Legendary Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, who achieved global acclaim in the 1940’s and went on to run the internationally renowned National Ballet of Cuba for decades, died on Thursday at age 98, state-run media said.
“Alicia Alonso has gone and left an enormous void, but also an unbeatable legacy,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in a post on Twitter. “She positioned Cuba at the altar of the best of dance worldwide. Thank you Alicia for your immortal work.”
One of the greatest 20th century ballerinas, Alonso used her star power to make a sometimes elitist art form popular on her Caribbean island, forging the world’s largest ballet school with a unique bravura style.
She immediately identified herself with the 1959 revolution and with her dance partner of many years, the Russian Igor Youskevich who died in 1994, performed for the bearded guerrillas of Fidel Castro’s rebel army after they took power in Havana. She remained closely associated with the Communist government until the end.
So revered is Alonso in Cuba – where a perfume carries her name and the huge Coppelia ice cream parlor is named after one of her signature roles – that she carried the rare title of prima ballerina assoluta, reserved for only the most exceptional of dancers.
Alonso’s breakout role was “Giselle” in New York on November 2, 1943, when she replaced British dancer Alicia Markova, who fell ill, in the newly formed company that would become the American Ballet Theatre.
For her debut in the ethereal 1841 French Romantic role, Alonso had learned the steps with her hands while recovering from eye surgery.
Alonso proved “that a Latino dancer could achieve the highest levels of excellence in a style reserved almost exclusively to Slavic or Anglo performers,” National Ballet of Cuba historian Miguel Cabrera wrote in his book “Alicia Alonso: Reality and Myth.”
Petite with an angular face, Alonso danced until her 70’s despite having trouble walking and continuing to direct her company with the help of trusted artists who served as her eyes.
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