Hailed as one of the greatest prima ballerinas of the last century, Alicia Alonso was a force of nature who dominated American ballet, became an international star and created and led Cuba’s national ballet company until her death at the age of 98.
Alonso’s success – and the sheer longevity of a career that saw her continuing to perform into her 70s – seemed all the more remarkable for having defied doctors who told her when she was 19 that she would never dance again. Diagnosed with acute retinal detachment, she persevered despite worsening eyesight and the debilitating loss of peripheral vision by taking her cues from strategically placed lights defining the geography of the stage.
Confined to bed for much of the next two years after a series of gruelling invasive operations, she survived being peppered by shards of glass when a hurricane shattered a door in her home while convalescing.
Born in Havana, Cuba, to well-off Spanish-Cuban parents, she claimed to remember dancing in the womb and began taking ballet lessons at the city’s Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical. In a 2006 interview with The Stage, she recalled: “I knew this was the thing I loved most in my life when I was nine. I was a lucky child – I found this out early on.”
Newly married to fellow dancer Fernando Alonso, in 1937 the couple moved to New York, where she trained at the School of American Ballet and made the first of four Broadway appearances in the William Dollar-choreographed Great Lady the following year.
She joined American Ballet Caravan (later New York City Ballet) in 1939 and made her debut with American Ballet Theatre in 1940. In the ensuing years, she rose to prominence in the company, creating roles for Mikhail Fokine, George Balanchine and Antony Tudor as well as collaborating with luminaries such as Leonide Massine, Jerome Robbins and Bronislava Nijinska.
She returned to Cuba in 1948 to found her own company and a dance and drama academy – that latterly produced a raft of star dancers, including José Manuel Carreño, Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo – and to devote herself to raising the profile of ballet in a country consumed by revolutionary turmoil as it asserted its independence from American governance.
By 1959, she had persuaded Cuba’s new leader Fidel Castro to rename her company the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, securing government approval for guaranteed state funding in perpetuity.
She first danced what was to become her signature role, Giselle, with New York City Ballet in 1946. Her first British appearance, with the American National Ballet in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, followed in 1950. In 1952, The Stage noted of a New York performance that she “seems to dance more brilliantly every season”, an impression that led to her Bolshoi Theatre debut in 1957 as the first Western dancer to be invited to the Soviet Union.
Her greatest years were marked by a long creative partnership on stage with Igor Youskevitch as she consolidated her developing interest in choreographing at home and abroad.
The Ballet Nacional de Cuba made the first of several London visits at the Dominion Theatre in 1984, Alonso’s own appearances on stage described by The Stage as “without doubt the epitome of a great star”. Later UK performances included Don Quixote at the 1991 Edinburgh Festival and, at Sadler’s Wells, Giselle – which she choreographed and danced in – in 2005 and a guest appearance with Acosta in 2007.
Although she told Spanish newspaper El Mundo in 2015 that she intended to remain “in charge of the Ballet [Nacional de Cuba] until after she is dead”, earlier this year she appointed Viengsay Valdés as the company’s deputy artistic director.
Next year’s International Ballet Festival in Havana, organised by the Cuban National Ballet, will be dedicated to Alonso and her pioneering work in the country.
Alicia Alonso was born on December 21, 1920, and died on October 17.