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Last night I went to see Ricardo Acosta's "Dance of my heart", a beautifully made documentary on the artistic career of Alberto Alonso, one of the three creators of the so named “Cuban style” in ballet, along with brother Fernando Alonso and ex sister in low Alicia Alonso. This tasteful work was done basically based on Alonso's own recounting of his amazing artistic and personal life, from his early beginnings in Havana during the 30’s, where he first studied with Nikolai Yavorsky, to his years in Europe where he studied with Tchernicheva, Preobrajenska and Idzikovsky among others, to his debut in 1935 with Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe, to his memories as a leading soloist with American Ballet Theatre, where his roles included the title part in "Petrushka" and the First Sailor in "Fancy Free". Precious were some class footage with Alonso at the School of Dance of the Santa Fe Community College, Florida, where he taught until the end of his life. Particularly great are the moments where he’s trying-(with his thick Cuban accent)-to make himself clear about a given step, and his frustration at one moment when, referring to the way Mikhail Fokine “took me under his wings” to dance Petrouchka, he realizes that not all of his students knew who Fokine was. There is also his recollections of back when he danced Robbins “Fancy free”, and its connection with the early “Americana” phenomenon within the ballet world in the States. Very moving were the moments where he and his wife Sonia Calero-(also an ex dancer) decided to defect from Mexico after knowing that their son Albertico had came to the States in a raft during the 90's rafters crisis. Alberto Alonso’s battle against lung cancer is also discussed, a battle that he lost last year.

One of the best moments was an extensive covering of the creation of his masterwork “Carmen” for Maya Plisetskaya, with interviews of the ballerina herself, her brother Azari Plisetsky and composer Rodion Schedrin, Plisetskaya’s husband. Plisetskaya talked about when she asked Alonso to do her “Carmen”. As it went, Plisetskaya’s mother took her to a guest performance in Moscow by the National Ballet of Cuba , where she saw a ballet by Alberto Alonso that seemed exactly in the manner she wanted. She went straight backstage and to her question: “Would you like to do Carmen for me?”, received the answer: “That is my dream.” To get permission for him to work at the Bolshoi she had to pull rank, helped by the Lenin Prize she had just received. Alonso had his own concept of the heroine, which Plisetskaya saw as “a fatal confrontation of a willful person-born free-and a totalitarian system”. Plisetskaya recalls that she had long wanted to dance the character of Carmen. She had devised a scenario, following the pattern of Bizet’s opera, and had tried to persuade Shostakovich to write a score and , when he refused afraid of comparison with Bizet, turned to Khachaturian, again with no success. Finally her husband said he would write something, but was first busy with other projects. The only way to get it on within the limited time allowed was to choose bits of Bizet which Shchedrin, night by night, arranged and supplemented. The result was this masterpiece of a ballet, which created a commotion in the politically invaded artistic circles, resulting in its banning from some scheduled shows in Europe. Even Plisetskaya was called upon the premiere by the Minister of Culture, and was told, among other things that she was a “traitor to the classical ballet”, that she has “made a prostitute of the heroine of the novel” and that “Carmen will not survive, for it’s condemned to die”, for which Plisetskaya laughs and recalls that then she answered back with “Carmen will die the day that I die”, just to now corrects herself to say that “I will die, but Carmen will still live”. She also said that even the early performances of 1967 were censored because politicians thought Carmen’s skirtless costume and erotic duet were inappropriate. But the ballet, devised for a small cast and named Carmen Suite, survived as Plisetskaya predicted. She herself danced it about 350 times, restoring what had been deleted (the full version of the duet was first seen during a tour to London); and Alonso further staged it for other companies worldwide. Among them was the National Ballet of Cuba, where Carmen became one of the most noted roles of Mme. Alonso. The most moving part of the documentary was at the end, in which Alonso confesses that there is something that he’s never told anybody, which is that he always wanted Sonia-(his wive)-to be his Carmen, but because of she was never allowed to dance it, “she’s always danced it in my heart”. He died of heart failure in the North Florida Regional Medical Center last year, and is survived by his wife, Sonia, their son and two daughters.

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Thanks, Cristian, for that wonderful account. It sounds like a fascinating story and one that points out the many connections -- and the cross-fertilizations -- between Cuban and United States ballet.

:) Maybe -- in the alternate universe of one's dreams -- it will be shown one day on PBS or another network with real public access.

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Apparently, some viewers were not very satisfied with the results...

"The Life and Career of Alberto Alonso"

by Vivian Villalón,

At 90 years of age, Alberto Alonso, Cuban ballet master and choreographer, has been honored with a documentary about his professional trajectory. The ambitious proposal was set in motion in 2005, with the sponsorship of donors, by Alora Haynes, actual Chair of the Visual Performing Arts Department at Santa Fe Community College, in Gainesville, Florida, where Alberto (whom I will address by his first name, to avoid confusion with the other Alonsos of the ballet world) teaches dance since the early 90s. Unfortunately, to the detriment of the much anticipated project, many factors have contributed to its disappointing result. At the outset, under the direction of Steve Robitaille, English Professor at SFCC, and with Daphney Stacey as producer – she remained as such to the end – the biopic was to be titled “Dancing in Freedom’s Shoes”. However, although the concept was changed and the finished work renamed “Dance of my Heart: The Life and Career of Alberto Alonso”, it was surprising that it still includes material that was to be used in the original version. As the film unfolds, it becomes evident that the final product could have, just as well, been called “A Love Story”, since not only the discussion of freedom (a very crucial issue to those who have lived under oppression) within the context is practically ignored, but many of the highlights of Alberto’s career and personal life are amazingly omitted, obviously with his approval.

Ricardo Acosta, the new director who took over the development of the film, in 2006, is an Afro-Cuban émigré, residing in Toronto, Canada since 1993. The credentials listed on the internet are impressive: Film editor, working in Cuba as president of Cuba’s Young Filmmakers Association, and director of an alternative Cuban Film Festival. For “Dance of My Heart”, Acosta assumed not only the task of editing, but also directing as well as writing the script.. The documentary was previewed on September 7th and 8th, at SFCC Auditorium, in what could be referred to as a “Red Carpet” affair. Later, on September 25th, it was shown at the Edmonton International Film Festival, in Canada. Many other showings are expected, but to my knowledge, none have thus far materialized.

The new focus of the film seems to be the promotion of the Dance Department of SFCC, to coincide with the building of a new Fine Arts Hall on campus. Alberto appears on screen on several occasions, conducting a class and teaching the “tricks of the trade” to a group of adult students that don’t seem to have a clue as to who Michel Fokine was. Sonia Calero, Alberto´s present and third wife, suddenly appears and incites her husband to play Afro-Cuban rhythms on the “tumbadora”, so she can wiggle her hips, while trying to teach some salsa steps to a student. If the extensive exposure to ballet classes -- together with this uninspired salsa lesson -- was meant to attract new students to the college, the effort might have been counterproductive, because after a while, the scenes become too repetitious and boring.

As the film continues, Alberto, in both English and Spanish, narrates what is supposed to be his life’s story and career, beginning as a student at the School of Ballet of Pro-Arte Musical in Havana, Cuba, until his departure to join the famous Ballet Russe de Montecarlo, and later to become a member of De Basil’s Original Ballet Ruses. However, he does not offer any insights into what it meant for him to work during those Ballet Ruses years, in close contact with two of the most notable choreographers of the 20th century, Michel Fokine and Leonide Massine, or how remarkable it was for him to be the original interpreter of some of the roles in the masterpieces produced in those years. Furthermore, there is a gap after his BR and OBR experiences when Alberto, shortchanging himself on a prolific career, fails to recollect his return to his homeland in 1941, with his first wife Alexandra Denisova (nee Patricia Denise Meyers), an outstanding Canadian dancer who adopted this professional name, as was customary during the era of prominent Russian dancers. In addition, lamentably, Alberto’s tenure as director of the Pro-Arte Ballet School (1941-1959) which followed was also excluded, as well as his creations of classical works for the School, and the introduction of stylized Afro-Cuban dances, during the early stages of television, with Elena Del Cueto, his second wife, dancing the principal roles on the small screen, in shows such as "Cabaret Regalías" and "Casino de la Alegría". Undoubtedly, if Acosta, as the script writer, had provided Alberto with his own lines to read, instead of ad-libing, his comments would have sounded more fluid and compelling, even aiding in certain instances to jolt his memory.

The telephone conversation between Alberto, in the United States, and his older brother Fernando (soon to be 93), in Cuba, shows the latter to be quite eloquent and in sharp state of mind, reminiscing about “Fancy Free”, a ballet Alberto performed a few months after its successful premiere in New York, during his short stint with Ballet Theatre, in the fall of 1944. In that ballet, a timeless piece by Jerome Robbins, to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Alberto, as the Latin sailor, danced the role inspired by the Cuban danzon “Almendra”. Fernando not only remembers the music, but the lyrics as well.

The personal accounts of Maya Plisetskaya, a highlight indeed, reveal that she became intrigued by Alberto’s work, upon seeing one of his most applauded vignettes of Cuban folklore, “El Solar”, staged as a musical in Moscow in the early 60s, with Calero, in total command of a broom as dancing partner. That experience prompted Plisetskaya to approach the choreographer and request that he create a new Carmen, the ultimate rebel, especially for her. Rodion Shchedrin, her husband, arranged the Bizet score and also appears on the footage, offering his memories of the occasion, as does Azari Plisetski ( Plisetskaya’s brother) one of the early Don José in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s stagings , who in fluent Spanish, elucidates on the freedom message the ballet was intended to convey.

Alberto’s trip to Moscow in November 2005, to stage “Carmen Suite” for the new generation of Bolshoi dancers (with Svetlana Zakharova in the title role) following Plisetskaya’s invitation to celebrate her 80th birthday, is the center piece of the second half of the film, as it very well should be. The great diva’s presence on the screen is truly overwhelming, as her performance of “Carmen” is juxtaposed with that of Zakharova’s, and her appearance on the Bolshoi stage to take a bow with the company and the choreographer at the end of the performance leads to a standing ovation.

Nevertheless, there is a scene towards the end of the film that seems preposterous, when Calero, well into her 70s, appears on a small dark stage, with a reddish spotlight on her, dressed in black, wearing heels, and with a long slit on her skirt to show her legs, tries to evoke the seductive and unbending personality of Merrimee’s cigar wrapper. – an unflattering misdirection that detracts from Alberto´s own merits and achievements.

The unsatisfactory result of this ambitious project might very well be due to director Acosta’s misguided adventure, for Alberto was led through a shortened path, leaving by the wayside many of his most remarkable career accomplishments, as well as the people that shared the spotlight with him. Finally, as a member of the Alonso family, I, for one, was very disturbed that only one son (who defected to the U.S. by raft in 1992, and by the way, the only other participant, besides Plisetski, who refers to the meaning of “freedom”) and one grandson were acknowledged in the film. Alberto has two other daughters (who sought asylum with their mother in 1962) and two other grandsons, and this insensitive oversight can only further divide a family already irreparably torn apart. The legacy of Alberto Alonso would have been better served for the balletomanes, but more importantly, for those who have loved and respected him, had this documentary been more faithful to the facts.

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Here are some interesting pics of Alonso during his years with Ballet Russe.

Alberto Alonso in "Petrouchka", his master interpretation, with the Pro-Arte Ballet School. Havana, 1944


The Tree Ivans Alberto Alonso, standing. N. Matouchak and Sobetchevsky, front (1939)


Alberto Alonso as The Blackamoor and Tamara Toumanova as The Dancer, in Petrouchka, Original Ballet Russe, Australian tour, His Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, May 1940


Tamara Grigorieva, Irina Zarova, Alberto Alonso (as the Dwarf in front), Georges Skibine and Nicolas Ivangin in Pavane, Original Ballet Russe Australian tour, 1940


Alberto Alonso as The Deer (left), Paul Petroff as The Young Musician (lright) and artists of the company, in Symphonie fantastique, Third movement, Original Ballet Russe, Australian tour, His Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, April 1940


Irina Baronova as The Siren (kneeling front right), Anton Dolin as The Prodigal Son (front right), Alberto Alonso as the Vagabond (standing centre with urn), and artists of the company, in Le fils prodigue, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Australian tour, His Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, March 1939


David Lichine as The Prodigal Son (third from left), Tamara Grigorieva (?) as The Siren (centre bending back), Alberto Alonso as the Vagabond (fourth from right), Lorand Andahazy as a Friend of The Prodigal Son (far left), and artists of the company, in Le fils prodigue, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Australian tour, His Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, March 1939


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It is very gratifying to see such response to Dance of My Heart. This is a project that has had (as many films do) a majical journey of its own. We were fortunate to find Ricardo Acosta, who provided Alberto and Sonia the means by which to leave his legacy to the dance world. Until Ricardo joined the creative team we had been struggling to find Alberto's voice in the film. When Ricardo arrived, Alberto opened up in ways that we had not seen prior to their collaboration. I think it is unfair to call this film a documentary(understanding that we gave it that title). Those who are looking for the usual "talking head" account of Alberto's life will surely be dissapointed. But those, who come to the film without any pre conceived notion or agenda, will discover the passion and emotion with which Alberto lived his entire life.

Alberto was thrilled to have worked with Ricardo. In the end, we made a film Alberto was proud of. His message, his legacy, and we make no apologies for that.

Fortunatley, the film is starting to receive some recognition. It was recently shown in Miami. It will be shown in the Jacksonville, FL Latino Film Festival in November, it will be shown it its "home town" of Gainesville, FL in October and it will be shown in Toronto Canada as a special screening at the National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto in February of next year, an event at which Sonia will teach a master class as part of the scheduled events.

Also, we have recently obtained a distributor for the film so our hope is it will be shown on outlets such as PBS, Bravo, Etc. Our desire is to have it seen by as many people as possible.

I have failed to mention that it was also seen at the Edmonton Film Festival in Canada. This was very special for us because we were able to get Alberto and Fernando together for the first time in many years. As it turned out, it was their last time together.

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As a follow up to the Edmonton Film Festival, several days after the festival we received the following e-mail from a woman who had seen the film with her two sons. It is a reminder, I think, of the power of art, of dance in particular and for those of us connected with the project a great gift of appreciation. I don't think Alberto was ever prouder of his work.

Jennifer H. wrote:

greetings from north of smoky lake, about 2 hrs ne of edmonton

my 2 boys and i attended your film the other night. it was marvellous.

i was very moved and must tell you how good it was to see it.

one feels that one can do better. the awe we feel when we hear

the story of heroes grows our hearts, grows our desire to be

better, try harder.

i happened to hear you on the radio yesterday on my drive to john deere

in fort saskatchewan for repairs. it was a most unusual idea for me to suddenly

find my way to the city and find that theatre and take the boys to see it. i am not

known to do such things. we live on a farm and they dont go out so much to public events.

they are very young and i knew it might not be possible to stay if they were noisy,

but this was different, i risked this not working because this was something they would

never see again. a film, with filmmakers plus the subject of the film all in one.

the older boy is handicapped. the other struggles with behaviour, but they were actually very attentive i thot (i hope).

life is uphill and challenging here and i have the boys in dance a second yr now. it is a very small group

but it is an opportunity and it is interesting to me. my husband and the boys arent keen on the dance but

you know i see this measure of adversity as part of the journey and i persist in sending them. class last week

had the younger one kicked out of class no less than 3 times for poor attitude.

here is the magic of your film... in less than 24 hrs this boy was a beautiful dancer yesterday you have no idea

the temperment of this boy he is very bright, spirited stubborn and yesterday he was on spot, on cue delightful and

i was so proud. i thank you for making such a film and pls continue what you are doing. it means something different

for everyone i suppose. depiction of alberto's story made a deep connection for me.

life is uphill and challenging here. the experience of the film and having the people in person was so valuable and special.

we cant all be heroes, we arent without imperfection, cant all have kind passionate people such as your alberto, but we can certainly be called upon to learn

be inspired by the messages of the story

and it is such a good one, forever good. xojh

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