When Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class as a young child, she told her mother that she would love dance more than anything else in her life, for the rest of her life. If it is the kind of gushing declaration that any schoolgirl might make, Alicia Alonso was at BAMCafe earlier this week saying much the same thing, more than eight decades later.
What would her life have been like if she had not been a ballerina, a member of the audience asked.
“I would not be alive,” she said.
Alicia — as she is known to everybody in Cuba — is in New York with her Ballet Nacional de Cuba for the first time since 2003 to present “” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The program offers highlights from seven classical 19th century ballets. The excerpts, though jarring to fans accustomed to the full ballets, might be an ideal introduction to first-timers. But they are also something of a Life and Times of Alicia Alonso — and not only because she is the choreographer, or lead choreographer, for all seven.
The Sleeping Beauty, the second excerpted in the program, was the first ballet she ever danced professionally, when she was 10 years old.
As a teenager a mere five years later, Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez Hoya eloped with Fernando Alonso, and moved to New York. At the time, the 1930s, there was no permanent ballet company in New York — in America. Ballet was an art form mastered by the French and the Russians, and it was from Russians who had immigrated to the city after the Bolshevik Revolution that Alonso received her early training. So dominant were the Russians in the ballet at the time that advisers suggested Alonso could advance her career by changing her name to Alonsoff.
The excerpt from “Giselle” is the first ballet on the program. Giselle is the role that made Alonso a star — and the story of her stardom is almost as improbable, and surely as moving, as the story of Giselle herself, the fragile, peasant girl smitten with a nobleman who, when she discovers he is betrothed to another, goes mad and dies — and then returns from the grave to protect her beloved. Barely out of her teens, Alonso’s vision began to deteriorate. She had to undergo a series of surgeries, and her doctors ordered her to stay immobile in convalescence. She learned the role of Giselle by dancing with her hands.
She was soon back on her feet, where she danced for the next half century. That’s right — while most ballerinas retire at the age of 35, Alonso danced into her 70s. "I was a very stubborn dancer," she said.
Now 90 years old, she sat for 90 minutes , and as she told stories of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille, all of whom choreographed dances with her in mind, she was back to dancing with her hands to illustrate her tales. The most demanding dance she ever danced? George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” with its insanely rapid entrechat six -- a grand leap in the air, crossing her legs six times. She illustrates by bending her bejeweled and manicured hands as if they were en pointe and rapidly shuffling them.
One of the other ballets excerpted in the program for BAM is Coppelia. It is no coincidence that Coppelia is also the name of an ice cream park in Havana. Cubans are said to love ballet as much as baseball, and if there is one person responsible for this, it is Alicia Alonso. While still dancing in New York and around the world, in 1948, she returned to Cuba to form her own company, which was eventually called the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. She stayed after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, turning her company into one of the most respected in the world, renowned for its athletic displays but also for something distinctly Cuban. "It's very sensual," Alonso said.
When in the United States and talking with U.S. journalists, she invariably gets asked questions about politics, and the Artist Talk at BAM this week was no exception. She used to have a stock answer, one she gave me when I interviewed her years ago: “People don’t ask politicians what theythink of the ballet.” Now, she was asked, delicately and indirectly, about defections from her company. “Ballet Nacional has been leaking dancers for decades,” Michael Crabb writes in the current issue of Dance Magazine, implying their reason for moving to another country is far less likely to be global politics than ballet politics; they want a new repertoire, and more artistic input, rather than being restricted to the 19th-century classics that Alonso insists on. "Cuban dancers now spice up companies worldwide," Crabb writes, "including San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey, and Sarasota Ballet."
Sure, dancers have left, Alicia Alonso acknowledges. But she does not understand why. “What other company can offer them more art, more beauty, more love?”