Cuban dance legend brings her story to York fine arts students

Dance legend Alicia Alonso, the founding artistic director of the National Ballet of Cuba, takes centre stage at York on Sept. 29, as a guest of the Department of Dance and Winters College at York University. She will speak about her extraordinary life and her passion for her art in conversation with dance journalist Michael Crabb (National Post, CBC Radio, Dance International). Their conversation starts at 2pm in the Winters College Dining Hall. Crabb will moderate a Q & A session with the audience following her presentation.

Right: Alicia Alonso at the height of her career

Alonso ranks among the pre-eminent personalities of classical ballet.  As one of only a handful of dancers to achieve the title of "prima ballerina assoluta", her talent, artistry and inspiring life story are legendary.

Born in Havana, Cuba, Alonso embarked on her professional career in the United States in 1938 as a musical comedy performer on Broadway. A year later, she joined the American Ballet Caravan, now the New York City Ballet and in 1940 helped launch the inaugural season of the Ballet Theater of New York.

This marked the beginning of a dazzling international career. As the company’s prima ballerina, Alsonso was the toast of New York and toured Europe and Latin America in the great works of the romantic and classical repertoire. Known especially for her interpretations of the title roles in the Giselle and Carmen, she worked with many of the leading choreographers of the time, including Mikhail Fokine, George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Anthony Tudor, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille.

Alonso achieved her international success in the face of remarkable challenges. Very early in her career, she was diagnosed with detached retinas and had to learn to perform with only partial sight in one eye and no peripheral vision. Audiences were reportedly never the wiser as they watched the prima ballerina dance.

Left: Alonso dominated the stage even while dealing with remarkable challenges

In 1948 Alonso established her own dance company in her native Havana. Her ensemble, which became the National Ballet of Cuba, achieved worldwide recognition for its performances as well as its founder’s choreographic settings of the ballet classics. Now, 60 years later, she continues to serve as the company’s artistic director and guiding light.

Alonso has won many accolades for her contributions to her art and international cultural life. She is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and is the recipient of UNESCO’s Pablo Picasso Medal, the Medal of Honour of Madrid’s Círculo de Bellas Artes, and several honorary degrees. France conferred upon her the title of Commander in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and membership in the Legion of Honour. Among the many distinctions bestowed by her native country is the Order of José Martí, the highest decoration awarded by the Cuban Council of State. She received the prestigious Prix Benois de la Danse in 2000 in recognition of a lifetime of artistic achievement.

Alonso is in Canada with the 66 members of the National Ballet of Cuba, who will perform Giselle at Hamilton Place on Oct. 4 and 5. The company’s visit is hosted by the Canadian Ballet Youth Ensemble.

Alonso’s talk on Sept. 29 is free and open to the public. Her visit to York has been organized by Faculty of Arts Professor Pastor Valle-Garay. Her talk presented by the Department of Dance and the Office of the Master of Winters College with support from the Department of Languages, Literature & Linguistics and York International.