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Cuban ballet star Alicia Alonso dies aged 98

Miguel Cabrera, an official at the National Ballet of Cuba founded by Alonso, said she died at a hospital in Havana.

Alicia Alonso has died in Havana (AP/Paul Benoit, File)
Alicia Alonso has died in Havana (AP/Paul Benoit, File)

By Peter Orsi and Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press

Alicia Alonso, the revered ballerina and choreographer whose nearly 75-year career made her an icon of artistic loyalty to Cuba’s socialist system, has died at the age of 98.

Miguel Cabrera, an official at the National Ballet of Cuba founded by Alonso, said she died at a hospital in Havana.

As founder and director of the National Ballet of Cuba, Alonso personified the island’s arts programme under Fidel Castro’s communist rule and she kept vice-like control over the troupe past her 90th birthday despite being nearly blind for decades.

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Alicia Alonso performed into her 70s despite being partially sighted for much of her career (AP/Ramon Espinosa, File)

In New York in the 1940s and 50s, Alonso was one of the earliest members of the company that became the American Ballet Theatre, helping it develop into one of the more important ballet troupes in the US. She was recognised the world over for the stylised beauty of her choreography and was named prima ballerina assoluta, the rarely bestowed highest honour in dance.

Even after she turned 90, Alonso maintained a busy travel schedule, cutting an impressive figure at ballet openings and other cultural events with her regal bearing, dark sunglasses and scarf-wrapped head always held high.

But Alonso also drew criticism for her long-time support of Castro’s government. Defecting dancers said they were stifled by extreme discipline, a lack of artistic freedom due to her near-stranglehold over Cuban ballet and the inability to travel freely abroad.

Born Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez Hoya on December 21 1920, in Havana, Alonso began her dance studies in 1931.

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Alicia Alonso performing with Orlando Salgado in Swan Lake in 1990 (AP/Tim Clary, File)

At age 16, she moved to the United States, where she married fellow Cuban dancer and choreographer, Fernando Alonso. During their 27-year marriage, which ended in divorce, the couple had one daughter, Laura. She was Alicia Alonso’s only child.

Alonso launched her professional career in 1938 on Broadway, where she performed in the musical comedies Great Lady and Stars In Your Eyes. The following year, she was part of the American Ballet Caravan, a precursor of the New York City Ballet.

Alonso joined the prestigious American Ballet Theatre of New York in 1940 and remained with the company for 16 years.

Her career took off as she danced the lead roles as prima ballerina in romantic and classical performances throughout Europe and the Americas. During that time, she worked with some of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers, including George Balanchine, Mikhail Fokine and Bronislava Nijinska.

But she worried about the development of new dancers back home and in 1948 founded her own company in Havana, the Ballet Alicia Alonso. She opened an academy of the same name shortly thereafter.

During the rule of strongman Fulgencio Batista, Alonso issued a public letter in 1956 rejecting any government assistance for her dance school. She ultimately decided not to dance again in Cuba while Batista remained in power and travelled to the United States, where she worked for a time with the Greek Theatre of Los Angeles.

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Alonso was a fervent supporter of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (AP Photo, File)

Alonso returned home after the January 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution and changed the name of her academy to the National Ballet of Cuba, which received enthusiastic and enduring financial backing from Castro’s government.

She remained a fervent, lifelong supporter of the revolution, reportedly even joining other city-dwelling Cubans for backbreaking sugarcane harvest campaigns ordered by Castro.

Alonso’s eyesight began to fail early in her career, and she danced many of her famous roles while partially blind, guided on stage by her partner’s placement and by the stage lights.

Although ultimately she could see only lights and shadows, she performed into her 70s, before retiring in 1995 after a performance in Italy. Even then she would occasionally put on her dance shoes and practice on stage using the stage-side lights as guides.

Alonso’s lifetime of work brought her Cuba’s highest honours, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana in 1973. Fidel Castro’s government granted her the Order of Jose Marti in 2000, and his successor, Raul, gave her the top arts teaching prize in 2010. She also received prestigious awards from Spain, France and Unesco.

Alonso is survived by her husband, Pedro Simon Martinez; her daughter, Laura; a grandson and two great-granddaughters.

PA

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