptional melting pot of dancers from the working class, rural students and disabled and blind children, for example. Moreover, the Cubans valued ballet as a profession, and unlike most countries there was as much enthusiasm for the new school among males and females.
The Italian dance critic Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino portrayed Alicia Alonso as the inventor of the Cuban ballet, referring to the unique style of the Cuban dance that is easily recognizable compared to the others for its musicality, strength, power, speed and emotions. Someone would describe the Cuban Ballet as intense, strong, passionate and disciplined at the same time.
Alicia Alonso’s Ballet of Cuba gave the country worldwide recognition. It´s very common to have Cuban dance teachers in the most prestigious ballet schools in Europe, USA and Russia. She was able to create a bond between an elite sport practice and the Cuban population, creating a social sense of belonging between Cubans and dance. We want to pay homage to her as an inspirational and strong woman who is capable of building her own path and emerging in the difficult world of art, facing her physical problems and re-shaping the understanding of ballet, promoting the meaning of dance as something that is capable of connecting various people from different cultural and social backgrounds.
Ms. Alonso performed for the last time in 1995, at the age of 75. UNESCO awarded her the Pablo Picasso Medal for notable contributions to arts or culture in 1999.
Written by Intern Martina Fontana
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