Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cuban Heat in NYC: Alicia Alonso and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba

For over a week, NYC has been gripped by an historic heat wave.  Taking the heat index into account, temperatures in Central Park soared near 110 F.  On my block, all the fire hydrants had been set off.  Gypsy cabs paraded past the torrents of water, taking advantage of the free car wash.  Kids and hooligans doused each other with it.  In my apartment, my taps went dry.  My drinking water was gushing down the street, and wasting in the gutters under the blazing sun.

Times like these make me wonder why I stay in NYC.  That's when I try to divert my attention from life's most recent challenges, when I try to recall New York's advantages.  This time, Alicia Alonso came to mind.  On June 6, I had attended an artist talk featuring her at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  I arrived late and weedled my way into press seats just in time for her arrival on stage.  There she sat not twenty feet from me.  She wore an electic blue silk head scarf and a matching silk pants outfit.  She still bore the regal bearing of a prima ballerina assoluta.  As a young ballet student in southern California, a world away from the New York ballet scene, I had read Alicia Alonso's autobiography: how, injured and confined to bedrest for a year, Alicia Alonso had visualized the classical ballets in her head, determined to return to dancing.  Her story had always stayed with me and she had been one of my childhood heroes, something akin to a super hero who only exists in books and on TV. So I could scarcely believe that I was seeing her in person.

One of the doyennes of twentieth dance, Alicia Alonso is a legend in her own time.  At a time when ballet in Cuba was virtually unknown, she became hooked on dance.  She described the attraction as immediate.  From her first dance class in 1931, she wanted nothing more in life than to dance.  Her mother had to force her to take off her pointe shoes so that she would not sleep in them.  She insisted on walking around her Havana house on tiptoe, and her father wondered aloud, will our daughter ever walk normally again?  Apparently not.  She soon outgrew the Cuban ballet scene, and rocketed to stardom in New York where she studied with Alexandra Federova and Jerome Robbins.  She joined the American Ballet Theatre the year of its founding in 1940, and worked with all the greats:  Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Fokine, Massine, Nijinska, Tudor, Jerome Robbins. 

In 1948, she returned to Cuba to found the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, bringing the world of ballet to the island.  Today, ballet is huge in Cuba.  Alicia Alonso related, "We tour all over the world.  We have a fabulous school.  Today you ask anyone in Cuba, 'Do you know the Ballet Nacional de Cuba?' and you will get a big conversation about which ballets they like best."  Cuban trained ballet dancers fill top positions in the world's preeminent ballet companies, from San Francisco Ballet, to Miami Ballet, to American Ballet Theatre. Alicia Alonso's choreography has been performed by major companies worldwide, including Paris Opera, Vienna Opera, Teatro di San Carlo (Napoli), Prague Opera, La Scala, and the Royal Danish Ballet. She has received several honorary doctorates and numerous international awards, including France's Legion of Honor.

Despite these wondrous achievements, the woman interviewed at BAM revealed many sides, all very human and likable.  She was at times humble, at times humorous and able to poke fun at herself (and others), at times appearing fragile and in ill health, at other times strong and full of ego, and at all times still impassioned by the dance.  When asked about what makes Ballet Nacional de Cuba's style distinctly Cuban, she explained, "It is in the hands.  There is a volume to the hands.  Also, it is in the way we hold the arms. [It is related to Cuban folkloric dance].  Folkloric is soft, not strong, very sexual.  The way we dance ballet has that spiciness between a man and a woman."  When asked if Lucia Chase asked her to change her name to a Russian-sounding one [as a sign of prestige, dancers used to Russify their names], Alicia Alonso replied, "She wanted me to change my name to Alonsov." The audience laughed at such a ludicrous thought.  Alicia Alonso stiffened and straightened in her seat.  She continued with great dignity, "Well don't laugh.  It sounds very Russian.  But it didn't go with me."  Then a long pause, and she concluded proudly, "Alonso. Alicia Alonso.  That is my name."  The audience broke into applause.  A few people stood in ovation.  When asked about Russian influence on Cuban dance, Alicia Alonso gave a long pause as if she could not understand the question, then replied, "Uh... we are Cuban.  Maybe in the lifts, and that is it.  Which is good."  More applause from the audience. Asked which role had been her favorite, Alicia Alonso replied, "My favorite role is dancing.  But I am very much associated with Giselle."

What keeps me in New York?  The possibility of dancing, the possibility of experiencing moments like these, the possibility of being inspired by legends like Alicia Alonso, whose words stay with me:  "I found the world through dancing,"  she said, "This is the most pure way of living, through dancing."


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