Fernando Alonso: Dancer, teacher and co-founder of the Cuban National Ballet

 

Arich dance legacy was assured in Cuba many years ago by the three mythical figures who founded the Cuban National Ballet: Fernando Alonso, his younger brother Alberto, and Fernando's wife, Alicia Alonso.

Fernando Alonso was born in Havana on 17 December 1914 and died there, at the Cardiovascular Hospital, on 27 July. Fernando and Alberto were among the few and first men to train as classical ballet dancers under the guidance of their mother, Laura Raineri. The news of his death was broken to us during the final performance of A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev by the distinguished Cuban ballerina and teacher Loipa Araujo – associate artistic director, with Tamara Rojo, of the English National Ballet.

Fernando Alonso Raineri, the elder of two sons of Matías Alonso and Laura Raineri, was brought up in a house filled, like his country, with music and dance. His mother was a pianist and later president of Havana's Pro Arte Musical, which brought the young boy into contact with some of Cuba's – and the world's – greatest musicians. He also loved science and nature.

It was Alberto who first started ballet classes, to help make him a better footballer. Soon Fernando joined him, and stayed – especially since there were 126 girls to six boys, and one of those young girls was Alicia Martínez del Hoyo. The two soon fell in love. In 1937, Fernando, seven years older than Alicia, went to the US looking for work, and Alicia, only 16 at the time, joined him. They got married and a year later their only daughter, Laura, was born.

In New York the couple danced continuously, first in musicals, then with some of the biggest names in the international dance world of that era, all the while taking classes with famous teachers. Fernando would study the different teaching practices of the different teachers, and took the best parts of each system to develop them, from a scientific foundation, into the basis of his own Cuban-flavoured pedagogical studies.

The couple danced all over the world together and were members of Ballet Theatre (as the present American Ballet Theatre used to be known then) for eight years. They never intended to stay in New York and returned home permanently in 1948 when Ballet Theatre found itself facing a financial crisis.

The desire to form their own company was financially challenging. When the money ran out, they advertised in a newspaper for a sponsor and La Polar brewery agreed to pay for one performance, providing there was some advertising on stage! "We told them we'd put bears on the stage, beer bottles, whatever they wanted," reported a member of the University Student Federation of Havana, which had pledged to support the company.

The Ballet Alicia Alonso persevered and, filled with dancers from Ballet Theatre, won acclaim on its tours of Central and South America. It was at this point that Fernando, while still performing, decided to change direction and dedicate himself to the needs of the company by becoming its director. However, dark days lay ahead for them all. During the Batista government, which Fernando, Alberto and Alicia opposed, the company was disbanded for three and a half years and not reinstated until the revolution of 1959.

In 1950, Fernando had claimed another milestone – that of founding the Alicia Alonso Academy of Ballet with the understanding that here, native Cubans could be trained in the art of classical ballet, and be a permanent source for the company. So it was on this project that all attention was focused during the years when the company did not function. With Fernando as teacher-director, all three Alonsos worked tirelessly in establishing an academy, which would – and still does – rival any of the top quality international ballet schools of today.

With the support of the Cuban Revolution, and under the aegis of Fidel Castro, Alicia, Fernando and Alberto Alonso created the foundations of the Cuban classical ballet company we now know as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Fernando, the father of Cuban ballet, trained, among many others, the "Four Jewels" of Cuban ballet: Josefina Méndez, Mirta Pla, Aurora Bosch and Loipa Araujo – the latter considered one of the best ballet teachers in the world today. Famous dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov sought to benefit from Fernando's classes whenever they could.

In 1975, after he and Alicia divorced, Fernando married the Cuban ballerina Aida Villoch and became the director of the Ballet School and Ballet Company of Camagüey, where he taught until very recently. He was awarded Cuba's National Dance Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2000 and in 2008 he won the Prix Benois de la Danse, given to him at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

In her excellent biography, Fernando Alonso: The Father of Cuban Ballet, Toba Singer gives a full account of the life of an extraordinary, well-loved Cuban ballet figure.

He is survived by his daughter, Laura, his grandson, Iván, three great granddaughters, and Yolanda, his third and last wife.

Fernando Alonso, dancer and dance teacher: born Havana, Cuba 17 December 1914; married three times (one daughter); died Havana 27 July 2013.

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