‘A genius of dance.’ Cuban ballet icon Alicia Alonso dies at age 98

Alicia Alonso, the ballet legend who largely created classical dance in her native Cuba, died on Thursday at the age of 98.

She was a formidable personality renowned as one of the great ballerinas of the last century, despite being nearly blind most of her life. Alonso turned the National Ballet of Cuba into an international presence during nearly 70 years at its helm, and instituted a system of dance training in Cuba that has produced dancers praised around the world.

“I consider Alonso a genius of dance,” Miami City Ballet Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez, the Miami-raised daughter of exiles, wrote in an email to the Herald. “Regardless of politics, she remains one of the art form’s greatest dancers.”

But the ferocity of purpose that enabled Alonso’s many achievements also led her to rule the company with an authoritarian hand. She limited the careers of younger dancers whom she saw as competition to her own place onstage even as she reached her 60s — a situation which, combined with the lack of opportunities in Cuba, led many to defect. Despite her exalted reputation in the ballet world, she was reviled by Cuban exiles who saw her as the cultural equivalent to deceased Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

“Alicia Alonso’s work as director of the Ballet Nacional and as prima ballerina put the company on an international level,” said Pedro Pablo Peña, an exile and founder of the International Ballet Festival of Miami and the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, and who since arriving in Miami in 1980 has presented and helped dozens of defecting Cuban dancers. “There is no doubt that she had the greatest dedication. Nothing mattered to her but ballet. But her ego turned her into a tyrant.”

“Alicia Alonso has left us and leaves a huge void, but also an insurmountable legacy,” Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s appointed president, posted on Twitter.

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Calling her “our Alice,” Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper, wrote: “Although bathed in cosmopolitanism, she longed to hear the crow of our roosters, to taste the smell of the saltpeter of her Havana Malecón, to value the butterfly and coral as the most exquisite fleets, or to be fascinated with the scientific advances and the mysteries of cosmos.”

In recent years, Alonso’s age forced her to concede her responsibilities, according to Miami-based cultural promoter and ballet critic Baltazar Santiago Martín, who interviewed Alonso frequently after meeting her in 1991. Attending the 25th International Ballet Festival of Havana in 2016, Martín noted that Alonso was “a little lethargic” and fell asleep during a performance. He said that ballet designer Salvador Fernández and Alonso’s second husband, Pedro Simon, were making many programming and casting decisions.

Simon “interpreted Alonso’s wishes, and had a lot of power over the company,” Martín told the Herald. “He tells her everything. But her capacity is already diminished.”

Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez y del Hoyo was born on the outskirts of Havana on Dec. 21, 1920. Although a number of online bios put Alonso’s birth year as 1921, two critics and Cuban ballet experts who have known and frequently talked to Alonso for decades, confirmed that she was born in 1920, the fourth child of an army veterinarian and a seamstress.

She began studying dance as a young girl in the country’s first ballet school, run by the privately funded Sociedad Pro-Arte Grateli, where she fell in love with fellow student Fernando Alonso. While in her mid-teens she married him and, pregnant with their daughter Laura, followed him to New York. She would become part of the earliest incarnations of the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, part of the birth of ballet in the United States.

At 19, she began to have problems with her vision that soon led to her becoming almost completely blind. Her astonishing willpower enabled her to overcome this obstacle; when two operations forced her to spend over a year in bed in Havana, she practiced roles in her mind and with her fingers. She returned to the New York stage in 1943 in what would become one of her greatest roles, the title part in “Giselle,” as a last-minute replacement for an ill Alicia Markova. Despite having only partial sight in one eye, she became renowned for her artistry and dizzying technique. George Balanchine choreographed “Theme and Variations,” one of his most difficult and brilliant ballets, for her, and she danced leading roles in key ballets by choreographers Antony Tudor (“Undertow”) and Agnes de Mille (“Fall River Legend”).

In a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles Times, George Saddler, a fellow dancer at ABT in the 1940s, recalled the fierce character that led to Alonso being nicknamed “the Black Cobra.” Tudor, famous for ripping dancers apart emotionally, was attacking Alonso in rehearsal.

“She put her hands on her hips and she said, ‘Mr. Tudor, you can’t ever make me cry,’ ” Saddler said. “He never picked on her again.”

In 1948, Alonso and her husband, together with Fernando’s brother Alberto, launched a troupe in Cuba that would become the National Ballet. At first it was supported primarily through Alonso’s earnings and fame. After the Revolution, it became a state institution and one of Cuba’s leading cultural exports, with Alonso an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Cuban system. She became an artistic icon who led the company on tours around the world. Havana’s most famous theater was renamed the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. Under her leadership, the National Ballet fostered talent from across the island and built an enthusiastic popular audience for ballet.

“Why did I start a company in Cuba?” Alonso said in a 1997 interview in Havana. “Because I thought it was very important to bring culture to the people. The arts are essential to human beings, and dance is an art that expresses everything. Cuba deserved a company, it deserved a school.”

In 1975, Alonso divorced Fernando, who would run the Ballet of Camagüey and died in 2013, and married Simon. Her brother-in-law Alberto Alonso, a choreographer who created one of her most famous vehicles, “Carmen Suite,” in 1967, left Cuba in 1991 and settled in Gainesville; he passed away in 2008.

Her artistry and dedication made her a formidable force for ballet. Lopez heard of Alonso’s brilliance from her Cuban mother and Cuban teachers who worked with Alonso before the Revolution. In the late ’70s, as a young member of New York City Ballet, Lopez took a bus from Florida to New York to see one of Alonso’s last U.S. performances. “I had never seen such a presence on stage,” Lopez writes. “I understood at that moment Alonso’s place in history.”

Lopez would become close to Alonso, interviewing her for a U.S. TV station in 1997, and arranging for the Cuban company to stage Balanchine’s “Ballo Della Regina.” After Lopez retired from NYCB, Alonso urged her to continue working in ballet.

“Perfection was what she was after and dance her only passion,” Lopez writes. “The last time I saw her she told me she would live to be 200 years old.”

But Alonso’s mission became entwined with her identity as an artist and her loyalty to the Cuban system in ways that could lead her to stifle the development of those in her company and of dance in Cuba in general. Early on, other talented ballerinas, including figures such as Rosario “Charin” Suarez, who has lived in Miami since the mid-’90s, found themselves always secondary to an aging Alonso, who performed leading roles until she was 76. She even blocked opportunities for her daughter Laura, a respected teacher and coach who runs a school and company in Havana.

“Nobody was ever allowed to do more than Alicia,” Jorge Esquivel, a celebrated partner to Alonso who defected in 1984, told the L.A. Times in 1998. “She is perfect, no one can dance better than her.”

As Alonso stopped performing, a lack of new repertory and a style that many criticized as old-fashioned at the National Ballet, as well as the hardship and cultural isolation on the island, led many of Cuba’s most talented dancers to defect or spend most of their careers abroad, including stars such as José Manuel Carreño, Carlos Acosta, and sisters Lorna and Lorena Feijoo.

“I was invited to perform around the world, but she didn’t always let me go,” Lorena Feijoo told the Herald before a Miami performance in 2009. “Or she would all of a sudden have me doing a lot of corps de ballet work. She was a wonderful dancer and teacher who gave a lot to ballet. But she also held back a lot of young dancers.”

The 2016 International Ballet Festival showed signs of the cultural opening that has marked Cuba in recent years, with appearances by the Martha Graham Dance Company, new works by NYCB choreographer Justin Peck, and members of a new Cuban troupe headed by Acosta. But after generations of being isolated under a single autocratic leader, the future of the National Ballet of Cuba, and of ballet on the island, is unclear.

“Her name was always the most important,” Peña says. “A consequence of this is that we don’t know who will be her heir, who will be the leader that can succeed her.”

Alonso is survived by her husband, Pedro Simon, and her daughter Laura.

El Nuevo Herald staffer Abel Fernández contributed to this report.