Thursday, November 1, 2007

From the Tellechea Newspaper Archives: Alicia in Wonderland (1987)

Morley Safer Tiptoes Around a Mercenary Ballet Star

By: Manuel A. Tellechea
The New York Tribune
Commentary Section, p. 9
March 28, 1987

Ballet was danced for the first time in Cuba in the 18th century; the same European troupe that introduced it to Philadelphia brought it to Cuba. Moreover, Cuba was the first Latin American country to have its own ballet company (at the time there were no more than a dozen in the world). Alicia Alonso was reared and nurtured in that milieu, some 70 [now 85] years ago; she did not, as the Sixty Minutes puff that aired on March 22 [1987] asserted, "give birth to ballet in Cuba." Whatever Alonso's achievements in that sphere may have been (and I will not belittle the artist because the woman is a creature of Communism, though not one formed by it), she owes her success in no small way to the pre-revolutionary society that she now belittles and condemns. She was introduced to ballet in Cuba, where she studied with the Russian master Yavorski at the ballet school of the Fine Arts League of Havana. The education she received there was good enough to make her one of the greatest ballerinas of her day, which says as much for the education as it does for Alonso. Significantly, Alicia Alonso as a teacher has not been able to produce a comparable artist for Cuba. Maybe she hasn't wanted to. Still, she is the most famous cultural icon of whose allegiance the Revolution can boast.

Alonso was a name before 1959 and her decline may be dated from that year; not a whit of fame has attached to her since except as a curiosity: a dancer at 70 who is partially blind and rheumatic. She should have retired 30 [50] years ago, and, indeed, she did — after a long and distinguished career that saw her hailed as the definitive "Giselle." For a brief period in the 1950s she at least recognized that her age and failing vision had deprived her technique of the excruciating exactness that once defined it.

Unfortunately, Alonso's retirement was short-lived; she found a new patron who valued her for something other than her dancing, and returned to the stage in 1959, and has remained there ever since, unforgiving decade after unforgiving decade, having discovered that the masses (her "new audience") couldn't tell between the exactness of perfection and the exactness of impairment, and, frankly, didn't care.

As one of the handful of Cubans to have achieved international celebrity, Alonso's return to the stage was hailed from all quarters, and since it coincided with the coming to power of Castro, many chose to regard it as a political statement on her part rather than as a statement of opportunism. Needless to say, she encouraged the political interpretation. Whether by design or personal good furtune, she had returned to the ballet not merely as a dancer but as a symbol of nationalism at the historic moment when nationalism was at its apex in Cuba. Castro found time in that first year of the Revolution between the signing of execution orders and the wrecking of Cuba's economy to award by decree official status to the Ballet Nacional founded by Alonso in 1947.

Alonso was introduced by Morley Safer on Sixty Minutes as "the one unsevered link between the U.S. and Cuba (because she's allowed to dance here on occasion), as if 1.5 million Cuban exiles counted for nothing, nor the ties of history and mutual affinity that existed between our two peoples before that ill-omened year of 1959.

To become Castro's roving ambassador of culture, Alonso had to alter completely her vita curriculum. Her father had been a major in Cuba's pre-revolutionary Army; she disowned him. The film of Alonso's performance at Batista's inaugural ball in 1955 vanished from both the national archives and the collective memory of the nation, as did also the diamond collar from her neck that Batista had presented her on that occasion. Her fortuitous retirement in 1957 was transformed belatedly into a "protest against the Batista tyranny."

Alicia's checkered past has never been thrown at her face by any correspondent. Morley Safer was no exception. He might confront his own mother but not the "one unsevered link between the U.S. and Cuba." Not that the subject of Alonso's apocryphal "boycott" didn't come up. The fairy tale of the courageous dancer that refused to tip her toes to Batista while her countrymen were waging their revolution was submitted for our consideration and applause.

"Why didn't you dance," asked Safer. "Because killing is intolerable to me," replied Alonso. For one moment, I hoped Safer would counter, "Why do you find killing more acceptable now than you did before 1959." In truth, Alonso has always found killing tolerable — before and after the Revolution.

She retired from the stage from 1956 to 1958 precisely because she approved of killing but not of being killed herself. During those years the rebel underground achieved its greatests success bombing theatres and nightclubs. Alonso could have condemned these killings, as did almost all Cuban entertainers; instead, she retired from the stage and let Castro and his terrorists bomb away. Although sympathetic to the rebels, in the back of Alonso's mind must have lurked the thought that they might score their greatest coup by blowing her to smithereens.

When Castro came to power, she naturally had no objection to the continuation and escalation of the killing, now with her society friends as the victims. Nor did she even object when her own troupe became the focus of Castro's insecurity and bloodlust. Throughout the 1960s, Castro's persecution of homosexuals usually began with the National Ballet. Alonso never spoke out on behalf of her "spirit children," many of whom she had rescued from orphanages and raise to be her dance partners. In 1965, the whole male ensemble of her ballet, or what was left of it, defected while on a tour of France. This, some may recall, was the opening scene of Improper Conduct, the acclaimed documentary that exposed the homophobic side of Castro's character to his liberal devotees. Safer did not embarrass Alonso with the recollection of her role in these decidedly unprogressive happenings.

Cuban culture owes very little to Alicia Alonso — except a black eye. Communist Cuba has not yet achieved the sophistication of Communist Russia, where tsars like Peter the Great, writers like Dostoevski and composers like Tchaikovsky have been rehabilitated as examples of the superiority of the Russian nationality. By contrast, in Cuba everything before 1959 is still considered backward and counter-revolutionary. Just as Communist economists must depict pre-Castro Cuba as underdeveloped and Communist moralists denounce it as hedonistic, Alonso is expected to portray Cuba's past as devoid of popular culture and art. Her pronouncements against pre-revolutionary culture are given wide currency in the U.S. media because it would be incongruous that so famous an exponent of Cuban culture should fail to recognize — let alone demean — that which she herself represents. The explanation that Alonso lies from self-interest — because it is in her interest to be wellspring of Cuban culture — is simply overlooked.

For much of the 20th century (that is, until 1959), the music and dance of Cuba were the music and dance of the world. If you are between 50 and 100 years of age, you have partaken richly of Cuban culture even if you are not Cuban. Of what other cultures can the same be said?

The rumba, the mambo, the conga and the cha-cha-cha: who will say — and who can prove? — that these are manifestations of backwardness or that ballet is more refined and worthy? If so, Cuban dance is a wonderful "backwardness" in which the whole world shares, unlike ballet, which is for the few and the nimble. How remarkable that this supposedly nationalistic revolution has replaced Cuban folk music and dance with the elite Soviet sport of ballet!

What has the arid and stupefying cultural climate in Castro's Cuba produced in the latter half of this century? Since I am not objective commentator on the "achievements" of the Cuban Revolution, I will led British historian Hugh Thomas do this sad office for me:

"Along with the fine arts, popular culture in Cuba, that is, the music, literature, art, dance, theatre, and film enjoyed by the broad sections of the population, has lost its creative zeal under a regime that respicts artistic freedom and individualism. Cuba, which prior to Castro was one of the leading centers of Latin dance music, has since failed to contribute to the rich body of Latin American popular music. Tragically, the Cuban Revolution cannot offer a single notable novelist a famous poet, a penetrating essayist, nor even a fresh contribution to Marxist analysis. Censorship and fear have smothered creativity in Cuba. What is left on the island is merely the incessant voice of official propaganda."

Is ballet the exception that has survived the death of all the arts in Cuba? Not unless a ballet company that features a 70-year old ballerina can be said to be anything other than a freak show. Alicia Alonso is Cuban ballet as she was in 1940, and there's the rub. After Alonso, what? Let us hope Fernando Bujones — the exiled great of Cuban ballet — in a free and democratic Cuba [Bujones died of cancer at age 50 in 2005].


New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal also commented on Safer's 1987 interview with Alicia Alonso on 60 Minutes [March 26, 1987]. Since this is one of the few ocassions that The Times ever complained about somebody else's misrepresentation of the Cuban reality, it is worth quoting:

On "60 Minutes" Morley Safer is interviewing Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballerina. Alonso is 65, nearly blind, a heroine and beloved teacher in Cuba, admired deeply by the world of ballet at home and in the United States, to which she travels often.

Mr. Safer points out that although she had a privileged position under the dictator Batista, during his regime she carried out her own protest against his brutality. Dancers are not just horses, running in blinders, she says. So she protested by refusing to dance for several years until, as Mr. Safer said, "the revolution succeeded."

Now she is a national figure in Cuba, and lives a queenly life.

No, not one word. Not one word from her and not one question from Mr. Safer about how she feels now about horses, or Mr. Castro's imprisonment of poets, painters and writers. An unquestioning plug for Mr. Castro and a rewriting of history by omission.

Mr. Safer is skilled enough, sophisticated enough, to know better. He does. He told me that he did indeed ask the ballerina questions about Castro tyrannies. But she was wordy and polemical so he thought he would cut that part. It made for a better show, he said. A judgment call, he said.


Charlie Bravo said...

Manuel, as a Cuban ballerina once told me in an European airport.... "ballet exists in Cuba IN SPITE of Alicia Alonso!".
There are a some news about Cuban ballet dancers -exiled in Europe and in the States- taken the stages by storm, which proves very much the ballerina's stance. Isis Wirth writes compelling stories about dance and ballet in Cuba.

Charlie Bravo said...

If the link doesn't work, this is the url:
Copy it in your browser and it will work.

Vana said...

Oh wow Manuel, even I thought she had flourished during the robolution, this is news to me, she retired so as not to be blown up how do you think of these things Manuel? I'm guaranteed a chuckle when I read you

Curioso said...

Señor , how old were you in 1987?


Manuel A.Tellechea said...


Twenty years younger than I am now.

curioso said...

curioso let me make it easier for you then.. how old will you be 20 years from now

Manuel A.Tellechea said...



Vana said...


curioso said...

i knew it