A jewel of the Cuban Ballet
By Yasser Lago, Photos: Prensa Latina
Josefina Mendez was born in Havana on March 8, 1941. She began to study ballet at the age of 7 and joined the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company in the 1950's. A decade later, she was one of the prima ballerinas with the Cuban National Ballet Company. She was appointed maitre of the National Company and lived and worked in Havana for many years. We were very saddened at her death this past January but we know that her wonderful spirit will always remain alive in the National Ballet of Cuba.
People who saw Josefina Mendez perform on the stage are well aware of her artistic brilliance and dramatic mastery. Mendez is a beautiful woman, severe and serious, demanding and zealous with discipline but capable of encouraging her pupils with humour and wit.
Many are the virtues of this woman with a prolific artistic career stretching 50 years. This interview will allow us to know more about a person who is considered to be a Jewel of the Cuban Ballet.
Josefina, the child? - Shy, a dreamer, a little ... sad.
Family influence? - My uncle on my mother's side was very fond of the opera and he was partner of the Pro Arte Musical of Havana. My mother wanted me to play the piano and have a beautiful figure, so she registered me in that institution.
Pro Arte Musical of Havana? - It means my first ballet classes, my first performances. There, from the first day on, I started dreaming about being a dancer. Alberto Alonso had much to do with it.
Alicia Alonso and Swan Lake of 1954? - I had to climb the University Stadium stairs to watch her dance. I was greatly impressed by the softness of that white swan and the ballet music. To be able to perform it, unconsciously, has become a goal ever since.
What about your first exchange with her? - It was in the middle of a performance (Coppelia) at the Theatre Auditorium. The Secretary of the Academy introduced Alicia's Aunt to me and told her, "look, this little girl looks like Unga" (as Alicial's closest friends called her). I was taken to her dressing room when she finished performing; I was nervous. When Alicia was back, I heard her talking. Her voice had a profound impact on me.
She was told about our being alike. Then she asked if I wanted an autograph. I was stiff. Her aunt said, "yes, kid, give her the program." I remember after she was done, she gave me a piece of advice, "do not let anyone say you look like me, you should build your own personality."
The Cuban Ballet? - My first recollection is of seeing Alicia working, her finesse and cleanness of her legs and feet on the bars. I also remember her working with Fernando Alonso at daybreak; we worked until 1 a.m. during rehearsals for Giselle.
The Alonso Trilogy? - They are the three strongest links of the chain of the National Ballet, each with its own peculiarities. Alicia represents the dancer; to make the artistic matters, ideas and concepts to work and to constantly evolve. Fernando is the grand master, demanding of excellence and iron discipline. Alberto, the choreographer, was my first teacher. He taught me to use my entire body in dancing and the meaning of having a sense of line. [Ed. Note: Fernando was a maitre of the National Ballet, founder and director of the Camaguey Ballet, and was formerly married to Alicia. Their daughter, Laura, manages a Cuban dance company as well. Alberto is a world renowned choreographer and Fernando's brother]
The Neapolitan Character? - It was my debut as a professional dancer fi years ago. I had to play a man's role because there were not many men in the company.
A performance to make amends? - I was part of the corps de ballet "Las Siljides" (The Sylphs). Alicia, when she finished "La Muerte del Cisne" (The Death of the Swan), told the audience that the Cuban ballet would not perform again as long as the Fulgencio Batista's tyranny existed.
The Rose, and Alicia's words at the University Stadium on September 15, 1956? - Following her public announcement, she brought us together and gave each dancer a flower from her bouquet and told us "do not worry; this is the start of a brilliant future."
Your incomparable technical and artistic mastery: innate skills or daily hard work? - There was a time when my technique reached a peak but it was with a lot of hard work, study and analysis. Dancing in front of the mirror was of great help, as well as watching Alicia and listening a lot to Fernando.
Influence on your career? - Definitely, Alicia Alonso
The greatest award? - There is no medal for that one: Cuba, my people and the opportunity to dance for them.
Awards in Varna in 1964 are considered to be the first signs, before the world, of the high value of the young Cuban ballet school. What did it mean to you?
- They were all taken by surprise when they saw that Mirta, Rodolfo and I danced differently from other major schools. At the same time, we were proud of it. [Ed. Note: Varna is a city in Bulgaria that hosts an annual international ballet competition]
When did you realize that the nickname "Cuban Jewels" would mark you forever? - It was after the British critic Arnold Haskell first visited us. He dubbed us that because he watched us teaching members of the ballet school and the company, rehearsing, dancing, and doing everything. Once, talking with Fernando, he said, "you have four jewels in this company."
Why the "Queen of Tragedy"? - It was also Arnold Haskell who saw the image of a little sad and shy girl in my performances in festivals. That is the girl you spoke about at the beginning.
Criticism? - Critics will be infuriated with me but I have never attached much importance to what they say, either in favour or against.
Which audience do you like the most: the one euphorically applauding before a performance ends or the one motionless before a tremendous display of elegant technique and drama? - I like all types of audiences
Your fans? - Even after my retirement some years ago, I am immensely satisfied at still having very loyal fans.
Of those you did not perform, which one would you have liked to perform? - The role of Kitri in the complete Don Quixote. The Company did not prepare that ballet during the period I danced, although I performed the pas de deux and it was one of my standards; I performed that one in Varna.
Do you have any advice for the new generation of dancers? - They should become dancers when they feel the art in their souls and when they have great discipline.