Fernando Alonso, a Founder of Cuban Ballet, Dies at 98
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Published: August 2, 2013
Fernando Alonso, a Cuban ballet master and teacher who teamed with his brother and his wife at the time, the ballet star Alicia Alonso, to found a dance company that gained international renown as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, died on July 27 in Havana. He was 98.
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The cause was kidney failure, his daughter, Laura Alonso, said.
Mr. Alonso, Ms. Alonso and Alberto Alonso, a choreographer, created the dance company in 1948, originally under the name Ballet Alicia Alonso. They also created the Alicia Alonso Academy of Ballet in 1950, but financial difficulties shuttered both in 1956.
Fidel Castro resuscitated the ballet soon after he took power in 1959. Renamed the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company became a symbol of Cuban artistic achievement and was allowed to tour the world. Its repertory included classics like “Les Sylphides,” “Coppélia” and, its signature work, “Giselle.”
Mr. Alonso served as general director and became an innovative teacher by combining his understanding of physics, kinesiology and anatomy with traditional ballet training. He was considered instrumental in developing the Cuban style of ballet, which seeks to imbue classical rigor with the physicality of Latin dance.
Mr. Alonso won the Bolshoi Theater’s Bicentennial Commemorative Medal in Moscow in 1968, and the company received the Paris Grand Prix at the Paris International Festival of Dance in 1970.
For many years during the cold war the United States barred the company from appearing on its soil, prompting a lament from Clive Barnes, the dance critic for The New York Times. After seeing the troupe perform in Canada in 1971, he wrote, “We may be so struck by the way they dance ‘Swan Lake’ that as a nation we may spontaneously demand Fidel Castro as president.”
Mr. and Ms. Alonso separated in 1974, a year before the Ballet Nacional de Cuba first appeared in the United States. Ms. Alonso, 92, still directs the company.
Ms. Alonso has insisted that Mr. Alonso was given too much credit for her success.
“I was not a product of ‘the teachings, of the methods and of Fernando Alonso’s talent,’ ” she is quoted as writing in a letter in “Fernando Alonso: The Father of Cuban Ballet,” a book by Toba Singer published this year. “Very much on the contrary, his formation as a teacher was marked and determined by my characteristics as a dancer.”
She added, however: “What I am stating does not deny in any sense the vocation, dedication and Fernando Alonso’s meticulousness as a teacher.”
Fernando Juan Evangelista Eugenio de Jesús Alonso Rayneri was born in Havana on Dec. 27, 1914, to Matías Alonso Reverón, an accountant, and Laura Rayneri Piedra, a pianist who was president of the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical, a leading Cuban cultural institution. His boyhood friend Antonio Martínez had a younger sister, named Alicia, who was so intent on ballet, Mr. Alonso recalled, that “she used to answer the door wearing pointe shoes.”
At 15, Mr. Alonso and his brother were sent to study in Mobile, Ala., because of political instability in Cuba. He returned to Havana in 1935, where he watched ballet classes at Pro-Arte that featured Ms. Martínez. He began studying ballet full-time in 1936 and grew closer to her through their shared passion.
By 1937 he and Ms. Martínez thought they had reached the limits of what they could achieve in Cuba. Mr. Alonso moved to New York City in 1937, found work as an X-ray technician and danced by night. Ms. Martínez joined him there, and they were married. Their daughter, Laura, was born in 1938.
That same year Mr. Alonso joined Mikhail Mordkin’s ballet company and danced in Broadway comedies. He then joined Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, where he danced in Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid” to music by Aaron Copland. Meanwhile he took classes at the School of American Ballet under Pierre Vladimirov, Anatole Vilzak and George Balanchine. He and Ms. Alonso joined Ballet Theater (since renamed American Ballet Theater) in 1940.
The following year the retina in Ms. Alonso’s right eye detached during a performance, and she had to have surgery. (Throughout her career she had severe vision problems, requiring the use of extra-bright lights to guide her during performances.) For the next two years Mr. Alonso helped her recover in Havana, where she was confined to a bed for months. Mr. Alonso later helped his wife learn new roles. For “Giselle” he demonstrated her steps with her fingers.
They returned to New York in time for the 1944-45 season with Ballet Theater. Mr. Alonso danced in “Swan Lake” and Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet” and became a soloist with Ballet Theater before returning to Havana to devote himself to teaching in 1948.
After Mr. Alonso left the Ballet Nacional de Cuba he directed Cuba’s Ballet de Camagüey until 1992, the National Dance Company of Mexico until 1994 and Mexico’s National Ballet de Monterrey in 1995.
In addition to his daughter Laura, who was a soloist with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and teaches ballet around the world, Mr. Alonso’s survivors include his third wife, Yolanda Alonso; their two daughters; a grandson and three great-grandchildren. His brother Alberto died in 2007.
Mr. Alonso’s experience coaching Alicia Alonso through her near-blindness may have informed his didactic method. His daughter said that he had taught a balance exercise that called for dancers to shut their eyes.