The amazing saga of triumph over personal, artistic and political adversity
Outside the famous Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow a crowd is anxiously queuing up for a historic performance. It is the 80th birthday jubilee of Maya Plisetskaya, one of the most famous prima ballerinas ever to take the stage.
Tonight, November 18, 2005 is the “re-premiere” of choreographer Alberto Alonso’s acclaimed work, Carmen, a ballet he created expressly for Plisetskaya in 1967 which was immediately stripped of its sensuous pas de deux after its first provocative performance.
Indeed, the tremors this ballet set in motion in Russia and back home in Alberto’s native Cuba were so profound that Maya’s decision to choose this as one of three works performed for her jubilee has had dance critics, photographers and the paparazzi hovering around the rehearsals all week. The atmosphere leading to this evening’s curtain is electric, and tomorrow images of the event will be beamed around the world from CNN to “Good Morning America.”
Moments before the lights dim in Moscow a figure rises in the royal box. It is Maya, accompanied by her husband, the famous Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, whose score married themes from the famous Bizet opera score to the percussive Latin elements that now seem inseparable from the core of the ballet’s brilliant choreography.
Maya greets the audience with sinuous flutterings of her famous Swan Lake arms. The audience stands clapping and as she gestures to the crowd, its din rises in response. She extends her arms and gazes at Alonso and his wife, Cuban dancer Sonia Calero, sitting in the front row. As much as this moment marks her victory of art over politics, the night indeed belongs to him.
Nearly two years later in collegiate Gainesville, within the mirror-walled, wax-floored studios of the Visual & Performing Arts Department at Sante Fe Community College young nubile dancers focus intently on their rehearsals, ever mindful of the commands coming from the small-framed instructor. His stern gaze keeps a watchful eye for budding talent – the next Mikhail Baryshnikov or Maya Plisetskaya. Students respectfully abide by his every critique; as well they should. As Master-Artist-In-Residence, 89 year old Alberto Alonso is one of the most acclaimed choreographers and distinguished ballet personalities in the world.
Born in Cuba in 1917, Alonso’s athletic life and artistic ambitions began oddly enough in Mobile, Alabama circa 1931. Extremely agile and athletic, even at an early age, he fondly recalls passing the time playing soccer with other Depression Era children before revolutionary uprisings during the Machado dictatorship forced the Alonso family to return to Cuba.
Cuba was rife with fervor, both political and cultural, in the 30’s. Alonso’s mother promoted the latter, patronizing La Sociedad Pro-Arte Musicale (the Pro-Arte Musical Society), erstwhile introducing her children to the major artists of the world at an impressionable age. It was here Alberto developed a strong love for the music and culture birthed on stage, second only to his love for soccer. He was torn between his love of soccer and his love of the arts. Indeed, as the 17-year old teenager laced ballet shoes for the first time, he had no plans for a 70-year career as a dancer and choreographer. He simply planned to strengthen his legs for football.
Fortunately, Alberto Alonso got more than he bargained for.
When members of a Russian ballet company visited the dance studio, they witnessed Alonso’s raw talent. The prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, decided to take a chance, offering the talented teenager a four-month contract to dance with the company.
With his mother’s blessing and encouragement, Alonso sailed to Paris and within two years he was the soloist for Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe-Paris, touring England, the Americas, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. All the while Alberto studied and sought inspiration so that he would be well versed in the arts – like his mentor.
“When we performed Paganini,” Alonso says, “I observed how he [de Basil] trained the performances and was enthralled by his method of explanation. Here was a man who knew what he was doing.
“This was I wanted to do,” Alonso continues, his soft, accented English punctuated by hand gestures and Cuban exclamations, “to achieve what others believed could not be done.”
So, while the war surged in Europe, Alonso returned to Cuba to cultivate a secret passion. “Ballet is graceful and fluid … Cuban Salsa, Mambo and ChaChaCha are passionate and fiery, so I had to do more than incorporate [one into the other] … I had to go deeper.”
Alonso’s octogenarian body moves with the beat of his clap. “What I was envisioning was already a developing expression by popular dance style choreographers but not by the traditional forms. It was more than fusion of style … it was fusion of spirit.”
Within a single decade the significance of Alonso’s achievement could be felt worldwide. Alonso’s exploratory fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythm and choreography into classical ballet preceded then coincided with the use of Afro-American rhythm in contemporary music by the original rock ‘n’ roll legends Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard in the 50’s and 60’s.
It was this tropical seasoning that seduced Maya Plisetskaya as she watched a Cuban-themed musical by Alonso melt a Moscow winter night in 1966. “From the dancers’ first movement,” writes the Bolshoi prima ballerina in her autobiography, “I felt as if a snake had bitten me.” She thought Alonso perfect to choreograph her dream Carmen and recalls how “the ballet was made in a frenzied rush” to Rodion Shchedrin’s suite based on the Bizet opera. Though Soviet authorities balked at the work’s eroticism, Plisetskaya stamped the lead with unassailable star power.
“She was great,” says Alonso. “She has lived … loved … suffered,” giving dimension to a role that, for the choreographer, symbolized freedom. That freedom, however, came at a price.
Under the communist regime artistic expression was suppressed and Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba took over everything. “Management under dictatorship meant the people weren’t informed or provided with the things they need.” Sonia explains. They controlled everything yet did not communicate effectively. “Job notifications were not timely so offers were lost. Passport arrangements were improper so flights were missed. When I performed at the theater under Alonso’s choreography no one bothered to promote the event.”
The manipulation was subtle but inescapable. Or was it?
Disillusioned at what was happening in their country in 1967, Alberto and his wife decided to defect. The decision was difficult when they considered their family, as well as thwarted attempts of colleagues and friends. They knew the execution of any plan had to be masterful in its flawlessness and become a choreography all its own. Finally, in 1991, a plan utilizing an international relay across the globe to distract Cuban officials unfolded.
When the Cuban government would not permit family members to travel outside of Cuba simultaneously, an oversight had been made. Officials, securing Alonso’s travel to Osaka, Japan where he was to serve as a Juror for an International Ballet competition were unaware that Sonia had been invited to a ballroom dance competition in Mexico. Alberto convinced officials to book a connecting flight in Mexico rather than Anchorage, Alaska. There they made a daring escape with the help of an Ecuadorian friend living in Mexico. Safe in Mexico, the plan unraveled when Cuban officials confiscated their son, Albertito’s passport before he could join his mother.
Fearful for their son, Alberto and Sonia contemplated going back to Cuba. “People who have not lived through that situation … would find it difficult to understand what it is like,” Alberto explains. “We would not leave him alone over there because we knew how grave the situation would be. Either he would have to do something desperate to save himself, or they would imprison him, torture him and perhaps eventually kill him.”
Albertito however was determined to make a daring escape of his own. He joined three friends on a raft in 1993 and for three nights and days Albertito floated towards Miami. Each day the sun leached life-sustaining moisture from their bodies while small sea creatures ate at their toes. At night, the blood would attract sharks that circled the vessel like carrion.
Alberto and Sonia had no clue what had become of their son, but they anxiously watched news reports from their home in Mexico. When the news flashed that five boys pulled from the sea had arrived in Miami, Sonia instinctively knew that Albertito was among them. Reunited months later, the Alonso family found asylum in Florida and began their new lives. Albertito works in communications in Miami.
Interestingly, Alonso’s final reflections impact the current political debate regarding United States policy toward illegal Hispanic immigration.
He says “Born in Cuba, I was partially educated in the United States. I learned English and am extremely grateful to the United States. This country opens their arms to those of us with hardships. In turn, those of us who benefit realize we must work hard to provide this nation with what it needs, yet we must understand that we must abide by US laws, not impose our ways.
“Our ways were that of another nation, not this nation. We must all respect that. This nation offers something extraordinary – freedom! You may make choices, voice your opinion and execute your endeavors. Yet liberty has limits.”
With an elegant nod of his head and the spread of his arms, Alonso sums up, “Libertidad no es libertinaje” – liberty is not lawlessness.