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Alicia Alonso, Giselle, 55 years ago


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This is for cubanmiamiboy and other Alonso devotees. I was browsing through a collection of Edwin Denby's writings and came upon this notice of Alicia Alonso in 1945: Giselle, Ballet Theater, Metropolitan Opera House. Her partner was Andre Eglevsky. She was 25 years old.

Alonso is a delightfully young and a very Latin Giselle, quick, clear, direct in her relation to her lover. She is passionate rather than sensuous. She is brilliant in allegro, not so convincing in sustained grace. Her plie is not yet a soft and subtly modulated one and this weakens her soaring phrases. She has little patience for those slow-motion, vaporous effects that we Northerners find so touching. But there is no fake about her, no staginess. Her points, her young high extensions, her clean line, her lightness in speed, her quick balance are of star quality.

Her first act was the more distinguished of the two in its dramatic interpretation. She is no tubercular ballerina-peasant but a spirited girl who stabs herself. The dance-solo was hidden from me by late-comers, but loudly applauded. The confrontation scene and the made scene were convincing, simple and large in their miming. In the second act the first whirls were thrilling, and the famous passage of lifts with the following solo of echappees and spins stopped the show by its cumulative bold, clear speed. If there was little that was spectral in the second act, there was nothing that was not vividly young and straightforward.

I haven't seen much video of Alonso, and none at all from those early days. Is Denby on target, from what the rest of you have seen?

:) The following week, Alonso danced with Eglevsky in the Balanchine Apollo. (Denby did not specify her role, but called the dancers "magnificent.") Now THAT's a performance I would like to have seen.

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Is Denby on target???

In reading the review don't take it out of its context. At the time, there were three Giselles at Ballet Theatre---Alicia Markova, Tamara Toumanova and, Alonso. The "norm" for Giselle interpretations was Markova---certainly among the critics at the time. Compared to Markova's waif-like virginal interpretation---anyone could look 'lusty'. (in Denby's book. 'Dance Writings and Poetry' there is a review of Toumanova's Giselle from 1944, incidentally, my first Giselle)

Alonso was Terpsichore in Apollo and her beautiful classical line was shown to full advantage in the role. For those who may feel that we who have seen ballet for decades are always looking back---not so, I say in my defense. It took me years to see the perfect Terpsichore and Apollo--Farrell and Peter Boal.

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Thanks so much, atm711, especially for the reminder about context. B.H. Haggin, writing a few years later, commented on Alonso's growth in the areas of legato and making connections between the moves. He suggested that Alonso developed this partly due to having to compete with Markova in the role.

Here's Haggin on Alonso in Theme and Variation, which Balanchine made on her and for her. It is 1948, 3 years after the earlier quote from Denby.

... what Balanchine did for her in Theme and Variation was not merely to use everything she does best as a dancer -- her sharp attacks, her secure feats of point-balance, for example -- but to use them in a style that made her glamorous and radiant. After seeing an early rehearsal of her pas de deux with Igor Youskevitch, Edwin Denby had written me that Balanchine had invented another new character, but what he also invented was a new personality for Alonso.

Bernard Taper makes a similar point in his biography of Balanchine:

Alonso, always a splendid technician, seemed better than her best in this ballet, as if Balanchine had invented a new glamorous and radiant personality. (Italics mine.)

Alonso is definitely someone who deserves a serious, full-length biography. The icon has been with us for so long, we need to be reminded how she got there.

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John Martin in the New York Times gave Alonso rave reviews from the time he spotted her in the corps. Of her debut in Giselle in 1943 ("it is deeply to be regretted there is to be no repetition of it") he says,

From a dramatic standpoint which is so important in this quaint old piece, she plays with such simplicity and such honestry that she is completely convincing. Even the inherently incredible mad scene at the end of the first act apparently holds no terrors for her, because she approaches it so unaffectedly...

The only reservations he has are that are “that inuitive spatial precision that manifrests itself both in the completion of the line and motor phrase is still lacking.” but the next year, he says “her technical grasp is prodigious; it is now her miming that trails a bit behind” and “this extraordinary brilliant young ballerina from Cuba will one day become one of the great Giselles if only she is allow to dance the role long enough.” In 1946 he faults her only for skimping on “the rather lush ‘spirituality’ [of that Romanic era] that animates that important [second] movement as a whole.”

John Martin’s review of Apollo with Alonso and Eglevsky also shows off Martin’s wit and snippiness (he later recanted about Apollo when he was bowled over by Agon, and saw the two ballets along with Orpheus). It, too, looks everyday of 1945, but has a nice line about Alonso:

[Apollo] is a prime example of the late Diaghileff era of ballet, when novelty, ingenuity and deliberate perversity ranked especially high. It is now seventeen years old and looks every day of it, for, truth to tell, we have come a long mile since those naively sophisticated days. Its style is “moderne,” its technique appallingly difficult and its choreography frighteningly clever.

Last night’s performance was an especially brilliant one, especially by Alicia Alonso, who suspensions and general precision were little short of fabulous. Nora Kaye and Barbara Fallis also danced beautifully in the other major feminine roles.

Andre Eglevsky in the demanding title role came off with honors though in appearance he suggested Apollo perhaps less than Hepahaistos.

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