Visual impairment : Due to retinal detachment
Born : December 21, 1921
One of the most outstanding ballet dancers, Alicia Alonso from Cuba is a recipient of the Prix Benois de la Danse (Prize Benois of the Dance) lifetime achievement for devoting her entire life to artistic contributions. She may be well past her retirement age but is a much sought after dancer even today.
However success did not come to her easy. She did have her share of disappointments but it was her determination and inert love for the dance form that Alicia overcame all obstacles and became one of the greatest ballerinas in history.
Alicia was born in Havana, Cuba, in the year 1921. She had a comfortable childhood with her parents in a fashionable section of the capital. Her mother recognized her affinity for dance and music at a very early age. At the age of 9, Alicia took her first ballet lessons at Havana’s Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical. Quick to learn, it was within one year that Alicia performed publicly in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. With this successful performance she got the recognition of an aspiring dancer.
When she was just 16, Alicia fell in love and got married to fellow ballet student Fernando Alonso. That very year the couple moved to New York, hoping to start their professional careers as ballet dancers. While looking for their big break in the world of ballet, Alicia joined the American Ballet Caravan (now known as the New York City Ballet) in 1939 as a soloist. Alicia’s devotion and passion for the dance was soon recognised and in the year 1941, the Ballet Theatre invited Alicia to join their corps de ballet (a group of dancers who performed together). Due to her brilliant performances the critics began to take notice of her.
Just when Alicia was doing well professionally and rising up, fate struck. In 1941, young Alicia was diagnosed with detached retina, due to which her eyesight was worsening. In spite of undergoing two major surgeries in New York, Alicia was dismayed to learn that she had lost her peripheral vision forever. Not ready to give up, she went for a third procedure in Havana, but in vain.
With yet another failure in attempting to correct her vision, impatience overpowered her, and Alicia was up and about with a new zeal to start her second phase of success, and travelled back to New York in 1943. Alicia had just about taken control of her bearings, when out of the blue the Ballet Theatre asked her to dance Giselle, which she promptly accepted. Alicia gave such a brilliant performance that she was immediately declared a star. She was promoted to principal dancer of the company and maintained her reputation with brilliant performances in Swan Lake, Anthony Tudor’s Undertow, and Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. In 1948, Alicia depicted a perfect blend of strength and precision in the world premiere of deMille’s dramatic ballet Fall River Legend.
To compensate for her near-blindness, her fellow dancers gave her all the support and cooperation. She learnt the skills of a technician and incorporated them to her advantage. Alicia trained her partners to be exactly where she wanted them to be. The designers of the set were instructed to install strong spotlights in different colours to serve as guide for her movements. For example, she knew that stepping into the glow of the spotlight near the front of the stage meant that she was getting too close to the orchestra pit. There was also a thin wire stretched across the edge of the stage at waist height as another marker for her. However, Alicia had mastered to dance within the encircling arms of her partners and was led by them from point to point.
In the year 1960, she formed a dance school called Ballet Nacional de Cuba (National Ballet of Cuba). Besides performing for the hi-profile international shows Alicia took her dance troupe to the remote villages. It was her desire to bring the beauty and excitement of the dance to the farmers and other workers who had virtually no experience with artistic expressions.
Alicia's deteriorating eye condition did not deter her even for a moment. Believe it or not, Alicia was dancing solos well into her 70s. Her choreographic versions of the great classics are celebrated internationally. In 1999, UNESCO felicitated her with its Pablo Picasso Medal for her outstanding contribution to dance. She was conferred the Order José Martí - the highest medal of the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba in the year 2000. She was designated UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for her outstanding contribution to the development, preservation, and popularization of classical dance in 2002. Her success stories have been recorded in numerous books, such as, Alicia Alonso: The Story of a Ballerina (1979), Alicia Alonso: A Passionate Life of Dance (1984), Alicia Alonso: First Lady of the Ballet (1993), to name a few.
As the director and the main figure of Ballet Nacional de Cuba (National Ballet of Cuba), Alicia, now in her late eighties, continues to be the inspiration and guide in the development of a new generation of Cuban ballet dancers.
With her undivided passion and devotion to the classical form of ballet, Alicia can undoubtedly be called a supremely skilled interpreter of classical romantic repertoire.