Alicia Alonso, Star of Cuba’s National Ballet, Dies at 98

Alicia Alonso, Star of Cuba’s National Ballet, Dies at 98

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, died on Thursday in Havana. She was 98.

The National Ballet announced her death.

The Cuban-born Ms. Alonso, who continued to dance into her 70s, was an admired star of American Ballet Theater and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1957, in the depths of the Cold War, she became the first ballerina from the Western Hemisphere to appear as a guest artist in the Soviet Union.

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.

Her influence was far-reaching. Famed for her interpretations of the classics, especially “Giselle,” Ms. Alonso was also at home in contemporary works. When she danced with the renowned Igor Youskevitch, audiences cheered one of the great partnerships of 20th-century ballet.

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.

But she refused to let go of dance. Though nearly immobile, she had teachers come to her bedside to coach her in “Giselle.” She would rehearse the steps mentally by moving her fingers.

In time her eyes improved, only to worsen again. So began a pattern that would obtain for the rest of her life, marked by a series of operations to restore some lost sight and to preserve what was left.

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.”

With her husband, the dancer Fernando Alonso, she founded the Ballet Alicia Alonso in 1948. (The dancer and choreographer Alberto Alonso, Fernando’s brother, joined them shortly thereafter.) Two years later, they created the Alicia Alonso Academy of Ballet.

Both the troupe and the school eventually struggled financially, and in 1956 they were forced to close. Ms. Alonso continued to dance, however, and the next year made her historic guest appearance in the Soviet Union.

Her company was revived after Castro’s leftist government took power in 1959. Seeking to make the arts accessible to all in Cuba, he began funneling an estimated $200,000 to the Alonso troupe, which was renamed the National Ballet of Cuba and placed under Ms. Alonso’s direction.

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

In some quarters, however, she was attacked as a tool of Castro’s Communist regime, and as political tensions between Havana and Washington worsened in 1960, she found it impossible to continue to perform in the United States. She would not return until 1975, when she appeared in New York as a guest ballerina with American Ballet Theater. Audiences greeted her rapturously.

The National Ballet made its New York debut in 1978 and returned the next year to considerable acclaim. (In more recent years it has been criticized as stodgy, and many of its dancers have left to dance elsewhere.)

As a ballerina, Ms. Alonso was especially associated with the title role of “Giselle,” the doomed peasant girl who falls in love with a count in disguise. She made her debut in that work, a classic of the Romantic era, with Ballet Theater in 1943, with Anton Dolin as her partner. John Martin, then the dance critic of The New York Times, wrote of her “brilliance.”

Her interpretation of the role deepened in seasons to come. In 1945 her peasant girl was “gay and robust” in the first act of a performance, Mr. Martin wrote. But by 1979, when Ms. Alonso danced “Giselle” with National Ballet of Cuba at the Metropolitan Opera House, gone was the “somewhat robust peasant girl,” Jennifer Dunning wrote in The Times, adding, “This was a wraith of a Giselle from the very beginning.”

Ms. Alonso distinguished herself in a wide range of classical and modern ballets. In “Swan Lake,” her dancing was “steel and diamonds,” Mr. Martin wrote, and as an 18th-century peasant in “La Fille Mal Gardée” she was “vivacious and flirtatious.” She was in the original casts of Antony Tudor’s “Undertow” (1945) and Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Legend” (1948), based on the story of Lizzie Borden, the New England ax murderer.

She was equally at home in plotless ballets. George Balanchine created “Theme and Variations,” one of his most brilliant abstractions, for her and Youskevitch in 1947.

Ms. Alonso gave her final performance in 1995, when she danced “The Butterfly,” a piece she had choreographed.

Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez y del Hoyo was born in Havana; over the years different sources have given different years for her birth, but her birth date is now widely acknowledged as Dec. 21, 1920. She was the youngest of four children of Antonio Martínez, an officer in the Cuban Army, and Ernestina Hoya.

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 performed with Ballet Caravan, a short-lived troupe dedicated to works by American choreographers and directed by Lincoln Kirstein; appeared in the Broadway musicals “Great Lady” (1938) and “Stars in Your Eyes” (1939); attended the School of American Ballet; and joined Ballet Theater as a founding member in 1940.

Yet she remained wedded to Cuba and sought to promote ballet there, and when financial difficulties forced Ballet Theater to disband temporarily in 1948, she and other dancers from the troupe traveled to Havana to start a company of their own, Ballet Alicia Alonso, later the nucleus of the National Ballet.

Her interests in Cuba remained central to her even after she returned to New York with the revival of Ballet Theater and again after she left it in 1955, with Youskevitch, to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Throughout, she continued to spend time with her troupe and school in Havana.

She and Fernando Alonso had a daughter, Laura Alonso, who became a dancer and teacher with the National Ballet. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1975. Ms. Alonso married Pedro Simón Martínez, an editor and dance critic, the same year.

Fernando Alonso died in 2013. In addition to her husband and daughter, she is survived by a grandson, Ivan Monreal-Alonso, a dancer and choreographer, and three great-granddaughters.

Several documentary films about Ms. Alonso were made in Cuba. Her international honors include the Dance Magazine Award, the French Legion of Honor, the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris and the Golden Medal of the Gran Teatro Líceo of Barcelona, Spain.

In January, the Cuban ministry of culture appointed Viengsay Valdés, the National Ballet’s 42-year-old prima ballerina, as its deputy artistic director. Although Ms. Alonso retained the title of general director, Ms. Valdés said she would be responsible for all artistic decisions, including programming and casting.

In 2010, to celebrate her 90th birthday, American Ballet Theater paid tribute to her in a night of performance and a film retrospective at the Metropolitan Opera House. Her return to Ballet Theater for the event was an emotional one and cause for reminiscence.

“We were creating the future of the ballet in the United States,” she said in an interview with The Times. “It was such a dream.”

By then she was virtually blind, but she refused to bow to infirmity, or age. “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,” she said. “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,” she added, “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.”


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