Charismatic Ballerina, Alicia Alonso, born 1922 December 21st

Born Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad dei Cobre Martinez Hoya on December 21, 1921, in Havana, Cuba. Alicia Alonso, who overcame near-blindness to become a charismatic ballerina of unusual range and power, and who helped found what became, with Fidel Castro’s support, the National Ballet of Cuba.

She studied dance as a child, although she was not encouraged to pursue a professional career. But when she married Fernando Alonso in 1937 and eloped with him to New York, she resolved to devote herself to dance from then on.

She was striking onstage, with strong features, wavy black hair and a grand manner that could burst into flamboyance during curtain calls. Offstage she was earthy and convivial.

What made her long career all the more remarkable were her chronic vision problems. In 1942, when she was a young dancer with Ballet Theater, as American Ballet Theater was originally known, she suffered a detached retina that required three operations to correct and a convalescence that lasted more than a year. Largely bedridden, her eyes bandaged, she was forbidden to laugh, cry or even move her head.

When her eyes were at their worst, she was virtually unable to see her way onto the stage or off it. Partners whispered instructions to her as she moved, and she used the glare of stage lights to indicate the approximate locations of exits.

Ms. Alonso endured her disability stoically. “I can accept my blindness,” she said in 1971. “I don’t want my audience thinking that if I dance badly, it is because of my eyes. Or if I dance well, it is in spite of them. This is not how an artist should be.”

By 1959 she was at the peak of her international celebrity as well as her professional artistry. Yet when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary party came to power and Alonso was invited to return home to relaunch her company as the National Ballet of Cuba she responded almost immediately. With Castro’s support and financial aid, the remarkable process was set in motion by which Alonso, with the help of Fernando, turned Cuba into a world centre for classical ballet.

Ms. Alonso soon became the virtual empress of Cuban dance, and the company bbb became Cuba’s most important cultural export. It began touring abroad, appearing at international dance festivals. Her portrait appeared on Cuban postage stamps.

Yet Alonso remained an inspiration. Well beyond her 90th birthday she continued to go into the company office and to attend almost every performance. When she entered the theatre, the audience stood up for her as though she were royalty.

As a passionate patriot she remained committed to the importance of dance in Cuba and as a passionate artist she never lost her own sense of vocation. She often lay awake at nights remembering past performances, and wondering how she could have improved them. “I looked for perfection every day,” she said “and I never gave up.”

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