Castro's Revolution


Alicia Alonso and the National Ballet of Cuba (Ballet Nacional de Cuba)

Photo Montage L-R:


On stage in performance: A man wearing velvet pants and a billowy shirt is lifted by another man in a long skirt while two ballerinas stand on each side in pinafore dresses and blond curls

A ballerina sits on a dark stage in costume, head tilted, looking like a
doll, she wears a yellow mid-length tutu and green bodice with puffy short

The House of Bernarda Alba:

On stage in performance: Against a dramatic brick red backdrop, female dancers dressed in black dresses with head scarves strike modern ballet poses, arms spread, fingers outstretched, two in anguished bent positions; a chair is in the foreground

In Cuba, a country with a healthy vein of machismo, the art of ballet carries more weight than an outside observer might expect. Cuban ballet dancers are arguably the country’s most esteemed export, they often earn more money than doctors, and they perform locally to the type of cheering crowd that in the United States would be reserved for pop stars.

Alicia Alonso, a dramatic looking older woman in dark glasses, headscarf and red lipstick, smiles at Margarita, as Ramona is on the other side of Alicia watching
Margarita (left) is reunited with her mentor Alicia Alonso as Ramona looks on

Credit for ballet’s prominence in Cuban culture rests squarely on Alicia Alonso, an international prima ballerina who founded an eponymous ballet school nearly 60 years ago with her husband, Fernando, the school’s dance instructor. After the revolution, and with funding from Fidel Castro’s government, the school was given the revolutionary charge to bring ballet and its spiritual goodness to the masses. Yet, while Havana fell into disrepair and the utopian promises of the revolution dissipated, Alonso excelled. Cuban ballet has been at the pinnacle of international dance for decades, and Cuba continues to produce some of ballet’s best dancers.

Prior to the revolution, Margarita and Ramona de Saá, the twin sisters featured in MIRROR DANCE, studied under the Alonsos. “We were from a humble family and received scholarships to the Alicia Alonso Academy,” Ramona said. “[We] had the great fortune of having a prima ballerina like Alicia and a master teacher like Fernando.”

Art for the Masses

Exterior shot of the large, ornate and majestic building which houses the Ballet Nacional de Cuba

Interior shot of a large, empty dance studio, beautifully appointed arched windows allow natural light to pour in on the hardwood floors

Dancers rehearse in the studio: a single ballerina in the middle with other dancers on the side watching and waiting
The National School of Ballet in Havana

Top photos, L-R:
La Cenicienta
The House of Bernarda Alba

Although the school was thriving artistically, it was struggling financially. When Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, he had a commitment to level the social structure and make the arts available to everyone. “The old government was out and the new hope was coming for the arts and the ballet in Cuba,” recalled Margarita.

Castro gave $200,000 to Alonso, a supporter of the revolution, and her school was reborn as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. With the state funding, suddenly ballet became important to the country and its identity. “We now had social security. We now had professional recognition,” Ramona remembered.

Government funding for the Ballet Nacional continues to this day. The money allows the Ballet to scour the country and hand pick students, and it funds a country-wide teaching organization called the National School of Ballet, where Ramona is a director. There is no shortage of eager young hopefuls on this impoverished island, because placement in the ballet program can lead to respectable salaries, government subsidies, the opportunity to travel internationally and recognition as a Cuban cultural asset.

The Cuban experience is a sharp contrast to the many struggling dance companies in the United States where dancers make very little money: schools like Margarita’s, in Pennsylvania, have to host flea markets to raise funds. “[That’s] capitalism,” Margarita acknowledged.

The Ballet Today

Through the Ballet Nacional and its network of schools, Alicia and Fernando Alonso have created a uniquely Cuban style of dance. Earning worldwide acclaim, the Ballet has performed in 58 countries and received hundreds of international awards. Additionally, Cuban-trained dancers are now marquee names in top ballet companies throughout the world (by way of defecting).

At age 84 and nearly blind, Alicia Alonso is still at the helm of the Ballet Nacional. And despite her age and frail body, she doesn’t show signs of leaving. She has played such a pivotal role in ballet, in Cuba and on the world stage, that many can’t imagine life without her. For Cuba, her name is synonymous with ballet, just as Castro is with the country itself. As people debate what will become of Cuba after Castro, others wonder what will become of ballet after Alonso.

Learn about the Cuban Revolution >>


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