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Alberto Alonso, a centenary of the Cuban choreographer

Published: 2017.06.08 - 11:33:49   /  /  Miguel Darío García Porto  /  translated by  Luis E. Amador Dominguez  /

Recognized as the first Cuban dancer and choreographer with a syncretic work that combined national and foreign elements, Alberto Alonso is undoubtedly a leading figure in the history of dance on the Caribbean island, as well as one of its most outstanding personalities of international renown.

Alberto Alonso was born in Havana on May 22, 1917 - exactly one hundred years ago - and his catalog, which is the biggest of Cuban ballet, has more than 110 titles that should currently be revisited more, as its ideoesthetic innovations do not decline despite the time.

Alberto studied with Nikolas Yabrovski in 1933 in Pro-Arte Musical and shortly after he improved his training with Tchernicheva, Preobajenska and Idzikowski, all coming from the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev.

At 17, he entered the Basil Ballet Russes, which selected him as a character dancer and he made his debut in works such as Petroushka, Prince Igor, Specter of the Rose and the Prodigal Son, amongst other ballets.

During the years that Alberto was in charge of the School of Pro-Arte Musical between 1941 and 1959, dance in Cuba acquired great relevance through ballet festivals in which the three Alonsos participated and foreign guest stars.

Nevertheless, the greatest work of the school, besides the training of Cuban dancers, was the unpublished choreographic production by Alberto, which added more than a dozen works.

It is important to emphasize that if Fernando met Alicia Alonso at the School of Musical Pro-Art, it was because his brother Alberto had preceded him in the vocation of ballet, and in this mythical triad of artists stands the foundational progress of the Cuban ballet: Alicia was the outstanding dancer, Fernando the great pedagogue and Alberto the brilliant choreographer.

In an interview conducted by Eduardo Heras León in 1968 for El Mundo newspaper, Alberto explained about his decision to dedicate himself exclusively to choreography: "I always liked to create things and choreography is creation. Perhaps an anecdote from childhood explains everything. Close to my house, one morning I saw how a group of men cut down in a few minutes an old, leafy tree of more than twenty years. And that fact was imprinted in my mind. How was it possible to destroy so many years in a short time? Since then, a sense of aversion towards the destruction of things that it took years and efforts to build has developed in my personality. That perhaps pushed me to choreography (I would say a psychological compensation).

In 1943, the American Ballet Theater of New York welcomed him into its ranks and in 1945 he participated in the musical comedy Yolanda and the Thief featuring Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer, under the direction of Vicente Minelli. In 1948, he returned to Cuba for the moment of the birth of the Alicia Alonso Ballet, which is the base of the current National Ballet of Cuba.

He was also the one who managed the idea of a syncretic ballet together with the academic technique and the international tradition, the native elements coming from the Afro-Cuban art and the Creole visual arts.

From his idea comes from the fifties works such as "Antes del alba" (1947), starring Alicia Alonso, with music by Hilario González and designs by Carlos Enríquez, the "first Cuban ballet"; "La rebambaramba" (1957) by Amadeo Roldán, with texts by Alejo Carpentier; The tasty "El güije" (1967) about texts by Nicolás Guillén and Oscar Hurtado, music by Juan Blanco; or maybe a bit too folkloric "Manita en el suelo" (1984), with libretto by Carpentier and music by Alejandro García Caturla.

His first ballet was Concerto in 1943, an abstract work on Vivaldi and Bach that many still consider his masterpiece today.

In 1948, he participated with the other two Alonsos in the formation of the Alicia Alonso Ballet, a precursor of the current National Ballet of Cuba (BNC).

Between 1950 and 1953, he had his own company in Havana and there he began to fuse folklore and traditions with the echoes of modern ballet.

In another area, he made works such as ¨Un Retablo para Romeo y Julieta¨, which Antonio Fernández Reboiro filmed for the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).

His musical comedy ¨Un día en el solar¨ (1965) marked a milestone for the genre in Cuba and resumed his experience in the former cabarets, where he came to have more than 100 dancers in the legendary Saint Souci.

The story of Alberto Alonso is full of anecdotes. In 1966, he travelled to Moscow with the Cuban Dance Ensemble, which then directed the mythical play "El Solar", with Sonia Calero - Alberto's widow and third wife - and when he finished that performance, he received a visit in the dressing room of a young and radiant young woman, Maya Plisetskaya.

Impressed with this particular style, the Russian prima ballerina assoluta, understood that that choreographer was the one she was looking for to experiment in other styles and, therefore, proposed that he choreographed "Carmen".

The husband of the dancer, the composer Rodion Schedrin, would take care of the arrangement of Bizet's score. Of course, Alberto was an artist of a "brother country". Nevertheless, that "Carmen" represented much of "vanguard" for the Soviet ballet, and Maya had to defend it with all the weight of her prestige and talent.

Alberto was the first foreign choreographer invited to work with the Bolshoi Ballet. From that collaboration came the Carmen suite, which had its premiere on April 20, 1967, and the first of August of that same year in Havana, was reintroduced in Cuba, but this time with Alicia Alonso in the lead role.

Not much has been written about the differences between the two performers in the play, but the truth is that it was Alberto's most acclaimed creation and his choreographic and stage innovations remain in force.

A perfume of the "Afro-Cuban", stylized in the classical language, underlies the choreography of "Carmen". That was the "novelty" that subjugated Maya when she saw "El Solar".

The link with this "cubanization" of the choreography from the classic was his work in television, cabarets, shows such as "Cabaret Regalías" and "Casino de la Alegría", that is, in the realm of what is called "musical comedy". He was the Cuban Jerome Robbins.

The parallelism between Robbins and Alberto Alonso runs parallel to the synthesis that both sought between ballet and the "minor" genre. Also, like Alberto, Robbins contributed to the "national" of the American ballet, for example with "Fancy Free" (1944), his opera prima, which by the way Alberto performed.

Alberto Alonso was the first Cuban to have professional and in-depth contact with choreographers such as Mijail Fokin, George Balanchine, Anton Dolin, Jerome Robbins (whom he recognized as influential and whom he regarded as the greatest American ballet artist), and Antony Tudor.

Alberto Alonso married three times to three great dancers: first, the Canadian Alexandra Denisova (artistic name of Patricia Denise Meyers); later to Elena del Cueto and finally to Sonia Calero, who accompanied him until his death.

His last great ballet was Diario perdido, a complex choral work with music by the Italian Alberto Bruni Tedeschi, released in 1986 first in Havana and later in the Opera of Rome, where he spoke of the artist and his memory.

In September 2006, the Miami International Ballet Festival awarded him a Life for Dance Award. Alberto Alonso died on December 31, 2008 at his home in Gainesville, Florida, at age 90 and his ashes were scattered - as was his wish - at sea.

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