An improbable, and beautiful, sight at the Spoleto U.S.A. Festival is that of Alicia Alonso playing tourist. The Cuban ballerina is here for the world premiere of "The Bloody Crown" by Ivan Tenorio, in which she plays Lady Macbeth. But when she finds time for an interview, that performance is three days away. And for now, she and her husband, Pedro Simon, enjoy strolling through this historic city, most excited about having found a marvelous restaurant near the Old Market, "where the food tastes almost Cuban."
Before the premiere, Alonso wants "to enjoy this beautiful city. The Spoleto Festival is a beautiful thing, you know. It is unique in the United States, and of supreme cultural importance in scope and quality. And it is so much fun."
The celebrated Cuban ballerina seems very much at home here, and is in a relaxed and frank mood, even for her. The conversation is lengthly and ranges from the current tensions between the United States and Cuba to her own legendary fights years ago in New York with George Balanchine.
With the growing conflict between the United States and Cuba, some might call her appearance at the festival daring. Has it been at all strange to return to the United States to dance in recent years? "What is strange," she says, "is not dancing here."
And for all the years of absence after the Cuban revolution, her commanding place in the history of American ballet was hardly forgotten. In the late 1930s, she joined Ballet Caravan, later known as the New York City Ballet, at Lincoln Kirstein's invitation. When the Caravan met one of its many temporary ends, Alonso joined the new American Ballet Theatre during its first season in 1940, becoming its undisputed star in a few short years. Is there another artist dancing today who can claim to have been at the roots of both of America's leading companies? Her love affair with American audiences has been reborn in recent years. And now comes a major premiere with her partner Jorge Esquivel, danced to a fiendishly difficult score for percussion and brass by Georges Barboteu.
She has had to prepare two world premieres within a few weeks: Lady Macbeth for "The Bloody Crown," and for the Festival Cervantino in Mexico, Soeur Helene in "Robert Le Diable," the role that first got Taglioni to dance en pointe and the ballet in which her teacher Enrico Zanfretta made his American debut. She reverts to English for a moment to say, "It's very tongue in the cheek." Alberto Mendez, Cuba's leading choreographer, reconstructed this delicious comedy, in which Alonso literally flies away in her nun's costume after flirting with the son of the devil. She worked on both ballets while presiding over the jury of Santiago de Cuba's Festival of Ballet Schools last month.
It was there that she heard the news of the fatal shooting of a Peruvian embassy guard, only blocks from her home in the Miramar suburb of Havana. That killing "was like a wound in my heart," she whispers very slowly.
"The heart is the strongest muscle, all our blood passes through it, all our strength. The shooting wounded our people. My first reaction was to help, to hope that the wound would be healed. Cuba is a small country, and it has suffered so much."
She remembers her own days in exile before Castro and she also recalls that even now, her family is divided between the two countries. "To emigrate, not just for political reasons, but for economic reasons, or even for art. . . to emigrate always means that so much is taken away from you. You live for the permanent question: What if? So much is robbed from an exile, most of all the admiration of one's possibilities."
Alonso has been through many difficult situations, and the politics and pain of this one are not new. "An exodus, a massive exodus is never pleasant. But I think it is good to notice that it is not only Cubans that want to leave their country and come to the United States, but also thousands of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, for example. Yet the press here does not seem to become as hysterical about these other emigrants. They are not news. It is those motives which can be questioned, I think.
"Sure, there are many people who want to leave Cuba. The situation is very complicated. The changes of the revolution may have been too violent for some; they may have not been assimilated to the same extent by all. But you cannot cover the sun with one finger, you know. You cannot deny that there are millions who want to stay. We have to see both sides. Of course, I wish all could stay, I wish all would want to stay.
"But you know, it is very funny, when politicians travel and speak with the press, they are never asked to speak about ballet. Why should it be that ballet dancers have to discuss politics? I am not an expert in politics," continues the woman who in her worldly travels has been called Cuba's strongest diplomatic force. "Just be sure that I am a Cuban, that I do support the revolution. Then, let me dance."
For just that, she recently received a special honor. On March 24, 1980, the occasion was an International Ballet Gala in honor of Alicia Alonso, organized by UNESCO. She became the first dancer to be singled out by the international body, cited for the role she played in the development and propagation of art in the world.
From there on May 4, she moved on to the 40th anniversary gala of the American Ballet Theatre, which also marked the 40th anniversary of her debut with the company and a reunion with her frequent partner, Igor Yousekevitch, after 20 years. "I don't think either one of us wanted to admit that it had been 20 years, and we carried on as if time had not passed. He does not dance now, of course. But Igor had not changed much -- and what an artist." This latest return to ABT was somehow different. She is worried about her alma mater. "I guess it is difficult to find people who understand the responsibilities of such a great company. Returning this time was a bit like standing at home during an earthquake. Everything, all the right things were there, but the foundations were shaky."
Alonso complains that, "there is a crisis of style today in ballet. There is so much confusion. It is vital to maintain one's artistic integrity. One's sense of perspective of history and of dance. Today so many ballerinas, for example, dance 'Giselle' in the same way that they would dance 'Les Sylphides.' The technique may be correct, but it is wrong in performance. There are so many hues in the romantic rainbow, so many subtle marvels."
She gets up from her chair and demonstrates, making everything very clear: the position of the head, how it must feel on the shoulders, the line from the arms to the fingertips for one role and then another. "What is missing too often today is the quality of turning great technique into great theater. There is no dance without theater," she adds.
This brings up her clashes with Balanchine, which has grown in legend with time. "I never had problems with Balanchine, but I think he had problems with me and Yousekevitch. A strong personality comes through always. Balanchine to unify his choreography, tried to stifle just that. In 'Theme and Variations' he would demand more and more technically until he did not know what else to add. He did know when to stop because of his great sense of what works on stage." Then, I think we came through anyway."
A more sympathetic influence was Anthony Tudor, with whom she took class as soon as she joined ABT. Tudor taught her not to separate the mechanical aspects of dance from the expressive function of movement. He taught her to merge technique and drama in the way that has become her trademark. The influence only goes so far, however. "Tudor would be willing to sacrifice technique for the dramatic moment. I can't. Cuban's love technique. We integrate it. Just look at our 'Giselle', she says, referring to her company's production of that ballet."The technical demands strengthen the dramatic impact."
She sits in a stuffed chair in her hotel room, feet up on the bed and hair covered by silk scarf. Alonso talks about her American public. "They never change, you know. Only the critics change," she says with a severe smile. In the years 1960 to 1975, she was kept away from them, in the most brutal period of the U.S. blockade against Cuba. "No one would dance with me. No one would invite me. When I could not dance here, at least I started doing a lot of work in Cuba. I helped my country take the first strong, certain steps towards a future of dance. I am very proud of our company. Most of all I believe in the human being and I believe that art makes us human. I have learned to trust that, over so, so many years."
The great ballerina's age is still a state secret, but she does reveal that next year she will celebrate the 50th anniversary of her stage debut, in "The Sleeping Beauty" in Havana, December 29, 1931. Time have been her ally. There is music in her voice and youth in her moves. She is on a diet, although the reason is certainly not obvious to the mortal eye. But she points to her Lady Macbeth costume: "It is tight, don't you think? It shows all of my Cubanidad [her posterior]. I think it's time to be very thin again."
In the best Latin manner, she speaks with her hands and the conversation dances along until it is dark and she turns excitedly to the television set. "Ay! It's after 8, don't let me miss 'La Bayadere.'" The interview is over for the evening and she sits in the hotel room watching ABT performing on "Live From Lincoln Center."