When Alicia Alonso was 20, and launched on a dancing career in New York, her future seemed assured. She had just been recruited to the city’s newly formed ballet company, Ballet Theatre, and already she was being cast in principal roles. But she had one anxiety: the flashing lights and dark spots that crisscrossed her vision. When she eventually went to be tested, she was diagnosed with severe retinal detachment.
During the following two years, Alonso was forced to undergo three major eye operations with long periods of recovery during which she was unable to leave her bed. Yet she never stopped dancing. The role she had always aspired to perform was Giselle, and lying flat on her back she began to rehearse it – imagining the steps in her head and dancing them with her fingers on the sheet.
The doctors told Alonso that she would never regain her peripheral vision and that her sight would progressively deteriorate. Despite all their warnings, Alonso not only returned to Ballet Theatre in 1943 but also made her debut as Giselle that year, stepping in at the last moment for the company’s injured ballerina Alicia Markova.
She was greeted as a new star, the critic Edwin Denby hailing her as a “meticulous stylist”, and Giselle became the role with which she was most identified. Over the next four and a half decades, Alonso continued to defy doctors’ orders. She performed using specially placed lights to guide her onstage as her vision got worse, trusting to the whispered guidance of her partners, and to a precautionary wire stretched across the front of the stage.
Alonso, who has died aged 98, had been stubborn and ambitious from a very early age. She was born Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez y del Hoyo in Havana to wealthy Spanish-Cuban parents. Her father was an officer in the army. In pre-revolutionary Cuba, life for a young woman of her class could be pampered, but from the age of nine Alonso was obsessed with ballet, training at the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical in Havana. As a teenager, she danced Odette in an edited version of Swan Lake, using the stage name Alicia Martínez.
At this time she also fell in love with a fellow student, Fernando Alonso, and in 1937 they married and left for New York and its promise of greater professional opportunities. Despite giving birth to a daughter, Laura, shortly afterwards, Alonso’s progress was remarkable. She continued her training at the School of American Ballet and with noted teachers such as Anatole Vilzak, Ludmilla Schollar and Antony Tudor; by 1938 she was dancing on Broadway and by 1939 she was touring with George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan (the company with which she danced her first major role as the Mother/Sweetheart in Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid).
By 1940, when she joined Ballet Theatre, Alonso was developing an exceptional technique. She displayed an almost masculine strength and control in her balances and pirouettes but she possessed a distinctively feminine quality of expression – sensual, lyrical and vividly dramatic.
Despite the grim years of enforced immobility her career continued on its swift upward rise. Following her success in Giselle, in 1943, she was cast in an increasing number of leading roles. By 1946 she had been promoted to principal rank. That year Igor Youskevitch joined Ballet Theatre and became her regular stage partner. The chemistry between them was soon being compared to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in its emotional and physical rapport and was enshrined in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, created for them in 1947.
The following year Ballet Theatre was suffering temporary financial problems , at which point Alonso opted to return to Havana to found her own company, Ballet Alicia Alonso. She brought several New York dancers with her and performed as the company’s ballerina as well as choreographing and staging works including Giselle and a full-length Swan Lake.
She was determined to nurture some kind of professional ballet culture in Cuba, and for several years commuted between New York and Havana, sustaining the company with Fernando as general director, his brother Alberto as choreographer and artistic director and with financial assistance from wealthy Cuban families and the ministry of education.
During the second half of the 1950s the repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista made it difficult for her to keep her company going and Alonso was largely abroad. She toured with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, performed with the Bolshoi and Kirov (she was the first western ballerina to be invited to the Soviet Union) and reunited with Ballet Theatre.
By 1959 she was at the peak of her international celebrity as well as her professional artistry. Yet when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary party came to power and Alonso was invited to return home to relaunch her company as the National Ballet of Cuba she responded almost immediately. With Castro’s support and financial aid, the remarkable process was set in motion by which Alonso, with the help of Fernando, turned Cuba into a world centre for classical ballet.
Integral to the success of the project was the excellence of the National Ballet School that they opened in 1962. Trawling the island’s towns and villages for possible talent, offering some of Cuba’s most underprivileged children the chance of a prestigious career, the school was able to nurture an exceptional concentration of dancers. Most exceptional were the men. Cuban families valued ballet as a profession – on a par with medicine and the law – and unlike most countries there was as much enthusiasm for the new school among the boys as the girls.
But Alonso understood that she needed not just dancers. She needed to create audiences too and in the early years she and her company undertook extensive tours around the island, performing in factories, military centres and farms. With state subsidy keeping ticket prices low, ballet became one of Cuba’s favourite national entertainments – almost as popular as sport.
During subsequent decades Alonso’s personal importance to the company remained immeasurable. US economic sanctions against Castro’s regime meant that ballet along with the rest of Cuba suffered from chronic financial difficulties and cultural isolation. Alonso filled in as many gaps as she could – creating much of the repertory herself as well as training new choreographers. She also used her international contacts, securing precious invitations for the company to dance abroad, and attracting foreign gifts and subsidies to bolster the inadequate state funding.
From the 1990s onwards, however, critics of Alonso’s regime felt she could have done more to keep pace with changing trends and styles, that she could have surrounded herself with more alert and challenging advisers. She did not pick up on the dissatisfaction among her dancers until until early 2019, when she named Viengsay Valdés as her deputy artistic director.
Over the years Cuba began to lose some of its finest talents, such as the dancers Jose Manuel Carreño and Carlos Acosta, who went abroad for more varied artistic opportunities. Among those who stayed at home, the atmosphere within the National Ballet became factional.
Yet Alonso remained an inspiration. Well beyond her 90th birthday she continued to go into the company office and to attend almost every performance. When she entered the theatre, the audience stood up for her as though she were royalty. As a passionate patriot she remained committed to the importance of dance in Cuba and as a passionate artist she never lost her own sense of vocation. She often lay awake at nights remembering past performances, and wondering how she could have improved them. “I looked for perfection every day,” she said “and I never gave up.”
Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1975. She is survived by Laura, and by her second husband, Pedro Simón.
• Alicia Alonso (Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martínez y del Hoyo), ballerina, choreographer and ballet director, born 21 December 1920; died 17 October 2019