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josefina mendez

Tribute to one of the four jewels of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba     

She never did Carmen, but she enjoyed dancing with blue eyelashes the second act of Swan Lake and later perform Odille, the black swan, to feel attractive and captivating; “entering like a devil right when the music bursts”, she said once in a radio interview.

She has the merit of being the only Cuban woman who, besides Alicia Alonso, danced with the Paris Opéra at its venue, performing none other than Giselle.

Her tragic death, three years ago, left the Ballet Nacional de Cuba without one of its main maîtres and the Cuban people, which applauded her until her tomb, without one of their most beloved ballerinas.

People from all over the globe followed Josefina Méndez’s fight against cancer and encouraged her to keep on leading the company’s classes, rehearsals and tours until her death on 26 January 2007.

The idea of not seeing her anymore doing an intelligent and timely correction with a style that was both kind and sharp, which marked more than one ballerina, still hurts.

Josefina, or Yuyi, as her friends would call her, is part of a group of ballerinas who were recognized in the 1960s by the foreign critic and varied audiences as the jewels of the Cuban ballet.

With time, herself, Loipa Araújo, Aurora Bosch and Mirta Plá proved it far and away, for their lives since a very young age was not only limited to the stage; the achievements of each one of them as a teacher, intellectual, Cuban woman and revolutionary are still palpable in several of the best companies in the world.

The four of them belong to the first generation of ballerinas that studied in the Academia Alicia Alonso and later were members of the company presently known as Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Professionally and personally they were shaped by the hand of the maestro Fernando Alonso, whom they loved as a father. The Cuban school’s methodology had in them its most important critics and apprentices.

In the second half of the 20th century, they awed the international stages, conquered the first prizes at the European contests where the specialist of classical dance had believed, until then, that only in that continent it was possible to cultivate ballet with excellence.

In their dancing a “school” was acknowledged, the only one in Latin America, and after their retirement from stage they devoted themselves wholeheartedly to teach others.

Méndez won bronze and silver medals in the International Ballet Competitions held in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1964 and 1965, respectively; the Golden Star Award at the Paris International Dance Festival, in 1970; the International Art Award Golden Sagittarius in Italy, in 1976; the Medal of the Brazilian Dance Council, in 1987; the Honorary Doctorate in Art from the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) of Cuba, in 2000; the National Dance Award in 2003, and many others.

Among her teachers, aside from Fernando and Alicia, were Leo Fokine and Alberto Alonso, who, according to the ballerina, taught her the grace in dance and the sense of the line.

Before attending for the first time the competition in Varna, herself and Mirta Plá had to practice in the hotels to keep in shape because the planes they flew in broke and they arrived late to their destination.

One day, in Paris, she was with the Alonsos, and taking advantage of her physical resemblance with Alicia, she did not hesitate to impersonate Alicia as it was thought that an attempt on her life was being prepared.

Yuyi dressed as Alicia more than once: that day, she bravely got in the embassy car as she had been the very prima ballerina. On the stage, she also wore Alicia’s faux eyelashes, her make up, her costumes, ornaments, missing not a single one of her rehearsals.

She learned the classics from Alicia, while at the same time she was able to perform every single detail of life with a charisma of her own and with the subtlety and style with which stars are born.

An outstanding romantic, she had the perfect physique of a classic ballerina, a one of a kind arabesque, a stunning stage projection, so much so that even in the theater corridors, in dance halls and even in the street she attracted the looks of those who were around.

She was born on March 8, 1941, and became première danseuse in 1962. Present figures of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as well as many Cuban artist that are making their careers outside of Cuba, have a debt with her as a teacher.

Most of them suffered, even in the distance, the deterioration of her health during almost four years.

However, the jewel didn’t give up time to sadness or rest. Thus she faced destiny, just like Haskell had stated: “that beautiful queen of tragedy, Josefina, with her magnificent dignity.”


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