Classical ballerina great Alicia Alonso brings Ballet Nacional de Cuba to Chicago

Classical ballerina great Alicia Alonso brings Ballet Nacional de Cuba to Chicago

By Edith McCauley

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

Alicia Alonso, the great classical ballerina and founder of Ballet Nacional de Cuba, came to Chicago two weeks ago to share for the first time her talent and the exceptional company whose work recreates the greatest of classical ballet. Sponsored by Chicago and Illinois Arts organizations, it also received the support of The Governor’s International Arts Exchange Program. Whether Governor Ryan’s trip to Cuba was instrumental in Alonso’s first appearance here is not clear, but that Friday’s audience was filled with representatives from the state and the Cuban Ambassador.

On Thursday, Nov. 1, Miss Alonso appeared at the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center with a panel consisting of dance critic Ann Barzel; Eduardo Vilaro, artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theatre; Josefina Mendez, ballet mistress of the company; and moderator Hedy Wiess, dance and theater critic of the Chicago Sun-Times. Many of Alonso’s comments began with, “but that’s a very long story,” but her devoted fans wanted every detail.

Born in Cuba (she would not tell her age), she began her first ballet lessons in Spain while living there with her family for a year. She remembers the first time she went to the barre and the feelings of joy it engendered. “Even now it gives me happiness.” In 1938, she began her professional career in two musical comedies, Great Ladies and Stars in Your Eyes. In the audience on that Friday was a gentleman who had seen that performance. By 1940, she was selected by the American Ballet Theater, and began a brilliant career that included work with Mikhail Fokine, George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille. She danced with every major ballet company in the world, but her dream to create a ballet company in Cuba only became a reality in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power.

One evening in her apartment, she received a call from a supporter saying he was bringing a friend by. That friend was Castro, and with a gift of $100,000, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba became a reality. Her school was established with students beginning their training at age 8 and remaining in the school until they are accepted in the company. The state provides everything including the salaries of the instructors. The dancers come from every part of North and South America, and Alonso’s philosophy of the unification of the arts and their impact on world affairs prevails. Her failing vision limited her performances, but her ability to visualize dance movement made her a premier choreographer. “We need performances that put a smile on your face,” she said. She has surely achieved her goal. A brilliant mind, a brilliant dancer, and a cultural representative of Cuba, she may well achieve what diplomats have been unable to do since Castro’s rise to power.

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