Friday, October 18, 2019

Alicia Alonso, Written Word and Video

Alonso in 1949
Alicia Alonso, the grande dame of Cuban ballet, has passed away at the ripe old age of 98. A list of Alonso accomplishments (original ballerina of Balanchine's iconic Theme and Variations of which a tantalizing bit of video exists, star of American Ballet Theatre, founder of National Ballet of Cuba) would be as long as Alonso's life.

Instead as I'm home yet again because of an awful ankle injury, I'm looking at Alicia Alonso films and comparing them to the written word. Alonso was a favorite subject of famed critic Edwin Denby and trying to compare what Denby thought with video evidence is important, because Denby saw her in her absolute prime in the 1940's.

This was before Alonso's eyesight deteriorated, and before later appearances where critics tactfully mentioned what she could do rather than what she couldn't. (A 1976 performance of the 56-year old ballerina dancing Alberto Alonso's Carmen is thus described: "Miss Alonso is still effective; she dances with a passion that cannot be described as less than grand, and her technique is moderately unimpaired.") There are a bunch of videos on YT of Alonso dancing in the 1980's which are mere relics of greatness.

It's far more instructive to look at what Edwin Denby* says about her Giselle in 1945:
"Alonso is a delightfully young and very Latin Giselle, quick, clear, direct in her relation to her lover. She is passionate rather than sensuous. She is brilliant in allegro, not so convincing in sustained grace. Her plié is not yet a soft and subtly modulated one and this weakens her soaring phrases. She has little patience for those slow-motion, vaporous effets that we Northerners find so touching. But there is no fake about her, no staginess. Her pointes, her young high extensions, her clean line, her lightness in speed, her quick balance are of star quality."
Luckily video of exists of Alonso when she was still in her relative prime. This video taken from Moscow in 1958 visualizes almost word for word what Denby described in 1945:

Alicia Alonso as Giselle
The moment she enters we admire the strength of her sauté-ballone jumps, her straightforward mime, and then her vigorously articulated ballotté jumps. We see that unlike many Giselles of past and present, she doesn't enter the stage already half-gone and wraithlike. This is a hearty lass. Her sturdy ankles and calves make her look a bit like the Imperial Era ballerinas like Pierina Legnani or Mathilde Kschessinskaya. In her first act variation she chooses not to go down to arabesque-penchée, but instead does a straightforward arabesque.  She also chooses to do the double-pirouette sequence rather than the step-pirouette sequence. And what solid pirouettes! Her diagonal of rond-de-jambe hops-on-pointe ends with a fast, traveling pirouettes rather than the manège of pique turns.

It's interesting to compare her to variation to the video footage of Olga Spessivtseva and other ballerinas doing this variation. Spessivtseva does go down to a flat-footed penchée, a move I've always preferred because it foreshadows Giselle's second act deep penchée.

Edwin Denby writes about Alonso's second act of Giselle compared to the first:
Her first act was the more distinguished of the two in its dramatic interpretation. She is no tubercular ballerina-peasant but a spirited girl who stabs herself. The confrontation scene and the mad scene were convincing, simple, and large in their miming. In the second act the first whirls were thrilling, and the famous passage of lifts with the following solo of échappés and spins stopped the show by its cumulative, bold speed. If there was little that was spectral in the second act, there was nothing that was not vividly young and straightforward.
A video from of the second act pas de deux 1963 mostly confirms Denby's observations.

It seems that Alonso struggles enough in the developpés that the camera does a quick cutaway during the second. There are other artful cutaways during the most exposed adagio moments of this pas de deux. We can see that there is indeed nothing "spectral" about her Giselle -- she doesn't go for the tendril-like arms or ghostly disembodied look. In fact, her dancing doesn't come alive until the very end -- at 7:42 in the video, she does the fastest series of backwards traveling entrechats that I've ever seen. But one can sense the strength and force of her Giselle that made it such a famous portrayal.

Another favorite video of Alonso is her dancing Dolin's fluffy Pas de Quatre. The piece is meant to be a recreation of a ballet originally set on the 19th century's most legendary ballerinas -- Lucille Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito and Marie Taglioni. Alonso takes the Grisi part. It was filmed in 1960.

Alonso in 1955
First of all: what a tough quartet of women. Alicia Alonso, Nora Kaye, Melissa Hayden and Mia Slavenska are dressed in romantic tulle tutus but with their steely pointes and well-developed calves all look like they could drop kick you to oblivion in half a second. Alonso's solo starts at 6:07. Her low-to-the-ground diagonal of jumps and firm 90-degree arabesque looks like a wonderfully authentic fascimile of 19th century ballet. Is it actually? Who knows. It's a delight however.

Denby touches upon Alonso's gift for par terre footwork elsewhere: he says that "her greatest moment was in the Mazurka of Les Sylphides, where her perfection in the quick accuracy of leaps, in the lovely bearing of chest, shoilders, and head, and in the rapid and exact tripping toe steps was very exceptional indeed."

Unfortunately I couldn't find any footage of Alicia Alonso in Sylphides. However there is footage of the National Ballet de Cuba dancing Sylphides and they dance it very much the way I'd imagine Alonso to have danced it. There's not the slow, moonlit but somewhat affected mannerisms of, say, the Mariinsky when they dance this. It's instead exactly as Denby says: great par terre dancing.

The Mazurka is at 7:45 in the video and Yolanda Correa could be Alonso's daughter. Even the low-to-the-ground jumps look exactly like Alonso's jumps in the Pas de Quatre video.

One last comparison video clip. In 1968 Alicia Alonso made a film of her dancing the Black Swan pas de deux:

Her Odile variation starts at 6:36 and instead of the developpé after the renverse she chooses a sextuple pirouette. Arlene Croce wrote about this film that "Her Black Swan ... shows a perfection in multiple pirouettes which is missing in the Giselle, yet in the earlier performances Alonso's whole figure dances and has an active humanity which baffles the camera. In Black Swan, Alonso has declined to the sum of he specialties." Croce is probably right, and the sextuple pirouette is not necessarily the artistic choice I'd make but if I was dancing Odile but hey, if you've got it (at the age of 48!), flaunt it.

So many years later Annette Delgado does "only" a quintuple pirouette in Odile's variation.

Carlo Acosta is one of the many globally famous Cuban ballet dancers
And this is Alonso's true legacy: a diaspora of Cuban dancers who have found fame all over the world for the very things Alonso was praised for back in the day: their strength, their strong technique, their straightforward unpretentious bearing, their amazing par terre dancing -- the skill in turns, in fast footwork, strong balances. I recently came across this video of Cuban ballerina Mayara Piniero who now dances for Pennsylvania Ballet and again, she could be Alicia's daughter.

Alicia Alonso said in a 2010 interview that she would "live to be 200 years old." It was a flippant comment perhaps, but her legacy of Cuban dancers will probably extend her legacy by a couple hundred years. I'd say RIP but somehow I just can't picture Alonso ever resting. So, D(ance)I(n)(P)eace.

*excerpts from Edwin Denby's Dance Writings, an absolutely indispensable book of dance criticism

Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak in T&V, photo @ Gene Schiavone
ETA: Speaking of Theme and Variations, I reviewed ABT's mixed bill of Balanchine's Theme and Variations, Tharp's Gathering of the Ghosts, and Ratmansky's The Seasons for bachtrack here. An excerpt:

The finale of Theme and Variations is usually a surefire applause generator with its accelerating storm of allegro dancing. Instead the corps, Lane and Gorak looked like they were on their last legs, and the ballet limped to the finish line. The fact that ABT struggles so much in a ballet that's a test of classical technique is worrisome. It's great that ABT can dance Ratmansky and Tharp so well, but standards need to be maintained for one of the most famous ballets ever created for the company.


  1. I love the clip of Nacional's "Sylphides." The simplicity and directness of the dancing is indeed identical to Alonso's. I love the way the dancers do not emote and just allow the movement to embody the music. They enable the viewer to access the music so much more powerfully this way--I felt so at peace watching it...I was fortunate enough to see Alonso once at the Met when she was in her 50's--as Odette in the early pas de deux in Swan Lake. That's all. I was personally overwhelmed by her and I had not really expected to be because of her age. The sheer power of her thighs and feet and, in contrast, the tingling sensuality and femininity of her rippling, naked arms, which seemed drenched with some kind of heady, effervescent property--I had to tell myself she was the greatest ballerina that I'd ever seen. And I didn't want her to be due to loyalties to other ballerinas I had seen, but just for that short time that was what I felt...Anyway, I love the directness of her Giselle--no affectation. She creates so much drama in her bearing alone and in the intelligence with which she navigates the piece. In those days people just danced. They weren't thinking, "Oh, I'm going to really sock it to them with these moves." They weren't under the same scrutiny by the audience and they had joy in movement and a lack of self consciousness. She had the guts to just be on stage. Also, Alonso is always communing with the music. Which I think is why she can do those fast entrechats--because she's at one with the music. She's living it and it's as effortless as it looks...And when she is with Albrecht in Act II there is the sense of two totally separate dimensions coming together and two totally separate people finding each other indirectly in the material plane. Thus the almost careful, glacial approach to what is obviously a very delicate matter metaphysically. It may feel ceremonious and too plain, but it's a quieter, less affected approach to the drama...On a more pragmatic note I think that there's NEVER any need for Giselle to have her hair over her ears UNTIL Act II when she's dead. That hairdo signifies the altering of the her perception of the physical world with her entrance from the beyond--she no longer hears through her ears, she hears by supernatural means. The over-the-ears hairdo is so effective in Act II and it shouldn't be Giselle's hairdo in Act I when she's joyful and alive, albeit the heart condition, don't you agree?

    1. Janet I think the hair over the ears is Act 1 is because many Giselles wear a wig. They unpin the wig for the mad scene and repin it for act 2. Certainly this was the case for Natalia Osipova who has very thin hair and uses a wig for Giselle.

  2. This is my favorite Giselle Act 1 hairdo.

    The flowers tucked at the end look exactly like something a fanciful girl like Giselle would like in her hair.

  3. Thank you for such a wonderful tribute! I cannot believe Alonso is 48 in the Swan Lake video--or those hops on pointe in arabesque to penche in the coda!!

    1. Or those fouettes which actually can fit on a "golden ruble" the way they said Legnani's could!


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