Ballet: Cuba's Enduring Revolution
Prima ballerina Alicia Alonso and the National Ballet of Cuba

by Ana Campoy
Researcher: Anar Desai

photo by Mimi Chakarova

Dancers grace the stage at the National Ballet of Cuba.

The lights are dim and the red velvet curtain's up. Hundreds of expectant eyes stare at the bare stage. They know he's coming—they read his name on the program--but a split second later, Rolando Sarabia still takes them by surprise. Before the first chord, he flies onto the stage like a disc soaring through the air. One, two, three, four. Is he ever coming down?

He does, but only long enough for the audience to catch its breath. Then Sarabia takes flight again, blurring the air as he spins and lands perfectly balanced. Unlike him, the audience, a rowdy crowd of university students, bureaucrats, blue-collar workers, grandparents and school children, is in motion. They hoot, cheer and whistle as if Sarabia had just hit a home run. But the delicate shoal of white tutus that suddenly flutters on stage reminds them that they are at Havana's Gran Teatro and not at a baseball game. The corps de ballet is perfect –not a wing out of place— and it is clear that Sarabia, while exceptional is not an exception.

If such flawless dancing is expected in London or New York, where the upper class dressed in suits and gowns waits until the end of a piece to clap politely, it is a staggering feat on a small Caribbean island, where it is the masses, not the elite, who are the aficionados. Among them sits their idol, Alicia Alonso. Nearly blind, but completely in control of the company that she has dominated for longer than Fidel Castro has ruled the island, she oversees her life's work from the central balcony. Alicia, who like Fidel is known to everyone by her first name, created her own Revolution. In less than 30 years she erected a dance establishment from the ground, indoctrinated Cubans in her art, and produced dancers sought after by the best companies in the world.

But will it survive Alicia? "Ballet in Cuba will surely continue," Ismael Albelo, ballet expert and official of the Ministry of Culture, told me, "how is what nobody knows."

The story of Cuban ballet begins with three children who loved to dance, Alicia Martínez and Alberto and Fernando Alonso. Fortunately for them, they belonged to a privileged class that appreciated good ballet and brought the biggest stars of the day to Cuba. But when the Great Depression spilled onto their island, the wealthy could no longer afford to import their entertainment, so they created a money-making scheme, a ballet school at a mansion in el Vedado, a well-to-do neighborhood in Havana. Its manager was Laura Rainieri de Alonso, an art-loving, progressive piano player from an aristocratic family who ignored the rules of machismo and sent her two boys, Fernando and Alberto, to train. But the majority of students at the Escuela ProArte Musical were girls, among them, Alicia. She was lucky--slipping into her first pointe slippers at the age of 10 because her feet were the only ones in the school to fit into them-- but she also pushed herself hard. She danced the main roles with Alberto and fell in love with Fernando.

Alicia could not only raise her legs higher and bend her back farther than anyone else, but she could also do it more elegantly.

Like any talented dancers from a small country, the three young Cubans soon outgrew the local scene. So Alberto left for Monaco; and Fernando and the 15-year-old Alicia eloped to New York.

There, they practiced ballet during the day and kept house in a Spanish Harlem tenement. A baby, Laurita, soon joined their household. But child-rearing did not keep Alicia away from barres, the slender wooden poles dancers use to practice. Sometimes she paid 50 cents to take a class in a Westside church with Enrico Zanfretta, a master of the Italian school of ballet. When she could afford it, she paid $1 to take class with Alexandra Fedorova, a veteran of the recently disbanded Ballet Russes directed by Serge Diaghilev. After losing out to opera for the later part of the 19th century, the Russiam impresario had put ballet back on the main stage with avant-garde productions with music by Stravinsky, costumes by Picasso and choreography by Nijinski in the early 1900's. But with Diaghilev's death in 1929, his company collapsed and its dancers made do in New York and elsewhere. "At that time there existed no big ballet companies that maintained a repertoire and shows for even part of the year," Alicia writes in her book "Diálogos con la danza".

Only Broadway offered steady work. Its chorus lines were the sole option for starting dancers like Jerome Robbins, Nora Kaye and Alicia. She danced in the Fritz Loewe musical "Great Lady" and the Ethel Merman "Stars in your Eyes", but the bright lights and lavish productions failed to match her dreams. The American Ballet Caravan came closer. Run by Lincoln Kirstein, a New York dance Maecenas, it was one of the first efforts to create an institution of American ballet. Though short-lived, it was filled with talent, including William Dollar, Lew Christensen and Alicia. When it fell apart, Lucia Chase, a dancer and millionaire, put up the money for a new company, called Ballet Theater. Its star was Alicia Markova, an English dancer known for her Giselle. Her name was really Alicia Marks, but she had added "ova" at the end to make it sound more Russian —thanks to Diaghilev, everyone who was anyone in the ballet world of the time wanted to be Russian. "She seemed to laymen to float in a mist," wrote choreographer Agnes de Mille. But one day Markova got too sick to float. None of the dancers dared step into her spotlight. Except one: 22 year-old Alicia Alonso, who refused her producer's suggestion to Russianize her name. After her performance, George Schaffe, a ballet paraphernalia collector, went backstage, untied Alicia's pointes from her blistered, bloody feet and kissed them. "For history," he said as he ran off with the shoes.

In a dance documentary , critic Ann Barzel explained Alicia's powers. "Alicia Alonso is a great ballet technician, but there are more things than what people think is technique: there is virtuosity and there is technique, Alicia has both." In practice, this means that Alicia could not only raise her legs higher and bend her back farther than anyone else, but she could also do it more elegantly. George Balanchine, then 43-years-old, made use of Alicia's abilities in his "Theme and Variations." As with all his dancers, the choreographer pushed Alicia to bring out her best. He set a routine of steps for her, and when she did them perfectly on the first try, he created an even more complicated combination for her. The result was a "showpiece" of virtuosity, wrote Walter Terry in the New York Herald Tribune after its debut. "Alicia Alonso danced the principal role commendably. Its fleetness of action, the long sweepingness of its patterns were in complete harmony with this dancer's basic gifts."

By the time the Ballet Theater broke up a year later, in 1948, Alicia had danced all the important roles and the Alonsos were ready to go home. Within months, they had started Cuba's first professional company, the Ballet Alicia Alonso. "She was the famous one," Fernando said recently explaining the name of the company and later of the school, Escuela Alicia Alonso. But Alicia's fame was not enough. Money was scarce and to finance her Cuban plans, Alicia returned to New York where Chase's old company had been reconstituted as the enduring American Ballet Theater. The accolades for Alicia continued.

photo by Mimi Chakarova

"Ballet in Cuba will surely continue, how is what nobody knows," says Ismael Albelo, ballet expert and official of the Ministry of Culture.

"Technically perfect, dramatically forceful and very much human," wrote the Daily Express in 1953. "One of the greatest ballerinas in the world." But in Cuba, her company struggled despite modest government help. When General Fulgencio Batista overthrew the elected government in a 1956 coup, even that disappeared. The dictator insisted that the troupe earn its subsidy by becoming part of his government. The Alonsos refused. Alicia wrote a public letter to condemn Batista's "bribe" and organized a national tour to denounce it. In white tutu and full makeup, she appeared at the end of each show to promise that she would not set her pointes again on the Cuban stage until Batista left it.

But behind closed doors, the company kept dancing. At their ballet school, Fernando, Alicia and Alberto innovated. "We took a little from the Russian school, a little from the English, some of what we had learned in the United States and put it together," said Fernando. At the time, Russian technique had overshadowed the more traditional Italian and French schools and dominated the ballet world. Fernando took its strength, combined it with the fast footwork from the Italians, added a good dose of Caribbean sensousness and made it all "the Cuban school of ballet."

The shirtless Sarabia dancing at the Gran Teatro epitomizes Fernando's project. Although his toned body flows through the combination, each step is executed with clinical precision. Unlike the Russians, who emphasize arm work, or the Danish and Americans, who focus on legwork, Cubans use their whole bodies to dance. But gracefulness does not make Sarabia less macho than any Habanero out in the street. When his partner walks in, their dance becomes flirtation. It took Sarabia eight years of training to dance like that and Fernando more than 20 to develop the system to teach him how to do it, but neither could have developed in Cuba without Fidel Castro.

While the Alonsos worked in the studio, the comandante and his barbudos fought in the Sierras. A few months after they marched into Havana and Batista left the Cuban stage forever, the revolution knocked on the Alonsos' door. Alicia was away and Fernando was reading a book when their daughter Laura announced the visitors. "Tell them to come up," he said. In walked Fidel Castro and one of his collaborators. Sitting at the edge of the bed, they talked with Fernando about world and local politics for hours, until Fidel said, "I came here to talk about ballet."

"I always have time to talk about ballet," Fernando recalled saying.

"How much money do you need for the ballet company to start up again?" Fidel asked.

"I don't know comandante, $100,000," answered Fernando.

Fidel gave them $200,000.

"The Revolution was a beautiful thing in the beginning," Fernando said recently. So was the future of the ballet. It had Revolution pesos and a full-time star to back it up, three really, Alicia, the dancer, Fernando, the director and teacher, and Alberto, the choreographer. Rebaptized as Ballet Nacional de Cuba to match its funding, the company also had a revolutionary zeal. With the same passion Alicia rejected Batistia, she embraced Fidel and gladly put on green fatigues to dance in "La Avanzada," or The Leap Forward, a dance choreographed by the Soviet Azari Pliezlatzky, who also played the role of El Comandante. Shortly after the Revolution the government had declared that ballet was "one of the most elevated and beautiful artistic manifestations" and that it would strive to make it available to "all social classes, preferably to workers and other popular sectors." Dancers took their new role seriously. The "guerrilleros" performed in makeshift platforms set in factories, schools and countryside cane fields.

The prima ballerina even got on her knees to harvest the national product —the ballet later switched to planting coffee because cane cutting was too harsh on their bodies. But she also trained her corps relentlessly, and in 1964 when her dancers traveled to the international ballet competition in Varna, Bulgaria, the rest of the world got its first glimpse of the Cuban miracle. "Before the competition we realized there were some Cuban names, but we did not think anything of them," said Arnold Haskell, an English ballet expert who attended. "And remember that we at Varna thought we knew every thing about the world of ballet and that nothing could surprise us."

In 1966, during the starkest period of homosexual persecution in Cuba, ten male dancers defected on a tour in Paris, leaving ballerinas without partners.

The Cubans did. The technique that Fernando had developed years earlier and that the three had perfected, a flair that Alicia has described as an "an accent directed up" mesmerized. At the end of the competition, the Cubans walked away with gold medals. The Alonso's experiment had worked, and now everyone wanted a part of it. Suddenly, said Haskell, "Everyone in the ballet world talked about Cuba." Countries from Mexico to Argentina dispatched their dancers and teachers to the small island to pick up the new expression. And like the doctors and the guerilleros sent to the Third World by Castro to represent the Cuban revolution, the Ballet sent its dancers to France, the Soviet Union and Japan.

But not all those who left were ambassadors of the new order. In 1966, during the starkest period of homosexual persecution in Cuba, ten male dancers defected on a tour in Paris, leaving ballerinas without partners. Already the Alonsos had trouble getting little Cuban boys to pull on leotards instead of baseball jerseys, so, taking a lesson from the Soviets, they started to recruit children in the countryside, offering them scholarships and molding them under an 8-year training system that included everything from history to technique. By 1968, the first generation of dancers was ready to take the stage.

One of them was Jorge Esquivel. Now a teacher at the San Francisco Ballet, a pony-tailed Esquivel remembers being recruited from an orphanage in Havana. "The Cuban government gave me everything, an education, a place to stay and to eat," he said. By this time, the Alonsos' school had turned into the government's Escuela Nacional de Danza. And very much like the regime bureaucracy, it spread out until it covered every province in the island with a branch where children could learn ballet, drama, and gymnastics, as well as history, math and literature. To make sure tendues and pirouettes were identical in Havana and the rest of the island, teachers went back and forth, and still do. Once a year, the best graduating students from the elementary schools are selected and transferred to the middle school in Havana for five more years of training. "We were lucky," said Esquivel, "we had Alicia, the dancer and international figure; we had Fernando, the director and the teacher; and we had Alberto, the choreographer; it was a triangle that helped ballet in Cuba go forward." This system created a unique style that is passed on from generation to generation, said Esquivel, a trait lacking from his American students' education. "They want to say they have studied with many different professors, but it is impossible to acquire a style like that," says Esquivel, "You need continuity."

Esquivel got it. After wearing out the bottoms of his slippers on the school floors for eight years, he moved straight to the Gran Teatro in 1968. He was 18 and danced with Alicia, who was 47. She played Giselle, he Prince Albrecht; she Juliet, he Romeo. On stage they looked like the perfect couple, she the beautiful supple princess and he, the strong charming prince. Despite her age, the critics loved them. A year after the partnership was formed, the Mexican newspaper El Día, wrote of the 48-year-old ballerina, "The miracle of vision dances and when she does we know what it is to dance and to dance perfectly. The prima ballerina of the world." And when Alicia was 49 and almost blind from a series of operations to correct detached retinas, the German Leipziger Volzeitung wrote, "Artistic grandeur shines on her. At once spectacular and pure."

photo by Mimi Chakarova

But as time went by--Esquivel was Alicia's partner for 18 years or until he turned 36 and she 65--the prince got tired of the princess. Alicia, he says, ruled more like the mean stepmother than Cinderella. Dancers who obeyed went on tours; those who balked, stayed at home. But even the ballerinas who behaved found few rewards other than travel. "Alicia wanted all the good roles for herself," says Esquivel. His wife at the time, Amparo Brito won the gold medal in Varna when she was 18 years old, but Alicia failed to move her up to important roles until she turned 40, an age when most dancers have retired to teaching. "We were like pawns in a chess board with someone moving us around at their convenience," says Esquivel. "Alicia stopped being human, to mistreat people. She wouldn't pay us our money."

The Esquivels weren't the only ones who were unhappy. Fernando divorced Alicia in 1974. "Alicia and I started to have a lot of differences so I left to Camaguey," he said referring to an Eastern city where the ballet company struggles to survive today. When he was head of it, the Ballet de Camaguey was successful, but competition with Havana for ballets and dancers tired Fernando. At the beginning of the Special Period in 1992, when the money flow from the Soviet Union dried up causing a major crisis in the island, he left for Mexico City to direct the Ballet Nacional there. Later he moved to the northern city of Monterrey to direct a local ballet company and later to head the dance department at a local university. Alberto, the ballet's principal choreographer, dealt with Alicia's temperament by travelling frequently, but by 1993, he too had had enough and left permanently. He is now in Miami, teaching at a community college and staging works to Gloria Estefan music. Esquivel did not wait that long to say good-bye to Alicia. In 1986 he left the ballet and continued dancing independently in Cuba and occasionally abroad. On a tour in Italy in 1992, the prince finally defected. "I was tired. I wanted my freedom," he said.

Esquivel's critique of Alicia can begin to sound like a Miami Cuban's rant against Fidel, but he concedes the prima ballerina what no exile would to the comandante. "She is a genius." Many agree. Despite limited vision, Alicia managed to dance from one end of the stage to the other captivating audiences in Cuba and far beyond. "She moves in life. Her feet, her torso, her arms, neck, and eyes, are one continuing action, taking their dynamic from her meaning. She talks. Her heart is open. Here is the essence of a dancer. It is her core she gives us; it is our core," wrote Agnes de Mille. She choreographed Alicia in the days when she could do 32 fouettes, the ballet equivalent to a triple Axel in ice-skating or a grand slam in baseball.

Alicia can now barely walk, but in Cuba her admirers remember her performances like they were yesterday. "I never saw her make a movement without any meaning," said Miguel Cabrera, the ballet's historian. And then he relates of the time when Alicia was dancing Giselle. Her dress got caught up in one of the props and ripped. Instead of looking embarrassed, Alicia took a look at it and a great sadness overcame her face. She went up to her stage mother to show her how her pretty dress had ripped. Then she continued to dance. Another time she went out on stage with her costume half open, but she managed to zip it while she danced before anyone noticed. "That's her art, she transformed a very embarrassing situation, an accident, into art," said Cabrera.

Alicia can now barely walk, but in Cuba her admirers remember her performances like they were yesterday.

This art was made available to all Cubans. The prima ballerina performed on every stage on the island–established or improvised— at proletarian prices. Even the bloated post-Special Period entrance cost remains low: five pesos or 25 cents. As a result, ballet following resembles more a sports crowd than the aristocratic elite that first brought the dance form to Cuba. Fans yell and roar in the middle of the performance. Dancers have had to stop in the middle of their routines to bow because the applause drowns the orchestra. Bouquets are thrown left and right to the favorite dancer of the moment, and when fans disagree, they come to blows. On the night that Sarabia danced, I met one of those fans, Pedro Vidal, a 39 year-old officially unemployed electronics technician with a black mustache and a part in the middle of his hair. Like most ballet goers, he was dressed casually in jeans and loafers. He told me he has not missed a ballet show since he was six and Alicia was 47. Like other children who watched her on TV or in public shows at stadiums, Vidal wanted to be a dancer, but he was too fat and instead became a loyal fan.

photo by Mimi Chakarova

I realize how loyal at his small apartment a few blocks from the Gran Teatro. It is actually more like a hallway than a full apartment, with a bedroom just big enough to fit a bed, a small dresser and a table with a TV and a VCR, which he carefully protects from the dust with a piece of cloth. When he removes it and puts in one of the many carefully marked tapes that fill his dresser, the windowless room decorated with posters of kittens and bikinied girls is transformed. It becomes a theatre where the ballet dances solely for Pedro. "Every time you see a performance you learn more and grow, I can tell you that I don't know the names of all the steps, but I know when the dancers do them well."

He watches them in Havana and follows the company on tours around the island. And when they are resting, he gets his ballet fix in his small apartment "I watch these tapes all the time," he says. "This is Diana and Acteon. I must have watched this one more than 70 times, and look at my skin, I still get goose bumps." Of Alicia's Giselle, he says, "The theatre almost fell with applause." But if Giselle never aged, Alicia did.

In another of Vidals' tapes Alicia is in her late 60's. A stiff figure appears on stage suspended by what must be, has to be, a very strong dancer. She is more like a sack of potatoes in a pink dress than a ballerina. She is lowered to the ground and turned to one side, then to the other, her hands clinging to the dancer's neck to avoid the floor only a few feet below. Her face carries an expression of pride. Her partner's face, an expression of pure angst. Later, Alicia's grandson, Iván, who danced with her during her last days, tells me the experience was like fighting Cassius Clay. "Standing on a stage is difficult enough, now imagine standing on it with your grandmother and even more, struggling to not let her fall." Her fan Vidal just shakes his head, "It was very embarrassing at the end," he says, "She should have retired in 1985." Instead she danced until she was 74.

Now Alicia is 80-years-old. She can hardly move or see, but she has kept a strong grip over the ballet. For the last 27 years, she has been the company's director, choreographer and maitre, and none of these titles is held in name only. Like a girl playing Barbies, Alicia decides what everyone wears, who gets the car, who the motorcycle, who will go abroad, with whom they will dance, and of course, what they will dance. Nowadays, they dance whatever Alicia has created, a fact that has as much to do with money as her attachment to the classics. The Socidead General de Autores y Escritores de España (General Society of Authors and Writers of Spain) registers Cuban works and pays their authors royalties any time they are performed outside the island. Since Alicia determines the repertoires, she also gets paid frequently.

But tough economic times have forced the prima donna to loosen her rein on the company. No longer do dancers who want to dance abroad have to defect. Alicia now allows them to take contracts in foreign companies, but as she did 50 years ago, they must send part of their earnings to fund the ballet. José Manuel Carreño dances for the American Ballet Theater under those conditions, and so does Carlos Junior Acosta at the Royal Ballet in London. Aliahdeé Carreño, current first dancer and cousin of José Manuel, is about to leave for Washington on a similar contract. Lorna Feijoó, the other star dancer of the moment, just returned from Costa Rica. Feijoó goes on tour several times a year and, although she too has to contribute to the company's coffers, she keeps some of the dollars. It shows. She wears a designer black velvet leotard. Her silver toenails sparkle in her deformed feet. After class, she slips on some cargo capri pants and grabs her hand purse made out of a smooth hard leather that can only be Spanish or Italian. She walks to the door, head held high.

Other dancers salaries don't stretch that far. They wear imitation Nikes and backpacks, or slide-in-sandals, like those sold in the tourist market in La Havana. But they walk just as proud. They are better off than almost every Cuban. Unlike the average citizen, they are allowed to buy a car or a vespa-like motorcycle. "I can't complain," says Anissa Curbelo, one of the principal dancers. She admits she would rather do William Forsythe, one of today's most provocative choreographers, than Marius Petipa, who created Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake in the 19th century. But for now having a steady job is more important than experimenting.

Like a girl playing Barbies, Alicia decides what everyone wears, who gets the car, who the motorcycle, who will go abroad, with whom they will dance, and of course, what they will dance.

Elsewhere in Cuba ballet lovers are not as complacent with Alicia's rule of classics. There are signs that the Culture Ministry is well aware the ballet needs some new choreographic blood. Its officials too were sitting in the audience two years ago when the Washington Ballet performed in Havana. In fact, it was through their efforts that the American company was able to visit and present modern pieces danced to jazz. "They loved it, they thought it was so neat," said Kara Skolnick, the manager of the Washington Ballet, "audiences were on their feet."

Marta, a 24 year-old dancer still remembers the single male body dancing in ways she had never seen before. "His sole presence filled the stage, he was a great dancer, he had good turn and good jump, but the way he moved... I don't even know what you call that," she said. Like a solitary ballerina twirling in a music box, the Ballet Nacional is mostly isolated from the ballet world. As a result, it already lags several decades.

But the Ministry of Culture is investing on ballet's future, one that might be more in line with modern styles. The Escuela Nacional de Ballet, for many years at the Gran Teatro where it competed with the company for space, has recently moved to new quarters fully equipped with remote control air conditioning, computers, fresh paint and redone floors. On any given day, its practice rooms are filled with aspiring ballerinas who, wanting to be the next star, undergo exacting standards.

To select students for a recent parade, teachers lined them up into rows. "Take off your skirts," one of them demanded. Then the winnowing began. "The one of the left, the one next to her, you at the other end," the teachers commanded and one by one the selected dancers sat down on the side, knowing they had lost out. A tiny ballerina burst into tears. "They do it every year," said Edilsa, one of the dancers from Mexico who pays tuition to attend the school, "they don't want the fat ones to be in the parade." Although she looks thinner than 99 percent of the 15-year-olds I know, she too was rejected.

"They do it every year," said Edilsa, one of the dancers from Mexico who pays tuition to attend the school, "they don't want the fat ones to be in the parade."

This is daily life for dancers in training. Only a handful of them will go on to become the next Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella at the Gran Teatro and preparation is an endurance test on itself: same sex ballet classes, couple ballet classes, modern dance classes and rehearsals. The school puts on several programs a year. They are mainly composed of classics, but this repertoire is unlikely to last. On a Saturday morning, little boys and girls in tights and tutus and tiny crowns are ready to rehearse Almendrita, a fairy tale story, when a blast of Jamiroquai, a modern mixture of soul, jazz and disco, interrupts them. They can't resist and follow its sound down the hallway to peek through a door. They see a young modern dancer at work. He is staging a new choreography for the older students and the children like the crazy moves. They've seen (and done) Almendrita many times. This is new. And, it is allowed at the ballet school where Alicia offers a master class, but is no longer in charge. Here dancers are exposed to the avant-garde.

Beatriz Abreu, a 17-year-old student who is about to graduate, studied Maurice Béjart, a quirky and innovative French choreographer, for her thesis. After she presented it to a panel of three judges, including Albelo, she was pleased. "He is wonderful," she said to me afterwards. "He has a modern version of Giselle that is incredible, the second act takes place in a mental institution." It is not a place Alicia's Giselle would ever find herself and the dancers understand this. "Every day the ballet is loosing something. It is stagnated," said Abreu. Might this have something to do with Alicia? I asked her. "Of course, it is because of Alicia."

Her influence is hard to shake off, as George Georges, the choreographer in the room the younger students peered into before, can attest. The dancer from the Compañía Nacional de Danza, Cuba's modern dance company, had ambitious plans for the work he is staging, but the students' torsos are too stiff and their heads too caught up in technique.

photo by Mimi Chakarova

"Damned Balanchine," he says. "This is shit, you are not doing it right. Forget you are a dancer, is this the way you walk on the street?" he asks walking with his toes pointing out.

"Yes," the dancers answer.

"Well that is not the way a normal person walks on the street. Close your legs, relax your back. Just walk normal. Let's try it again."

He switches Jamiroquai back on.

Less than a year ago, a student from the school was staging similar works in that very classroom. Now he is waiting to fill the empty choreographer slot at the company. "I am the first to say that it is important to conserve the classics, but we must also do new stuff," said Eduardo Blanco, the18 year-old who trains daily with the Ballet. What he has in mind are the contorted and asymmetrical moves from modern dance. "It is not the same thing to make a tour jeté and cry 'aaaaahhhhhh' in the middle of it, than to do it with a little arm," he said stretching his right arm gracefully in the classical form, "that has been done a thousand times. In ballet everything is invented already." He is trying hard to innovate. One of his creations includes a girl wearing a pointe shoe on one foot and a character shoe on the other, and another is about a couple with AIDS. But these works have only been staged at the ballet school and it is hard to imagine Alicia letting him move such experiments to the Gran Teatro.

Ismael Albelo, member of the Ministry, said that he understands her desire to maintain the classics. "You don't want to contaminate the style," he said, but added, "We do have to create different choreography, we can't spend the whole time doing the same thing. " Will Alicia let her new protege experiment? Blanco shrugs. "Maybe." Right now, however, he is more concerned with permission for something else-- to get out. "Things here in Cuba are very difficult, salaries are not good," he said explaining that his 148 peso salary –equivalent to $7-- plus $20 more a month doesn't go very far. "You don't know anyone who wants to hire me? They just have to send a fax that says, 'We at the such and such school solicit the services of dancer choreographer Eduardo Blanco.' I'll give you the number." He insists he only wants a break, not a permanent exile, but it is clear he is ready to move on from the classics.

But back at the Gran Teatro hand programs have not changed much since Alicia's dancing day. One of the nights I attended the ballet, Sarabia stood on stage with a backdrop resembling a giant swatch of flowery fabric for one of Alicia's ballets. The dancers, attired in costumes the color and shape of cotton candy, twirled about gently. Wearing a pink coat and sash, Sarabia was almost lost in the fluff. A devoted Backstreet Boys' fan, he would probably feel more comfortable in baggy jeans and a backward cap, but he says the fairy tale ballets have not gotten to him yet. "Right now I am not bored, but I don't know if I can do this all my life," he said. But even if he leaves, the bench is full of well-trained dancers ready to take his place. "The problem is that for such a small island, we have a very good school of ballet, one of the best in the world," said Albelo.

And everyone knows they have Alicia to thank for it. One night when the Gran Teatro is filled to capacity and waiting for the curtain to rise, the audience stirs. I turn in my seat to look up at the balcony. There above us is Alicia, dressed in a tunic with her head wrapped in a scarf a la Margot Fonteyn and her eyes hidden by large sunglasses. The audience rises and bursts into applause. Unable to stand, the old dancer is held up by two attendants.

"Bravo, Alicia! Bravo!" a woman yells, her voice breaking. The diva nods and then sits to watch.


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Last updated April 5, 2002