ALICIA ALONSO, a definitive Giselle, is one of the great ballerinas of our time," began a picture caption in Dance magazine seven years ago. "Her long career with American Ballet Theatre ended in 1960 when she chose to return to her native Havana with her huband, Fernando, to build the Ballet Alicia Alonso into the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Despite worldwide acclaim for her and her company, it is unlikely that American audiences will ever see her dance again."
Now, at 56, Alonso is - today as then - one of the legendary dancers of our time. But much else has changed. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba has taken its place among the major classical troupes of the world. Alonso has been divorced and remarried. By 1975 the Political atmosphere had changed sufficiently so that she danced with ABT in a New York gala, and thereafter in Washington and other cities. Last year, she performed the title role in "Giselle" - with ABT, at the Met - for the first time here in nearly 20 years.
Tuesday night, the company she so carefully nurtured makes its debut appearance in this country with a two week engagement at the Kennedy Center. Once again Alonso is cast as Giselle, the tragically betrayed peasant girl who has been her most noted portrayal.
Other classics, complemented by no less than 10 North American premieres, are scheduled by the company, which then moves on to the Metropolitan Opera for two weeks.
In her native Cuba, Alonso is so widely revered that at least half a dozen postage stamps have been issued in her honor. But there's nothing parochial about her fame. Alonso has been recognized everywhere not just as a great dancer but as an extraordinarily strong and passionate stage presence. Equally admired for her classical and modern interpretations, in her prime she also commanded extreme extensions, stunningly fast turns and powerful jumps of the kind that made audiences gasp. In recent years, her adagio dancing in particular has excited special praise for its sustained, seamless flow.
These triumphs seem all the more amazing in view of the near-blindness with which she was afflicted for more than 10 years. It has taken four operations for detached retina, and a fifth, in 1975, for cataracts, to restore hersight to relative normalcy, but at no time in between did Alonso cease dancing.
When the handicap was at its worst, "I could hardly see the wings from the stage," she told an interviewer a few years ago."I could not see how to get in and out. I had to memorize every thing. If there was a light, it meant up and front. When you turn, it means your right side. I had to have a map in my brain. I still have that habit of studying everything. When I danced in 'Carmen,' I would run and throw myself into my partner's arms. I couldn't see him. But I could hear his voice,'Here, here.'"
She was born Alicia Martinez in Havana and had her first dance classes there, but at 15 she eloped with Cuban dancer Fernando Alonso and came to New York to study at the School of American Ballet. Her first professional dancing was in Broadway musicals, but her association with ABT (then called Ballet Theatre) began in 1941, and during her intermittent years with that troupe Balanchine, Tudor and other noted choreographers created roles specially for her.
Alonso's strong ties to her native land, however, drew her back to Cuba in 1948, when she and her husband decided to establish the Ballet Alicia Alonso company and found a school for classical training. Alonso personally subsidized the operation from her revenues as a guest artist abroad. In 1955, after the company had presented its first full-length "Swan Lake" and undertaken a tour of Latin America, the troupe's name was changed to Ballet de Cuba at Alonso's request.
The following year, the Batista government canceled the troupe's small grant when the Alonsos refused to participate in a propaganda campaign. The company had to suspend activities for the next three years, most of which time Alonso spent back with ABT.
Fidel Castro, however, brought a dramatic change in official attitude toward the company. Fernando Alonso has related how it all started with a midnight visit from a friend, a rebel captain, one night in 1959, just after the revolution's end. "He was an administrator in our ballet and was married to one of our dancers. . . . He called up the stairs and said he had brought a friend with him to see me. Alicia was not at home. She was in Chicago, I believe.
"The friend was Fidel. They came up to my bedroom and we talked until about 4 in the morning.
"At last Fidel rose and said, "It's so late, I forgot I have an appointment and must go.' He started down the stairs and stopped to shout up, 'I forgot what I came for! I forgot to ask you how much money you need for the ballet.'
"I shouted back, without thinking, 'About $100,000!'
"I'll give you $200,000, but it better be a good ballet!'
"After that he would come to rehearsals and watch. I think he's satisfied."
Alicia returned to Cuba to resume her responsibilities with the company now renamed Ballet Nacional de Cuba, a decision that effectively sealed her off from these shores for 15 years because of the strained relations between the two countries. She once explained her move in these words: "Art is universal. But not the artist. I chose to come back to Cuba because artists have roots and my roots are here. I came back because my country needed me."
In some ways, the isolation from the United States during those crucial years may have helped to shape the distinctive character of the Cuban company, which was thrown back very much on its own resources. Some Russians came to dance with the company and teach, including Azari Plisetski of the Bolshoi, brother of Maya Plisetskaya - he was Alonso's chief partner for a time, and his ballet, "Canto Vital," a virtuoso piece for four men, will be seen at the Kennedy Center. The company style, however, evolved from a fusion of Russian technique, Fernando Alonso's background in the Cechetti style, Alicia's own very persnal contribution and American experience, and the elements of Cuban history and folklore which exerted an important influence over the developing native repertory of ballets.
The Kennedy Center engagement will afford a rich sampling of that repertory. Besides "Giselle" and the White Swan Adagio from "Swan Lake," the classics include Alonso's own versions of "Pas de Quatre," the celebrated tribute to four ballerinas of the Romantic age. Also within the international orbit is the Alberto Alonso (brother of Fernando) version of "Carmen," originally created for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1967, and since known as a special vehicle for both Plisetskaya and Alonso.
But new to this country and more conspicuously Cuban in character will be a slew of ballets ranging from settings of the Lorca tragedies, "Blood Wedding" and "The House of Bernarda Alba," to a rendering of the Oedipus legend, to a light-heated spoof of ballet mishaps and abstract works of an allegorical bent.
Alonso has contributed "Genesis," a parable about biological and social life cycles set to a cscore by the Italian composer Luigi Nono. The superlative Flamenco artist Antonio Gades will participate both as a choreographer ("Blood Wedding") and as dancer, he'll appear with Alonso in "Ad Libitum," a pas de deux exploring the constrasts in their respective idioms.
Aside from Alonso the names of the principals of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba - Jorge Esquivel, Loipa Araujo, Aurora Bosch, Marta Garcia, Orlando Salgado and others - will be largely unfamiliar to local balletgoers. They have achieved considereable reown internationally, however, both with the BNC and as guest artist, and collectively they have walked away with an astounding number of medals and awards from the most prestigious ballet competitions abroad, including those of Varna, Moscow and Paris.
As for Alonso, during the first week of the company's visit she'll dance in "Giselle" on Tuesday and Thursday; in the White Swan pas de deux on Saturday evening; and in the "Pas de Quatre" and "Ad Libitum" next Sunday evening. The casting details for the second week are unavailable, but we may expect Alonso to be appearing in at least some of the performances of two ballets closely associated with her name - "Oedipus" and "Carmen".
Among the hallmarks of the Kennedy Center's ballet offerings over the years has been the periodic exposure of major troupes from other countries - England, Germany, the Soviet Union, Denmark and others. The arrival of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba will be a milestone on this enlightening road.