Alicia Alonso, Canada is always on my Mind
By: Pedro Quiroga Jiménez, Photos: Courtesy of the National Ballet of Cuba
An exclusive interview given by Alicia Alonso on the presentation if the Cuban National Ballet in Ontario this December. After an absence if 29 years) the Prima Ballerina Assoluta recalls her ties with Canadian people.
The headquarters of the Cuban National Ballet (BNC) in Havana is a constant coming and going of dancers, maitres, and other participants of the ballet world. They are all preparing for the European tour, mainly to France and Spain.
Despite the hustle and bustle around, its General Director, Alicia Alonso, has found a spot in her always busy schedule to see us and to recall her ties with Canada a country that on many occasions was a port of call, for its geographic location, on her trips between Cuba and Europe.
The Cuban company has not visited Canada since 1978 on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Les Grands Ballets Canadians (LGBC) in Montreal. 29 years have passed and we are all amazed with the amount of time that has passed since that last visit. Nevertheless, the reunion with the Canadian public is increasingly approaching. In early December, the BNC will be performing in Hamilton, Ontario. The program for the occasion is the classic Nutcracker, with choreography by Alicia Alonso on the original by Lev Ivanov with the music of Tchaikovsky.
CubaPLUS I was looking at old news on your tours over the years and realized that it has almost been three decades since the last time you were in Canada.
Alicia That much? It seems incredible when so many Canadian dancers, choreographers and personalities have visited us. But even if we haven't had the chance to go we have never been apart.
You danced on Canadian stages since the 1940's, with the New York Ballet Theater.
-That's right. And I remember a movie made for television in Toronto when I was returning from my first tour to the Soviet Union. It was the Black Swan, with Igor Youskevitch as partenaire, in 1958. It was an important historical moment because I became the first dancer from the American continent invited to the now disappeared USSR.
I was later invited in 1967 by the LGBC to dance Giselle with Azari Plisetski, directed by Anton Dolin. That time I participated at the inauguration of the Wilfred Pelletier Theatre as part of the World Expo taking place in Montreal.
It was a big event. I had not been in the United States for seven years since my visa was being denied every time.
There is an article entitled "Pilgrimage to Montreal" that tells about that memorable encounter with your friends and admirers who traveled from the States to applaud you.
-Exciting! But, actually, there is a terrible story.
I was just returning from a hard tour through Europe and had an accident on my foot. It was swelling and I could barely walk because of the pain. Then, it was the season in Canada, the BNC debut there. I arrived at the airport and the manager who was waiting for us there just raised his hands to his head and screamed "Noooo" [Laughing]. But I told him, "don't worry, I will still dance Giselle." That was in 1971, after a tour in Spain. You had a fracture of the tibia and a lateral perineum tear. It is said that in Cuba it was all over the press as sad news with headlines like these in the papers, "Alicia Alonso Injured. "
Your closest collaborators tell us that the phones would not stop ringing at BNC's headquarters and that an eminent Cuban orthopedician, Dr. Julio Martinez Paez, flew to Canada to evaluate your case.
-A close friend was there and I asked him to put on some bandages where it hurt. Many people asked themselves if I could dance and I did. I always danced Giselle on a high, but that time I danced barely touching the ground. It was like floating on the stage since I had my leg almost immobilized with bandages.
Tell me about your friends there and some other details of your stay ...
-We made many friends in the world of dance in general, especially with the head of the LGBC who was for a long time in touch with us and kept telling us about what they were doing. I had another friend, Feman Hall and I can never forget the choreographer Brian McDonald who also visited Cuba. He gave us as a present the ballet Prologue for a Tragedy and told us, "this is especially for the BNC. No other company can dance it like Cubans do."
And finally, the work together with Belma Diamante on Nutcracker, in Hamilton. I wanted to ask you about that, about the staging.
-They dance that ballet every year and until now they did it with Russian companies. But this year they want to do it with us, with my choreographic version. Diamante is going to take some teenagers from Ontario's ballet schools and combine them in a way that will be a fusion of the BNC with Canadian ballet students.
Many will ask why the BNC keeps performing the classics.
-We don't just do classics. The fact is, we cannot deprive the Cuban people or the world of the enjoyment of watching the great classics. How are we going to take them away if they are the marvels of ballet, if it is the base for the rest? We have the honor of being so it is said one of the best companies performing the classics, regarding style. We can dance a romantic ballet like Giselle, or Sleeping Beauty or Coppelia but we later perform modern ballets because we have the tools and the art within us so as to express it in any way.
The great companies of the world are measured by the classics and later by the rest of the repertoire. It happens like that with symphonic orchestras. They are not measured by the popular or modem music they play but by how they interpret the classical pieces. The Cuban ballet school has created its own technical, ethical and aesthetic guidelines.
Which are its theoretical foundations?
-You know that all ballet schools in the world have the same principle, because the body is what they work with. Technical movements are demanded equally from a dancer as it is from a pianist.
The first position, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, all those steps exists in all schools, but ... what is the difference? It lies in the accentuation one gives to it musically. Also in the way of using one's body expressively, because even if one uses the body, one can move slower, faster, in a more romantic way and there, lie the styles.
Our school also has something that is very Cuban. Something from the very root. It is the dance between men and women. It is like a continuous conversation between them and it has a sensuality independent from how classic the piece could be.
en you see a BNC show, you can see that it is not a fragmented dance. First, a man dances and stops and then a woman dances and stops. No, you are following a story with two people dancing, a man and a woman. That is something that we promote a lot. We have it as something universal.
The rest is the lightness and the accent of our dance which is upward. If you look at the Russians, you can see their accent is regularly downward. There are times when you are not an expert and you notice it and you say: they dance differently. And Americans are different although the US ballet school is not yet defined.
Do you have the same inspiration over all those years of creativity? What ideas do you have?
- I constantly have ideas. The steps and the music come to my mind. Many times people are talking to me and I am thinking and steps and characters appear before me and I cannot listen to what I am being told. I already have ideas for three ballets. As you know, every two years we have the International Ballet Festival of Havana and in the most recent one I premiered four ballets. I will show these three during the 2008 season, for the 60th Anniversary of the BNC.
Do you have any titles?
- Nooo [laughing] . And even if I had them, I would not tell you [laughing]. After so many years of absence, it might be a curiosity for Canadians to know what is a normal working day for Alicia Alonso. - Work, work, and more work. Lots of meetings, many decisions to make, a lot of walks from the office to the rehearsal hall and vice versa. Every day is a very active day for me.
This year we have celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the uninterrupted diplomatic relations between Canada and Cuba. What message do you have for Canadians? -When you remembered me after 29 years without visiting your country, I could not believe it. It is always on my mind, one way or another. I think that despite all this time, I have not stopped being in Canada, nor Canada in me.
Prima Ballerina Assoluta and head of the Cuban National Ballet, Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez del Hoyo was born in Havana where she started her dance studies in 1931 at the Ballet School of the Pro-Arte Musical Society.
She later moved to the USA to continue her studies with several eminent teachers from the School of American Ballet. There she started her professional career in the musical comedies Great Lady and Stars In Your Eyes.
A year later she became a member of the American Ballet Caravan, the precursor of the New York City Ballet. She joined the Ballet Theatre of New York in 1940 and from them on started a brilliant career on the stage as an interpreter of the great works of the romantic and classic ballet repertoire. At that time she worked with Mijail Fokine, George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, Anthony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, and Agnes de Mille among other important personalities of 20th century dance.
Her concern for developing the art of ballet on her island led her to founding the Alicia Alonso Ballet in Havana (1948), today the Cuban National Ballet. Her choreography of the classics, Giselle, Grand Pas de Quatre, and Sleeping Beauty are internationally famous and are performed by such companies as the Ballet Opera of Paris, the Prague Opera, and Milan's La Scala Theatre. Considered by critics, for several decades now, as one of the greatest dancers of all time, she has received many awards in Cuba and abroad. Among them are the US Dance Magazine annual award of 1958, the Order of Labor of the Republic of Vietnam in 1984, the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris in 1966, and the Anna Pavlova Award from the University of Dance of Paris in the same year. She has been awarded the highest official medals from Mexico, Panama and Dominican Republic.
In Cuba, the Council of State has decorated her with the title of National Heroine of Labor and in December 2000 she received the highest award of the country, the Order of Jose Marti. She was also appointed Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba and UNESCO's Goodwill Ambassador in 2002.