A rousing birthday celebration at the Met for ballet legend Alicia Alonso
Alicia Alonso accepted the sold-out audience’s adoring ovation at the Metropolitan Opera House from a central box seat before Thursday night’s American Ballet Theatre performance. But one sensed that this legendary ballerina, being saluted by the company with an evening to celebrate her 90th birthday, would find her way to center stage, and she did, culminating the boisterous, rousing event.
The performance featured three couples sharing the central roles of “Don Quixote” – a different pair for each act. The applause meter had been in high gear all evening, and Natalia Osipova, the Bolshoi Ballet star appearing as a guest artist with ABT this season, inspired enduring bravos for the sensational, seemingly effortless, feats she tossed off in the final act.
Then it took a while, but the curtain rose once more, and Alonso walked out flanked by Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, and José Manuel Carreño, the Cuban ABT principal dancer who partnered Osipova in Act Three and who trained and performed at Alonso’s National Ballet of Cuba (Ballet Nacional de Cuba). Wearing a silver version of her trademark snug headscarf to match her pewter and silver dress, she beamed happily and accepted a giant bouquet as the audience – many no doubt with numerous memories of her lengthy career – proved it still had plenty of applause left to give.
Alonso (who actually turns 90 on Dec. 21) was a member of Ballet Theatre (as ABT was initially known) during its earliest years. Plagued by vision problems – over which she repeatedly triumphed -- since early in her career, she is now virtually blind. Celebrated for the distinctive stamp she put on the role of Giselle, she also performed in many new ballets during the 1940s.
During a tribute film by Ric Burns that opened the evening, she spoke in her melodious English, describing the early years of the company – which is marking its 70th anniversary this year – as “full of life. We were creating the future of ballet in America.” She originated roles in several ballets – Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” Tudor’s “Undertow,” and Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Legend” -- that remain in the repertory. The 1947 Balanchine work, now performed by major companies worldwide, showcased Alonso’s fleet virtuosity and steely strength in a role that still challenges today’s ballerinas.
Starting in 1948, Alonso devoted a good portion of her time to nurturing the art in her native Cuba, and she remains director of the National Ballet of Cuba today. Once could sense her influence in the presence of two Cubans – Carreño and Xiomara Reyes – among the six principals dancing last night – as well as three others from Latin America – Brazil’s Marcelo Gomes and Argentina’s Paloma Herrera and Herman Cornejo.
All were in exuberant top form in an evening that featured deluxe casting in secondary roles. “Don Quixote,” a comic romp that veers towards slapstick, was not a ballet associated with Alonso, but it does exemplify what Alonso said in the tribute film: “Dancing is an expression of the happiness, of the life – it is like laughing.”
---Susan Reiter, reporting from New York
Photos: Alicia Alonso, with principal dancer Jose Manuel Carreño and ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. Credit: Rosalie O’Connor.