Alicia Alonso: The Prime Years
Alicia Alonso had a diverse range as a ballerina. She excelled in romantic, classical and contemporary works, and she was equally accomplished in performing Coralli, Petipa, Balanchine, Tudor or deMille. In this respect she outrivaled most of the ballerinas of her generation. When I ponder her technique, it is not the bravura that comes to mind, although it was profuse. Alonso was known for her rock-solid balances, dazzling footwork and fast, light floor skimming bourrees. It is her careful attention to detail, the small transition steps that were clearly delineated and a turnout that was worthy of a technique book illustration. She did not 'fudge' steps; the choreographer's intent was clear. All this was accomplished with a clarity of style: her Odette, Odile, Aurora or Princess Florine bore no affinity with Giselle, Pas de
Quatre or Les Sylphides. Although renowned for her Romantic Classicism, she was a supreme classical ballerina. There were no airs, no pretensions---just a beautiful adherence to a pure Style. She had a noble carriage of the head and she approached these roles with a mature bearing and a hard, diamond-like brilliance. Her arabesque was particularly striking in its fulfillment of this Style. In these classical roles she had a stately, calm extereior coupled with the sheer pleasure of dancing.
This joy in dancing was in evidence from the very beginning of her career as a 'corps' member with Ballet Theatre. She said: I remember the old corps de ballet of Ballet Theatre---Nora (Kaye; Marusia (Maria Karnilova); Muriel (Bentley); Donald (Saddler); David (Nillo); Michael (Kidd)---we were so good and were so proud of being Ballet Theatre dancers...we were not just 'hired' dancers in a company, we 'were' the Company. We were Ballet Theatre."
The epitome of her classical dancing was Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" which he created for her and Igor Youskevitch in 1947. In his book "Complete Stories of the Great Ballets" Balanchine wrote the following about the pas de deux: "A solo sounds the melody, and a pas de deux begins... the dancing is noble and tender. To this theme of open joy and romance the Ballerina, supported by her partner, executes slowly and perfectly movements...that display her full beauty." It was precisely this joy and romance that permeated the partnership of Alonso and Youskevitch. People who saw them together thought they were in love, so compatible was their partnership which had a sensuous undertone. While they were not romantically involved off-stage, their performance shows something extra not easily found when performers are of different sexual orientation. Youskevitch said of their partnership: "When we dance, we'd flow together" ---"We felt pretty together. It was the best partnership I ever shared. We felt we were important". He went on to say: "Her feet were not just doing a required step, they were expressions on their own."
Anton Dolin, commenting on Alonso's first Giselle (as a replacement for the ailing Alicia Markova) said: "I have always thought of Alicia as a coming Giselle, ever since I gave her an audition for Ballet Theatre... I found that extraordinary intensity and that almost eerie insight into every little detail". Dolin also choreographed Cerrito for her in "Pas de Quatre", although later she would dance Taglioni.
Alonso and Youskevitch were the definitive "Giselle" of their generation; they performed the ballet for eleven years. In Act I there was a sweet flirtation between them, and his ardor appeared genuine. Her Giselle of Act I had a girlish innocense about first love. In her own words of the mad scene she said: "She comes out of the mad scene and faces the truth. She sees Albrecht, she looks at him and she forgives him. She says 'I forgive you'".
In Act II Albrecht obtained absolution from Giselle for his wrongdoing. Interestingly, Alonso had said that she looks upon Act II as Albrecht's. Youskevitch saw it as a feat of Albrecht's imagination. They also added an innovative detail to the "lillies scene". While performing Grand Jetes, Alonso threw the lillies backward over her head and Youskevitch caught them in mid-air while he was doing his own Grand Jetes. It was exhilarating to see and never looked like a mere technical trick in the hands of these two artists.
As to the critics, Walter Terry found a "Latin passion" and a "peasant lustiness" in Alonso's Act I--- two qualities I never saw. Passion? Lustiness? No. A sweet yearning for one she loves? Yes.
In writing of Alonso's performance in 1946 Edwin Denby said--"Alonso bows 'in character' (Act II) are unfortunate". I find this puzzling coming from Denby. It is true, she did hold on to the character and mood while taking a bow; people who saw her performance from the wings said she always remained in character and mood even when she was out of the public view. It was a small detail in the beauty of her Act II.
It took John Martin (New York Times) ten years to finally admit Alonso was a great "Giselle". I still have the original review of April 15, 1955. In it he said: "Miss Alonso had long been a first-rate "Giselle", but with the passing of seasons she had deepened the colors of the role, broadened its range, and found justifications for all its bursts of bravura. It is not too much to say, indeed, that on this occasion she proved herself a great Giselle". Youskevitch also received high praise, as did Lupe Serrano as Myrtha.
In her book "Portrait Gallery" Agnes deMille wrote of their last appearance together on the occasion of Youskevitch's retirement at the University of Texas in 1982.
"At the end of the program (Walter) Terry announced there would be a surprise. The whole proscenium of the theater was filled with a giant movie screen on which was projected a home film that Tina, Igor's wife, had shot of "Giselle" at the Hollywood Bowl in 1945 with Igor and Alicia doing the pas de deux from the second act. It was a silent film, and the orchestra accompanied it softly in the background....the image was frozen on the screen and the lights came up slowly on Alicia and Igor standing in the identical pose in the same costumes....you could hear an enormous gasp as 4,000 people caught their breath simultlaneously....as Igor led Alicia forward for bows (she) clung to his hand....then she stepped back and apart from him and made a royal obeisance to the floor, laying her head in the dust at his feet. There followed absolute silence (which) was shattered and pandemonium broke as Igor gathered her up'"
Alonso's varied repertoire included Apollo (Terpsichore); Lilac Garden (Epoisode in his past); Gala Performance (Italian Ballerina); Fall River Legend (Lizzie Borden); and Undertow (Ate).
Gala Performance revealed her delicious wry sense of humor. Her poor hapless Cavalier was none other than Himself, Antony Tudor. In Fall River Legend her Lizzie Borden was distinct from Nora Kaye's. With Kaye's Lizzie, there was a definite paranoia and she more than likely committed the deadly act; Alonso was a sympathetic Lizzie who appeared to be a victim of her parents. Both interpretations were valid. Her performance in Undertow as Ate (who was a Greek Goddess of amorality) was riveting. She looked like an angel in her short, softly flowing dress, but this was quickly dispelled. Judith Chazin-Bennahum said of the performance: "When Ate re-enters alone the Transgressor accosts her. One of the most moving episodes in the original production centered on Alicia Alonso's predatory, insalubrious characterization of Ate, especially the moment when she is almost choked by the Transgressor but manages to get away."
Alonso said of Tudor: "I was lucky to work with him. He had a marvelous sense of theater; Agnes deMille was a strong influence on me, but I think my work with Tudor was more important. I was impressed with the way he approached a ballet, how he studied every detail. He taught me--- and Agnes did, too, later, to use my whole body to express emotion, mood, the drama of the moment. My Latin emotions had been centered on my face...
I have written about Alonso in her prime---my memories still vivid after so many years. Because she danced well into her advanced years, there are many films of her later work. I have generally tried to avoid them, especially the Cuban "Giselles". Much of her artistry is still evident in these films and I do feel it is a good thing for people who did not see her in her prime to still grasp something of what made her so great.
November 25, 2003
RuminationsAlicia Alonso: The Prime Years
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