Alicia Alonso, 1920–2019
The grande dame who ruled Cuban ballet
In 1941, Alicia Alonso seemed destined for greatness. Recently recruited by New York City’s Ballet Theater, the Cuban ballerina was already dancing principal roles. Then disaster struck: The 20-year-old suffered retinal detachments in both eyes. She had to undergo three surgeries, the last of which required her to lie almost motionless in bed for a year after. Yet Alonso never stopped dancing: She practiced the steps of her dream role, the doomed peasant girl Giselle, with her fingers on the sheet. Left almost blind, she nevertheless returned to the Ballet Theater in 1943 and made her debut as Giselle, using the glare of specially placed lights to guide her onstage. It was a performance of grace, precision, and power, and Alonso—who later founded the National Ballet of Cuba—was soon named prima ballerina assoluta, the highest honest in dance. “I looked for perfection every day,” said Alonso, who kept dancing until age 76, “and never gave up.”
She was born in Havana to an army officer and his wife, said The Washington Post, and as a child was often left alone in a room with a phonograph and a scarf. “That would keep me quiet for a few hours,” Alonso said, “doing what I imagined was dancing.” She began ballet lessons at age 9 and at 15 eloped with fellow student Fernando Alonso to New York. She remained with the Ballet Theater for 16 years, working with some of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers, including George Balanchine and Bronislava Nijinska. “Yet she remained wedded to Cuba,” said The New York Times. She founded Ballet Alicia Alonso in Havana in 1948, and after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, he turned it into the National Ballet of Cuba.
Alonso “trawled the island’s towns and villages for possible talent,” said The Guardian, “offering some of Cuba’s most underprivileged children the chance of a prestigious career.” With state support, she turned Cuba into a powerhouse of classical ballet; Cuban dancers are now among the most sought after in the world. But her regime could be as authoritarian as Castro’s: Young dancers who threatened her dominance onstage had their careers limited—many subsequently defected—and her micromanagement led to artistic stagnation. She finally relinquished control of the company in January. “Nothing mattered to her but ballet,” said dancer and exile Pedro Pablo Peña. “But her ego turned her into a tyrant.”