Alicia Alonso, Star of Cuba’s National Ballet, Dies at 98

Alicia Alonso, who overcame near-blindness to become a charismatic ballerina of unusual range and power, and who helped found what became, with Fidel Castro’s support, the National Ballet of Cuba, died on Thursday in Havana. She was 98.

The Cuban-born Ms. Alonso, who continued to dance into her 70s, was an admired star of American Ballet Theater and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1957, in the depths of the Cold War, she became the first ballerina from the Western Hemisphere to appear as a guest artist in the Soviet Union.

She was striking onstage, with strong features, wavy black hair and a grand manner that could burst into flamboyance during curtain calls. Offstage she was earthy and convivial.

When her eyes were at their worst, she was virtually unable to see her way onto the stage or off it. Partners whispered instructions to her as she moved, and she used the glare of stage lights to indicate the approximate locations of exits.

Ms. Alonso endured her disability stoically. “I can accept my blindness,” she said in 1971. “I don’t want my audience thinking that if I dance badly, it is because of my eyes. Or if I dance well, it is in spite of them. This is not how an artist should be.”

With her husband, the dancer Fernando Alonso, she founded the Ballet Alicia Alonso in 1948. (The dancer and choreographer Alberto Alonso  Fernando’s brother, joined them shortly thereafter.) Two years later, they created the Alicia Alonso Academy of Ballet.

Both the troupe and the school eventually struggled financially, and in 1956 they were forced to close. Ms. Alonso continued to dance, however, and the next year made her historic guest appearance in the Soviet Union.

Her company was revived after Castro’s leftist government took power in 1959. Seeking to make the arts accessible to all in Cuba, he began funneling an estimated $200,000 to the Alonso troupe, which was renamed the National Ballet of Cuba and placed under Ms. Alonso’s direction.

When she danced with the renowned Igor Youskevitch, audiences cheered one of the great partnerships of 20th-century ballet. What made her carieer all the more remarkable were her chronic vision problems.

In 1942, when she was a young dancer with Ballet Theater, as American Ballet Theater was originally known, she suffered a detached retina that required three operations to correct and a convalescence that lasted more than a year. Largely bedridden, her eyes bandaged, she was forbidden to laugh, cry or even move her head. But she refused to let go of dance. Though nearly immobile, she had teachers come to her bedside to coach her in “Giselle.” She would rehearse the steps mentally by moving her fingers.


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