The Arts Interview: Cuba's first lady

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns to London this week despite political upheaval back home. <stron

A frisson of nervous energy sweeps the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's elegant headquarters in Havana as Alicia Alonso's chauffeur-driven car pulls up at the door. "She's arrived!" squeaks an assistant. She is helped through the entrance hall and into her office, passing the posters which show her poised and in her prime. Her head is wrapped in her trademark scarf - today, a pale silky green to match her trouser suit - and her lips are slightly unevenly painted pillar-box red. She greets me regally, stretching out a gnarled hand and fixing me with her sightless eyes. She may be 85 years old, but she is a true diva.

The news of Castro's illness broke only a few days before our scheduled interview, and I half expected Alonso to cancel. I should have known better; a consummate revolutionary, she insists that he is on the mend. "Of course we worry a lot about him, because he works too hard and leaves himself prone to illness," she says. "But we know that he will get better. And in the meantime he has people around him who will continue with the revolution."

The sense of impending change must, however, strike a particularly personal note for Alonso. As director and prima ballerina of the Ballet Nacional for the past 47 years, she is an integral part of Cuba's old guard. Jorge Esquivel, the former dancing partner with whom Alonso fell out bitterly when he "defected" to the United States, has compared the revolution to "an orange: when you cut it in half, one side is Fidel and politics, the other is Alicia and the arts."

Incongruous as it may seem, ballet was part of the Cuban revolution from its inception. Legend has it that, while Castro was battling the imperialists, he sent Alonso a message from his hideout in the sierra asking her to form a national ballet company in the event of his victory. When he came to power in 1959, she had no hesitation. "I was dancing in Chicago, but I dropped everything and came running," she recalls. She and her then husband, Fernando, were provided with $200,000 with which to found a national company and school.

Alonso finds it entirely natural that the revolutionary leader should have been preoccupied with ballet, even in the throes of commanding a guerrilla war. "I didn't ask him why it was on his mind," she says. "But he is a man who understands culture. The first thing he did after the revolution was to make sure the Cuban population learnt to read. Once people want to learn, they want to live. Dance is the same - it gives you a great appreciation for life. Human beings must always strive to be better, to live better, to see better, to enjoy life. Ballet is the purest, most beautiful way to do that."

In the Ballet Nacional's early years, Alonso was charged with no less a task than educating the entire Cuban population in classical dance. Ballet was such an alien art form that when the school first opened it struggled to find students. "Parents didn't want to enrol their children, so we gathered a group of students from orphanages," says Alonso. "We started them off on judo and martial arts, before introducing ballet gradually." From the beginning she found that Cuban children showed a "special talent". Among that first group was Esquivel, who would go on to become the Ballet Nacional's first major home-grown star.

Later, the company sought out new recruits by giving presentations in farms, factories and military bases the length and breadth of the country. The reception was not always warm - but Alonso was not easily deterred. "One of the first presentations we did was for a group of soldiers. Esquivel demonstrated how to lift the ballerina elegantly, lightly. They were all nudging each other and laughing. They stopped pretty quickly when we got one of them up on stage to try it. He could hardly budge her, let alone do the lift! That shut them up."

The Ballet Nacional has, over the years, proved a very smart investment. With a typically Cuban spirit of defiance, it continued to receive funding even during the country's worst economic crises. And the company, in return, has boosted the country's cultural prestige by producing such international stars as Carlos Acosta, now a principal guest artist at the Royal Ballet, and Jose Manuel Carreño, who is a principal at the American Ballet Theatre. "There may be some material things we can't do, but we have never lacked for spiritual things," says Alonso. "This is a product of the Cuban system of education."

Inevitably, as the decades have worn on, Alonso has increasingly attracted criticism - all of which she deftly bats away. I ask her about the widely held perception that she is stifling new talent by continuing to hang on to her position. "I don't think my presence has made it difficult for anyone - quite the contrary," she replies sharply. "How many stars have emerged from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba? You will find it is more than in almost any other company."

More damaging, however, are the criticisms of her artistic judgement. Despite having impaired vision since the age of 19, she still does a large amount of choreography herself - at the Havana Ballet Festival in October she will present three new works. One British critic, reflecting a general consensus, described a previous effort as "disastrous". Acosta, perhaps the most famous alumnus of the Ballet Nacional, pulls no punches in his assessment of the company's repertoire. "Choreography in Cuba is stuck. They do a Giselle, a Swan Lake, a Quixote, another Giselle, another Swan Lake," he says. "It is frustrating, and as a Cuban dancer it makes me very sad. To keep its magic, and to keep its public, classical dance has to move forward. To a large extent Alicia is personally responsible - as the director of the company, she makes the artistic decisions." Again, on this point, Alonso sticks firmly to her guns. "A great company is measured by its grand classics," she says. "We respect them and enrich them as much as we can."

The other, and perhaps related, problem facing the Ballet Nacional de Cuba is a painful exodus of talent. In its 2003 tour of the US alone, five dancers "defected", choosing not to return to the island. This brought the total to 20 in two years. Alonso is not forthcoming on the subject: "Of course it hurts when people leave. But there is a great international demand for our dancers." Still, it clearly rankles. She has tried to keep a lid on the situation, allowing big stars such as Carreño and Acosta to work abroad, while blacklisting those who go without permission from the company. But, nevertheless, a combination of economic and artistic incentives has tempted rising stars such as Rolando Sarabia and Lorena Feijoo into exile.

In this, as in so many other respects, the Ballet Nacional reflects the wider tensions in contemporary Cuba: materially poor, spiritually rich; technically stunning, creatively stagnating; brought into being and held to ransom by one, formidable, person. A Cuban friend of mine summed it up later that day. "Both Alicia and Fidel come from a very wise generation, which learnt to defend itself against all the odds. But they will leave us with a question: where do we go from here?"

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, from 1-10 September. For booking details visit www.sadlerswells.com

Alicia Alonso: a life

1920 Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez del Hoyo is born in Havana. Her parents enrol her in the city's only ballet school when she is 8 years old.

1936 Aged 15, she marries fellow ballet student Fernando Alonso. The pair leave for America, where their daughter Laura is born a year later.

1938 Makes professional dancing debut on Broadway. A year later she joins the American Ballet Caravan, the predecessor of the New York City Ballet.

1940 Joins the American Ballet Theatre. Soon afterwards, she is diagnosed with detached retinas, the condition which leaves her almost blind.

1943 Performs Giselle for the first time. She is acclaimed as the century's finest in the role, despite being unable to fully see the stage.

1948 Founds the Ballet Alicia Alonso in Havana. The company would form the basis of the Ballet Nacional after the 1959 revolution.

1993 Gives her last ballet performance at the age of 72.

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