Alicia Alonso, the Cuban National Ballet, and University Students
Havana’s Karl Marx Theater witnessed an historic celebration on Friday: the 50th anniversary of the first performance after the triumph of the Revolution of Alicia Alonso and today’s Cuban National Ballet Company (BNC), dedicated to the glorious Federation of University Students (FEU), an event that took place on June 1st, 1959 at the Cuban capital’s Sport Coliseum, as the climax of Operation Culture, organized by the aforementioned student organization.
The event made it possible for Cubans to enjoy, in a concentrated and massive way, valuable expressions of national and universal culture, among them symphonic concerts, book fairs, art exhibitions and movie cycles in various places in the capital, as well as a memorable recital by maestro Ernesto Lecuona and several of his most famous interpreters in the University of Havana’s Aula Magna.
Originally programmed for May 29 at the University Stadium, the presentation, due to the inclemency of the weather, was finally held in the wide roofed area of the Coliseum, before a massive audience. It was an enthusiastic public anxious to enjoy the art of a dancer who was already a living legend of art and culture in the country, painfully away from cuban stages since 1956.
We mustn’t forget the close bonds existing between Alicia Alonso, Ballet and the FEU since the founding of the company, ties established less than a month after its creation, on October 28, 1948.
The Cuban student leaders contacted their colleagues at the University of Río Piedras, in Puerto Rico, in order to try to arrange some performances there, which made it possible for the troupe to pay their debts and return to the homeland loaded with artistic honors, although in the most absolute economic poverty.
Thus, that close relationship Alicia has defined as "that of a happy marriage", began. On January 8, 11 and 26, 1949, our prima ballerina, Fernando Alonso and other executives of the Ballet Company, with the support of the FEU, made their great dream come true: to bring, free of charge, the art of ballet to the nation’s most humble sectors, which they could enjoy for the first time, at the University Stadium, a repertoire of vast stylistic register that included pieces from the Romantic movement, like Giselle, classics like Swan Lake (Act Two) and Aurora’s Wedding; and contemporary creations by Mijail Fokine (The Sylphs) and Alberto Alonso (The Valse and Concerto).
During another of the company’s financial crises, in the early 1950’s, the FEU would play a decisive role in obtaining a state subsidy for the troupe, extracted from the government of Carlos Prío Socarrás, which, although trifling, allowed them to maintain the theater presentations and create the Alicia Alonso Ballet Academy, which has shaped the pedagogical method of the currently worldwide known Cuban School of Ballet, from where the first generations of professional Cuban dancers emerged.
In that very same decade, a decisive period in Cuban history, the patriotic vocation of the two entities reached its highest level of identification, since, for both of them, to defend culture was to defend the roots and destiny of the nation. That credo united them in University Art Festivals held in 1954 and 1955, presented at the University Stadium with the encouragement of the most illustrious student leaders, among them Juan Nuiry and José Antonio Echeverría, who, with the same fortitude with which they faced beatings, persecution and imprisonment, made a common cause with the work of Cuban ballet and struggled resolutely for its safeguarding.
In spite of official apathy, those festivals made it possible for tens of thousands of Cubans to enrich their culture and spiritual life with Swan Lake, the staging of which was the premiere of the full version of the piece in Latin America, and Giselle, a ballet in which Alicia was already internationally proclaimed as its most sublime contemporary interpreter.
On September 15, 1956, the FEU organized the National Homage of Apology to Alicia. After the fanfare of January 1st, 1959, Alicia, the Ballet Company and the FEU joined again to prepare for that June 1st activity. That night, the people, a dance-loving public in its own right, could find in "The princesses" of Swan Lake and in Cuban Remembrance, with choreography by Elena del Cueto and music by Manuel Saumell, new talents shaped in the hard stage interval of 1956-1958, dancers who, like Mirta Plá, Aurora Bosch, Loipa Araújo, Josefina Méndez, Laura Alonso and Ramona and Margarita de Sáa, were destined to play a historic role in future times ahead of them.
Once again Alicia, accompanied by Igor Youskevitch, became Odette, the swan queen, musically directed by one of the most faithful collaborators she and Fernando Alonso ever had: maestro Enrique González Mántici.
On Friday night, half a century later, the staging of Shakespeare and his Masks, a beautiful choreographic version of the tragedy Romeo and Juliet by the brilliant English playwright, created by Alicia reunited her with the FEU once again. It was a night of great art and intimate remembrance for those youngsters, who, with both sensitivity and bravery, contributed to shape the reality of these new times.