Cuba's cultural calendar has in the mythical ballerina Alicia Alonso a beginning and an end. December was the month of her 97th birthday, while the New Year opened with the National Ballet of Cuba's traditional gala performance during the first week of January, this time presenting Don Quixote.
This year will also be marked by the 70th anniversary celebration of the company she founded and led, culminating in October with the 26th International Ballet Festival of Havana.
October 28, the date of the Alicia Alonso Ballet's first performance in 1948, is set as opening day for the Festival convoked by the prima ballerina assoluta,held every two years and drawing special attention in the world of dance.
The prestige of her stellar career and that of the Cuban school of ballet attract dancers, choreographers, critics, and audiences from across the globe.
Attempting to summarize her vast work would be an overwhelming task, but citing two dates may serve to provide a snapshot of her 64 extraordinary years on the stage:
Historians report her debut as taking place in 1931, in Havana's Auditorium Theater, in Sleeping Beauty's grand waltz, by Tchaikovsky, when she was still a student at the Pro-Arte Society's ballet school, and it will be Alicia who decides when her last performance was.
The living legend said in a treasured interview, "It was in Italy (in 1995, in the Massini Theater in the city of Faenza). I danced Farfalla (a choreography of her own making). I didn't want a dramatic or painful farewell, that the audience would know it was the last time. I thought that would be cruel for both. When I finished dancing, I said, I'm not dancing any more. No one knew. What could have been better than Farfalla, that fleeing butterfly?"
But Alicia has not stopped dancing. She does so every time the BNC takes the stage, be it in Havana seasons or when Cuban dancers travel abroad. In 2017, the company's leading figures were invited to perform as guest artists on 109 occasions, in Russia, the United States, Chile, Mexico, Spain, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Peru, while the BNC had international tours in
Italy, Spain, France, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.
Following the company's performance in Paris at the Pleyel, after a ten year absence from the City of Light, Dance Magazine critic Loïc Le Duc wrote, "… the corps du ballet appears totally renewed, the National Ballet of Cuba can take pride in always, every time, presenting us with youth and promising dancers, who preserve a characteristic style, to ultimately give us a lesson in choreographic romanticism that the dancers offer with honesty and verve… Allowing the public attending the spectacle to delight in the dancers' technique, enjoy the magical suspension of their steps and jumps that appear to stop in time, in full flight, playing with zero gravity, defying the laws of gravity. The pirouettes, the vertiginous virtuosity of the male dancers, perhaps a bit "machista," contrasts with the young ballerinas' delicate work with their arms, that move like foam to float in the air without ever settling."
The mark Alicia has made on the world of ballet needs no surname, as BNC historian Miguel Cabrera would say, the ballerina makes all other arts her own.
The most renowned poets have dedicated verses to her. Dulce María Loynaz saw Alicia "as a light." Carilda Oliver Labra called her "a cloak, a woman, a wonder, a swallow," while Nancy Morejón associated her with mystery and Eliseo Diego named her "a celebration of Cuba."
The Cuban essayist Juan Marinello understood her this way: "Alicia Alonso is a tenacious force, frenetic, heroic - shooting at illness and against time - toward untiring perfection."
To the pleasure of thousands who admire her, there is now a new book, Alicia, el vuelo de la mariposa, by Julio M. Llanes (Editorial José Martí), presented recently in the Grand Theater's lobby.
Within the work's biography and the fiction, is a photographic annex that captures some of Alicia's significant encounters over the course of her professional artistic career.
More photographs honored the dancer on her 97th birthday with the exposition A través del lente de Cannatello, by Italian Alfredo Cannatello, in the Grand Theater's Carpentier Hall, continuing through January 15.
Cannatello, who already published a book dedicated entirely to Alicia, included photos of the National Ballet, plus Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, the Ballet Español de Cuba, and the Irene Rodríguez Company.
After the inauguration, Cannatello agreed with GI that to photograph ballet, one must know it, and since light is of supreme importance to artists of the lens, he has digitally re-worked 50 shots, because the view of the theater "is not the best, so I change the light but keep the movement."
The entrance to Havana's Grand Theater (also celebrating 180 years) is always impressive with its staircase of white marble, but now its focal point will be a bronze statue of Alicia Alonso - by sculptor José Villa Soberón - whose name was included in that of the theater. Meanwhile, via her press office, the director of the National Ballet of Cuba stated, "The company will turn 70 this 2018. I look to the past, to these 70 years, with a very special sentiment, that is not free of a certain pride in the present, for what we have achieved."
A few lines to attempt the impossible, to greet and thank the mythical Alicia Alonso.
THE SPIRIT OF AN EXCEPTIONAL WOMAN
A bronze statue of Alicia Alonso was unveiled January 1, with the ballerinaand sculptor José Villa Soberón on hand.
The simple, moving ceremony was presided by First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez and Abel Prieto, minister of Culture.
Eusebio Leal, Havana City Historian, offered a few words of tribute to the exceptional woman, who he said took art to perfection.
He described Villa's work as beautiful and recognized the difficulty of working with bronze, recalling that Alicia visited the sculptor's workshop, touching and caressing the statue, to "see it with the light of her heart.. from the depths of her soul."
Alicia, as always, played her part in the event with serenity and aplomb, as Leal highlighted the iron will she displayed over the years to leave a school modeled after her style.
The City Historian emphasized how happy he was to witness such a unique moment, a recognition by the Cuban people of the grand dame of ballet, adding that Havana's Grand Theater, that now also bears her name, is even more splendid with the statue immortalizing Giselle.
On the occasion, Alicia said, "Everything I danced, I enjoyed very much, and it has all been important to me, but Giselle holds a special place in my life as a dancer and a human being. It was a great challenge after a long, difficult recovery. But I triumphed. A dancer, if she is a true artist, when she goes out onto the stage must be wiling to give her all or die on its planks."