All about Alonso
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 9:51 p.m.
It is remarkable that one of 2005's most prominent international dance events drew from our own locale. When Russian prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya wanted to celebrate her 80th birthday party, Moscow e-mailed Gainesville.
Year of Alonso
- "Dancing in Freedom's Shoes," a documentary about famed Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso, is scheduled to premiere at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 16. The film was written and directed by SFCC professor Steve Robitaille.
- Alonso will be honored at a special reception at the Hippodrome State Theatre on Feb. 3. The public reception will correspond with the Hippodrome Cinema's opening of the film "Ballets Russes." Alonso's presence, both in that documentary and here in Gainesville, was instrumental in bringing the film to the Hipp for its one-week run.
Plisetskaya is widely considered the greatest ballerina of the 20th century. Born into a Russian family of Jewish artists and intellectuals, her personal life and career were beset by political oppression. Notorious for her strength on and off stage, she quickly rose in fame around the world.
This past November, Plisetskaya requested that Alberto Alonso's "Carmen" close a massive five-day festival in her honor in Moscow.
Alonso, of course, is a choreographer of international acclaim, who at age 85 is still choreographing as Santa Fe Community College Dance Department's master artist in residence. Alonso's 1967 "Carmen," starring Plisetskaya, has thus far secured him as the only non-Russian ever to create a work for the revered Bolshoi Ballet.
And so Alonso returned to Moscow in November to set his "Carmen" again for his friend Plisetskaya. He was joined by his wife, Sonia Calero, SFCC Dance Department Co-Director Alora Haynes and a five-member film crew under the direction of Steve Robitaille.
Locals unable to make the trip, however, will get a taste of the performance when Robitaille's film, "Dancing in Freedom's Shoes," premieres on Sept. 16 at the Phillips Center.
Written and directed by Robitaille, a SFCC professor, "Dancing in Freedom's Shoes" is a documentary on Alonso's life and career, retracing his path from Cuba to the United States - plus his trips to Moscow on behalf of "Carmen."
The film was originally scheduled to premiere this spring at the Phillips Center. But due to an overwhelming amount of new and archival footage entrusted to Robitaille in Russia, the film's debut was postponed to Sept. 16.
It is possible that prominent figures in Russian ballet will be present for the Gainesville premiere. Bolshoi officials also have requested that "Dancing in Freedom's Shoes" be given an additional showing at their own theater.
"None of this would have been possible without our producer, Daphne Stacey," notes Robitaille. "She was up all night for countless nights, calling offices in Russia to arrange everyone's passes, visas and permits. From the start, this was a huge undertaking."
Robitaille's film crew took a direct flight from Atlanta, hauling two high-definition cameras and loads of gear. After 12 hours in the air, they soon reported to the Bolshoi New Theatre.
"Our work in the Bolshoi was like filming in the Pentagon," he says. "We had to report to administrative offices on the third floor, then take six or seven flights in the tiniest of elevators to the basement. We then had to push all our equipment underneath the Bolshoi across a football field-sized area. Then we went up three flights again. Twice a day, quite a caravan."
"Only two cameras were present at the performance," recalls Haynes. "One was the Bolshoi's own camera, and then we were the only crew allowed to film. We were granted unprecedented, exclusive rights to the footage."
"This was also the very first time in history," notes Stacey, "that the Bolshoi allowed cameras other than their own to film backstage."
The crew also shot several press rehearsals. Plisetskaya was present at some of the rehearsals, on hand to work with Alonso and the dancers. Robitaille says the paparazzi also were admitted.
"Somehow, Alberto was a rock star. They followed him absolutely everywhere."
At the start of the performance on Nov. 18, Plisetskaya welcomed the audience.
"Maya stood up in the royal box, came to the edge of the balcony, and waved her famous 'Swan Lake' arms. All the audience stood and applauded," Robitaille recalls.
At the curtain call, Alonso and Calero were brought onto the stage.
Haynes chokes up at the memory: "When I saw Maya, that legendary ballerina, on her knee bowing before him, it was just the most extraordinary thing. I always knew that he was famous, but what I didn't realize is that he is still famous."
In November, the Moscow Times called the original premiere of Alonso's ballet "Plisetskaya's greatest artistic triumph." His restaging of the ballet, and the birthday jubilee, received worldwide press.
Boris Messerer, a famous Russian set designer who created the original scenery for "Carmen," was present for the event.
"It is so rare," he told Robitaille, "to have a ballet that is so immediately famous, and then 40 years later re-premiere it with most all the original principals there."
These included Plisetskaya, as well as the original principal playing Don José. Also in attendance was Plisetskaya's brother, Azari, who first danced Don José in Cuba with Alberto's sister-in-law Alicia Alonso, a renowned dancer and now the director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Composer Rodion Shchedrin, who reworked Bizet's opera into the ballet score for "Carmen," was also present.
"In '67, Moscow was truly the mecca of dance," recalls Alonso. "I owe it all to Maya; she begged and forced the Russian minister of culture to allow me there. But this time was more emotional. Maya, Boris - it was wonderful to see my old friends."
Plisetskaya's birthday celebration continues in London next month.
"People are like roses," she mused in a recent press conference. "Some wither early, others stay longer."
Haynes witnessed hundreds of roses shower upon Plisetskaya, who actually performed at her Kremlin Palace birthday gala, where tickets cost $1,000. Wearing a black gown given by Pierre Cardin, Plisetskaya danced "Ave Maya," a five-minute piece created for her by Maurice Béjart.
"No one dances like Maya," Alonso insists, "and no one will ever dance 'Carmen' the way Maya did."
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article