Ballet's Alberto Alonso remembered

Alberto Alonso shown here with his wife, Sonia Calero, was a Master Artist in Residence at Santa Fe Community College. He died Monday at 90.

Special to The Sun
Published: Friday, January 4, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:49 p.m.

Alberto Alonso, the prominent ballet persona and local teacher, who died Monday at 90, was a beloved Gainesville resident and choreographic visionary of international stature.

As Santa Fe Community College's indefatigable Master Artist in Residence, Alonso created multiple works for SFCC, most recently in November 2007. He served on the college's dance faculty for 12 years.

Alonso's dance career generously spanned both time and space. Born in Cuba in 1917, he performed throughout the United States, Europe and Australia with prestigious companies such as Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theatre. He performed principal roles in ballets such as "Petrouchka," "Prince Igor" and "Prodigal Son."

As a young dancer, he worked with some of the 20th century's most distinguished figures, including Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, Leonide Massine and Jerome Robbins.

Alonso's own contribution to dance was most influential in his development of what is now known as the "Cuban" style of ballet. With his brother Fernando Alonso and sister-in-law Alicia Alonso, he founded the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. The company has become one of the world's most esteemed and was largely instrumental in the global attention that Hispanic - particularly Cuban - dancers have received in recent years.

Inspired by Robbins' ability to merge classical dance with American music and popular culture, Alonso sought to create works uniquely reflective of his Hispanic heritage. Alonso became resident choreographer of Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Among his achievements was the 1966 best choreography prize at Varna's Third International Ballet Competition.

Alonso is best known internationally as the choreographer of "Carmen Suite," a 1967 ballet commissioned by the Bolshoi in Moscow. Alonso was the first non-Russian to create a work for the Bolshoi Ballet. He was brought in specifically by Maya Plisetskaya, the company's prima ballerina assoluta (the highest rank given to a female ballet dancer).

Plisetskaya requested a ballet rendition of "Carmen" because the story's themes of freedom from oppression moved the Soviet artist. According to her autobiography, she found a freedom of expression in Alonso's work that broke away from both classical convention and Communist tastes.

In creating a ballet for Plisetskaya, Alonso is among the ranks of some of the last century's most elite choreographers, including Maurice Bejart and Roland Petit. But it was "Carmen Suite" that The Moscow Times has called "Plisetskaya's greatest artistic triumph."

In 2005, again at Plisetskaya's invitation, Alonso returned to see his "Carmen Suite" restaged by the Bolshoi as part of Plisetskaya's 80th birthday celebration. "Carmen Suite" was one of the three ballets she hand-selected for the festival.

Although initially controversial for it's sexual and political overtones, "Carmen Suite" has become one of Russia's best-loved ballets. It also has been mounted in the United States, Cuba and Argentina. Plisetskaya performed the title role more than 350 times. Other famous ballerinas have taken the role, including Alicia Alonso and Alessandra Ferri.

In 1993, Alonso and his wife, Sonia Calero, defected to the United States, after which he joined the faculty at SFCC. Since that time his work has been performed by companies such as New York's Ballet Hispanico and the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre.

Alonso was the subject of "Dance of My Heart," a documentary produced by SFCC that premiered in September in Gainesville and at the Edmonton (Canada) International Film Festival.

"My life has had three circles," Mr. Alonso said in a 2005 interview. "First is the circle of a dancer, a performer. That circle took me through cities like London and Paris, and the important people I met. Now, as a teacher of young people, I feel I have finished that circle.

"The other circle is as a creative artist, especially in Russia. I spent six months there the first time I created 'Carmen'. Now, to go back after 38 years, to see Maya and all my friends, I have come full circle.

"Sonia is my third, and one unfinished, circle," he said of his wife and creative muse. "She is my best helper and inspiration."

Alonso was respected as a warm, dedicated artist whose passion for teaching and choreographing continued through a long and remarkable life of dance.

A memorial service will take place at Williams-Thomas Funeral Home Saturday at 11 a.m. Alora Haynes, SFCC's chair of Visual and Performing Arts Program, and Robert de Warren, director of Sarasota Ballet, will officiate. After the service, there will be a celebration of Alonso's life at 12:30 p.m. at the Hippodrome State Theatre.

arah Ingley is the writer of Turning Points, a dance column in Scene magazine.

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